In the final part on my series on teen dating, I look at how dating can impact teens and how someone in youth ministry can helpfully negotiate the situation. For preceding posts: part 1, part 2 and part 3.
What impact can dating have on the lives of Christians?
All of this can have a profound impact on the spiritual lives of Christian teens. By being drawn into a dating relationship, especially when framed as the secular world does, dating can lead to negative outcomes for people whose lives should revolve around their Lord and Saviour.
Firstly, the emphasis of dating in our society usually revolves around selfishness, rather than service, which is contrary to the Christian life and Christian marriage. The basis of Christian relationships isn’t me and what I want but Christ and his love for the church. My goal is the service of others, helping them to grow in Christ and become more like him. Any relationship that pushes them towards the opposite of this is unhelpful at best and sinful at worst. It is crucial to the discipleship of young Christians that we help them understand the other-centredness of Christian life and how dating as most understand it is contrary to that.
Secondly, there is a great risk of sexual immorality that comes from “awaken[ing] love before it so desires”. The biological responses that comes from entering into an exclusive romantic relationship are powerful, and rightly so, for we might never get married if it weren’t for them! Without a reasonable expectation of marriage, you are inviting powerful forces in the hearts of young men and women to run rampant. The chemistry involved are powerful magnets to each other, and as anyone who has mucked around with magnets can tell you, they can only stay apart for so long – whether you like it or not, they will eventually stick together.
In line with both these outcomes is the potential for undercutting the seriousness that God places on relationships between men and women. If the temporary nature of dating is seen as normal, you are at risk of seeing marriage as the world sees it – as a hurdle almost too great to cross. This will discourage Christian people from getting married, instead trading it for the transience of dating.
So how should leaders of youth respond to this?
All of this should lead to leaders of youth (Youth Pastors, youth group leaders, etc) to taking dating amongst their flock seriously. Dating is a threat to the spiritual wellbeing to Christian teenagers and they should be discipled in such a way so that they don’t date, waiting patiently for the relationship that God does intend for them to enjoy – marriage. How do we do that though?
Firstly, it requires us as leaders to have the sort of relationships that enable us to disciple young Christians in a deeply sensitive and personal area. As Paul says of deacons in 1 Timothy, leaders of youth should be ‘worthy of respect’ (1 Tim 1:8). This isn’t an area where you can just waltz into and expect to be heard, without having genuine relationships with your kids. This area can cut across a whole range of issues that lurk at the hearts of teens (self esteem, etc) and is best approached by people kids can both respect and feel open with. This respect and genuineness cannot be made overnight; it is earned through hard work and integrity over a period of time.
Secondly, we must teach the whole counsel of Scripture. Any teaching on relationships should spring out of a teaching program that endeavours to cover all of the essential themes and ideas in the Bible. It is important that our youth groups teach young Christians to understand the Bible as a whole, as often they only understand it as a series of almost unconnected stories bound together. It is critical that when we arrive at the ethics of dating, it is building on the foundation of the teachings of the whole Scriptures about the nature of God and of men and women.
Thirdly, we must teach about dating and its pitfalls. Although in a perfect world, this could be left to parents, we cannot trust it be so. Some parents don’t see the dangers, others won’t be discipling their children, others mightn’t even be Christians. If we are to responsibly build up Christian teens to know and serve Jesus with passion and love, we must take leadership in these sorts of issues. It is too critical to trust that someone else is doing it so we must have to courage to speak up. The stakes are very high!
Having said that, it doesn’t mean you can’t work with parents in this area. Many parents (I’m sure) will struggle with how to broach this issue and some mightn’t even know what to say even if they did. This is an excellent opportunity to work with your parents as partners in the work of the gospel. Through encouraging them and even teaching them, this can be something that Christian kids can hear at a number of levels.
Fourthly, discipling kids to think contrary to their culture is a long term project. Teaching them to think about relationships in a God-centred way is not a hit-and-run affair – it requires perseverance and a commitment to revisiting this issue in the future. A gospel-centred approach to dating is something many adults fail to grasp, which means it will be doubly so for kids. This needs to be something that comes up more than once a year, in some way, shape or form.
Fifthly, this is something that will be affecting them from an early age, maybe as early as primary school. We must be prepared to bring this up sooner rather than later, each time in an age-appropriate way. So for example, for a primary aged kid, we should be focusing our efforts on teaching how men and women are made to be married and probably not much more. A 16 year old however, is capable of hearing and understanding some of the complex ethical dimensions to relationships and will (probably) have the maturity to talk quite frankly about sex and sexual immorality. Whatever the age is, we need to keep in mind the pressures that the world is coming at them with and make sure we are regularly pushing back against them, encouraging Christians to not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of [their] mind[s]” (Romans 12:2a).
Sixth, we must teach our Christian teens of the love and mercy that comes through know and trusting Jesus Christ. Never must this become an exercise of legalism, nor an exercise of condemnation. Christian teens, like everyone else, will do dumb things and we must be prepared to love, encourage and comfort, as well as teach and rebuke, when they do. God’s graciousness is unlimited and we should be teaching them to come to God when they do make mistakes, even the most serious ones.
Christian teenagers face a world with a completely different mindset on one of the most intimate areas – marriage. The prevailing winds are blowing against the Bible’s clear teaching on the sacred nature of marriage and our teens aren’t immune to that. Leaders of youth must be strong advocates for marriage as the pinnacle of relationships between men and women, encouraging Christian teens to share the Bible’s enthusiasm for marriage and the seriousness of which the Bible holds it. Dating, as far as teenagers are concern, is an unhelpful, possibly dangerous distraction and leaders of youth should stand against it. It is our duty and privilege to help our teens see the plan and blessings God has for them in marriage.