Sex, evolution and evangelical angst

September 23rd, 2015

Every week I teach Christian teens about all kinds of issues: the gospel, the Bible, theology, poverty, death, love, parents, suicide, abuse and more. In other words, we talk about some of the most critical issues around. Despite that, I can count how many times a parent has asked me about the content of any of those lessons. And as a theologian, I can’t count very high.

For the most part, I’m okay with that. I choose to interpret it as trust rather than ambivalence.

Whenever I teach on one of two topics, though, the rules change entirely: sex and evolution. I now know not to touch either of those topics without letting parents know exactly how we’ll be approaching those topics. I’m going to get asked detailed questions about precisely what I’m exposing their teens to anyway, so I might as well deal with it up front.

Isn’t that interesting? I can talk to your kids about the gospel with no questions asked, but as soon as I mention sex you want a detailed outline in triplicate? What is it about these two topics that generates so much angst? Why are we so much more concerned about what our teens hear on these topics than we are on things like the gospel, justice or even how to have good relationships with your parents? (You’d think parents would be particularly interested in that last one!)

I could be wrong, but I think the angst on these two issues comes from some combination of the following mistakes.

1. We think these issues are more critical today.

Some might argue that this is because these issues are so important in the “culture war” that still rages in many circles. Sex and evolution are front-line issues in that struggle, so we need to be particularly concerned about what students hear about those issues at church.

Setting aside for the moment whether we should really talk about being at “war” with the people around us, is it really the case that sex and evolution are more critical than other topics? Even if they’re not aware of it, students face a constant barrage of messages from our culture offering alternate gospels, different perspectives on “the divine” and what it means to be human, contrasting definitions of love, justice, mercy and more. Shouldn’t these cultural messages cause just as much angst, just as much concern for right teaching in the church?

2. We distinguish between “home” and “church” topics.

This one applies more to sex than evolution, but I occasionally hear from parents that talking to kids about sex is something that parents should do at home. It’s not really an appropriate topic for church.

Three things in response. First, does this really need to be an either/or? If these topics are so important, wouldn’t it be good for students to hear from multiple Christian voices on the subject? Second, have you read the Bible? Last time I checked, there’s a fair bit of sex in it. Are we just supposed to skip those parts? Third, this whole way of thinking contributes to the dangerous tendency to bifurcate life into sacred and secular spheres. When we convey to students (intentionally or otherwise) that the church doesn’t have anything to do with their sexuality, we contribute to an already strong tendency to divide life into religious stuff (Sunday morning and maybe youth group) and the nonreligious stuff, which covers most of life.

Let’s be careful here, though. The other tendency prevalent in churches today is for parents just to hand over to the church all responsibility for teaching their kids. That would create the opposite problem, suggesting that some topics shouldn’t be talked about at home. Instead, let’s model the reality that God is interested in whole persons. We don’t need to leave bits of ourselves outside whether we’re at home or at church.

3. We assume teachers know the “easy” stuff.

I’m sure a fair bit of this comes from the fact that many people just assume that most of the people teaching Christian teenagers can handle the basics. You know, the gospel, the Bible, theology — the easy stuff. So they only need to ask questions when teachers get to more challenging stuff like evolution and sex.

You can probably guess where I’m going with this. If we really think that teaching the gospel is easier than teaching about evolution, we probably need to do some more thinking.

Why the angst?

As of about a month ago, I am now the parent of a Christian teenager myself. So I’m coming to appreciate first-hand the kinds of challenges and anxieties that accompany this new stage of life. But let’s ask ourselves some questions about that angst. Why are we get so concerned when we hear that someone is going to talk to our kids about these two issues? What are we afraid of? Are we really that concerned that our kids might hear something different from what we believe? That happens all the time. What makes this situation so different?

From a different angle, why don’t we have similar concerns about other fundamentally important topics? Where is our angst about whether our teens are receiving good teaching about Jesus, the Trinity, the Spirit, the gospel, salvation, the mission of the church and more? Is it that we’re so confident that all of our teachers have a firm grasp of these issues? Or is it possible that deep down we really believe that a student’s view of sex or evolution will shape their lives more fundamentally than their view of God?

Or do you think I’ve missed something? Are there other reasons why these two issues generate more angst for Christian parents than other issues? If so, I’d love to hear about them.

Marc Cortez is a theology professor at Wheaton College, husband, father and blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books and life in general. You can follow his other posts at Everyday Theology

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