True Love Waits, Sexual Awakening, and Developing Your Own Faith (part 3 of 4)

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Dr. Leslie Gordon Simons and Antoinette Landor, authors of the article “Why Virginity Pledges Succeed or Fail: The Moderating Effect of Religious Commitment vs. Religious Participation”, which appeared in August’s Journal of Child and Family Studies, make an important distinction amongst their research participants: religiously committed and religious participants. Religiously committed individuals, according to the researchers, prioritize upholding their known religious values and social structures and practicing religious behaviors, such as prayer and Scripture reading. Religious participants attend church from time to time. They are not apostates who reject religious teachings altogether, but de-prioritize commitment to religious structures.

Many writers–hurt, disappointed bloggers, the New York Times, even contemporary spiritual leaders–have recently written about young adults leaving the church. David Kinnaman, president of The Barna Group, an organization that specializes in mass research of spiritual and cultural trends, reports 59% of young Christians leave the church either permanently or for an extended period of time after the age of 15. In You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving the Church, a compilation of data and commentary following four years of research, Kinnaman categorizes these young adults into three groups. Apostates, or “prodigals”, as Kinnaman labels them, account for only 11% of young adults who grew up in the church. The highest percentage of young adults (approximately 40%) drift away from institutional worship. Nomads, as Kinnaman categorizes this group, still identify as “Christians” or believing in God, but decrease their involvement in religious activity. Simons and Landor would probably refer to these students as “religious participants”. Kinnaman defines an in-between group, “exiles”, who want to maintain religious involvement but choose/desire to display their spiritual commitment outside of the church (i.e. service organizations, justice movements). Around 20% of young adults surveyed fit into this category.

Simmons and Landor’s research shows that students who signed virginity pledges, sexual abstinence “oaths” taken in high school through practices such as True Love Waits, are 46% more likely to have delayed their initial sexual experience or completely maintain abstinence. Most of these students report having high levels of religious commitment (approximately 30% of young adults who grew up in the church, according to Kinnaman). We’ll talk about the sexual experiences of religious participants/nomads tomorrow, but for today, religiously affiliated sexual abstinence programs appear to be quite successful as long as the university student maintains his/her religious commitment through college.

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In 1981, James Fowler, director of the Emory Center for Ethics, published Stages of Faith, where he utilized developmental psychological trends to chart the religious experiences and needs across the lifespan. Fowler suggests that faith development begins for infants and toddlers, as the initial bonding experiences between parent/caregiver and child sets the precedent for children to be able to trust their surroundings with limited anxiety. A child learns about religious stories, practices, and a basic theological understanding (namely, “Who is God?”) starting around age 2. Fowler identifies the developmental shift as coinciding when a child has the ability to separate between fantasy and reality. At this stage, the “mythic-literal stage”, which occurs for most during the middle of elementary school, children begin to create literal (as opposed to imagine-driven/metaphorical) understandings of Biblical stories and develop a sense of justice.

Teenagers begin to identify with the Christian faith by combining the literal understanding of stories with conformity to the belief systems of their parents or other adult religious leaders. Fowler calls this stage “synthetical-conventional” and suggests that adolescents develop a strong emotional allegiance to their faith and have challenges thinking critically. Emotionally-charged programs that demand dedication, such as youth rallies and “True Love Waits”, works so well with teenagers because they desperately crave something to identify with. Fowler states that many people remain stuck in this stage and unable to accept the challenges of the next faith stage, “individuative-reflective“.

During this fourth stage, which starts in young adulthood and coincides with the introduction of consistent abstract thought and the acceptance for gray area, a person critically examines his/her belief structure and makes personal choices about the way he/she wants to practice faith. Matt Baker, author of the chart mentioned above, cheekily writes, “Ironically, the Stage 3 (synthetic-conventional) people usually think that Stage 4 (individuative-reflective) people have become “backsliders” when in reality they have actually moved forward.”

I find an interesting conundrum as I read this research. On the one hand, I have a high ecclesiology. I am a millennial who finds value in experiencing spirituality in a communal context, particularly a loving, non-judgmental one (something the stereotypical church, millennials would argue, often lacks.) On the other hand, I value differentiation, the ability for adults to make decisions independent from other emotionally-charged systems, a process that begins happening during Fowler’s individuative-reflective stage.

I’m committed to the idea of sexual abstinence as an option for young adults to explore their sexuality. My concern is that often, the decision of sexual abstinence by religiously committed young adults is not a differentiated decision, but one that’s based subconsciously around the fears created by theologically unsound principles (i.e. God will be disappointed with you or flat-out reject you because you had premarital sex, thus defiling the existence of God’s Spirit inside of you and making you “impure”.) I think that the church has put such a strong emotional charge behind sexual abstinence through programs like “True Love Waits” that I wonder if it’s even possible for sexual abstinence to be a differentiated decision. (For that matter, having premarital sex by actively/passively rebelling against church teachings by having premarital sex is not differentiated either, which we’ll discuss tomorrow.)

How can Christian young adults make differentiated decisions about their sexuality and sexual practices? I’d be curious to hear from those who have struggled and attempted to make sense of what’s become a powerful dichotomy, physical pleasure vs. abstinence and purity.

Also, as Christian educators (be they therapists who are Christian, such as myself, or professors at religious institutions), how do we define spiritual success and growth? Is a university student successful because they’ve adhered to the expectations of the larger religious authorities (i.e. maintained abstinence until marriage) or because they’ve allowed themselves to think outside the box, challenge authority, and/or work toward developing their own understanding of faith and religion?

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