Despite the clear biblical instruction, sex outside of marriage has become increasingly morally acceptable among young evangelicals. That’s one of the findings in a new research brief for the Institute of Family Studies produced by sociologist David J. Ayers, interim provost and vice president for academic affairs, and professor of sociology, at Grove City College. He uses data from the National Survey of Family Growth to gauge trends in sexual activity among never-married evangelical young people.
Ayers has taught college-level courses on Marriage and Family for about 30 years, and his most recent book is Christian Marriage: A Comprehensive Introduction (Lexham Press, 2019). I asked him to discuss what the church needs to know about his recent findings.
Based on your findings, what would most evangelical parents and leaders be shocked to learn about current sexual practices of evangelical teens and young adults?
Just how high the percentages engaging in sex is shocking to a lot of older evangelicals. Interestingly, in my experience, younger folk are typically less surprised. They know better what is going on around them.
Also, I think the degree to which evangelical teens and young adults practice oral and anal sex, often at an early age, would especially shock a lot of evangelical parents and leaders. The data I draw on from the National Survey of Family Growth gets into specifics even more detailed than I present in my research brief, and the picture is not a pleasing one. Parents of daughters would almost certainly be especially horrified at some of what these teen and young adult women are doing for males or allowing to be done to them. For example, when one of five evangelical Protestant females between the ages of 18 and 22 admit to allowing young men to have anal sex with them, and even more evangelical males of that age group say they have done so with women, this is disturbing and something I do not believe most older folk even imagine is happening.
I believe that most evangelical parents and leaders would also be shocked by how many evangelical teens and young adults, once they do become sexually active, are quite promiscuous. For example, among young unmarried evangelical women ages 18 through 22 who have ever had sex, more than a quarter have had two or three partners, and more than 40 percent have had four or more. That’s a lot of sex partners very early in life. Not only are we looking at incredible risk for pregnancy and STDs, but this type of sexual history dramatically elevates their risk of getting divorced once they do get married. It also suggests a serious lack of repentance.
What factors seem to affect whether young evangelicals engage in premarital sexual activity?
That’s a huge and critically important question that I can’t fully answer in this much space. I get into this more in my book Christian Marriage, and plan on a more extensive treatment of this issue in the future.
One that we have clear statistical evidence on is family breakdown. Children from divorced homes are much more likely to be sexually active, and then in turn are more likely to become divorced themselves, which in turn affects their kids. It’s a vicious cycle.
Adding to that is negative peer influence. This is particularly problematic when we reduce the direct involvement of parents and other older saints.
Serial, steady recreational dating, especially when begun too early, is a huge issue. The statistical evidence for this is quite substantial. I am not anti-dating, but 14- and 15-year-old kids with steady boyfriends or girlfriends, full of emotional intensity but without maturity or any clear connection with marital preparation, is a bad idea from beginning to end.
We are living in a sex-saturated culture in which the overwhelming majority of citizens at almost every age think sex outside of marriage is not morally wrong so long as the people are mature enough—whatever that is—consensual, and supposedly, with the right precautions. Many if not most of the single adults in our culture attach more shame to virginity than to “healthy” sexual activity. They actually defame those who morally reject sex outside marriage. Holding the biblical stance is really socially hard today in ways it wasn’t when I grew up in the Baby Boom era. We older saints have to be aware of this.
Those who are not fully committed to living out their faith daily, and who are not regularly part of public worship and the other ministries of the church are especially vulnerable to these cultural pressures and allure. The statistical evidence, which I present in my research and that appears in a lot of social scientific studies, overwhelmingly shows that lax religious commitment and church involvement are both associated with dramatically higher levels of sexual activity out of wedlock as well as liberalization of beliefs about this. Without commitment and involvement, it is hard for pastors and other Christian leaders to train and disciple young people in these matters, and young people are disconnected from that regular, day-in-and-out support from fellow believers that the Bible clearly tells us we all need.
Next, I think the larger theological framework has become more man-centered and less God-centered, to say the least. “Sin” is more about what we think hurts ourselves and others, as we define that, than about what offends a holy God who rightly demands we love and serve him with all we have, and whose wisdom is vastly beyond our own natural understanding. Within that, we have failed to communicate a full-bodied, biblically and theologically grounded understanding of marriage—what it is, what its purposes are, how it flows from and reflects the very nature of God, how God has given it a central place in the human social order for his glory and our good at every level and placed legitimate sex within that context. We cannot reduce our sexual ethic to a set of rules: do this, don’t do that. Rather, our sexual ethic is to be understood within a larger theological framework and a biblical anthropology including understanding that sex is uniquely designed for marriage, and why this is so.
Similarly, character, or ethical, traits cannot be acquired and taught in isolation from each other but rather are part of a larger system with a God-oriented focus within which our own greatest good is realized. For example, how can we disconnect our sexual ethics from those having to do with honesty, with truly loving our neighbors and seeking their highest good, with respect of property, and so on? They are all tied together. A young man seducing a young woman, for example, is not just violating a “sex rule.” He is failing to love, care for, and protect her; he is taking something away from her; and he is often making dishonest vows to get what he wants.
What are the most common reasons young evangelicals refrain from premarital sex?
According to the National Survey of Family Growth, for those who have refrained from intercourse ages 15 to 22 combined, almost 60 percent of females cited their moral or religious beliefs, but only 42 percent of males did. For the rest, the big ones were avoiding negative consequences (pregnancy or STD), or just waiting for the right time or person. Some who had sex (and thus were not asked this question) also believed it to be morally wrong to do so and were struggling with it, had even repented for it, or were otherwise dealing with it at some level. But we also know from major, reputable surveys such as the General Social Survey that the clear majority of evangelical young people say that they do not believe that sex outside marriage is always morally wrong. So, quite sadly, most evangelical young people are not motivated by a desire to be faithful to biblical teaching on sex, and even among abstainers, it is less important than we wish it were or than it ought to be.
What can churches and Christian leaders do to help reverse this trend and reestablish a biblical view of sexual ethics?
First, churches or parents need to have the courage to find out what their young people actually believe and are really doing. We all need to own up to what we are thinking and doing and, when it is outside God’s moral order, we need to be willing to be adjusted by loving brethren including accepting teaching, training, and accountability.
Second, every church should actively disciple everyone, young and old, single and married, in areas related to sexual activity, orientation, and identity. This needs to be based on factually accurate knowledge of reality but grounded firmly in the Word.
Third, churches need to get back to really making sure that their members are actively involved, including simply being there on Sunday! If they are not there, we can’t teach them.
Fourth, pastors have to have the courage to deal with these issues in the various teaching avenues they have, including from the pulpit. Too many of our pastors are afraid to offend folk, while we find their church member telling us that they desperately want their pastors to address these same issues. This was laid out clearly and painfully in an important study on this released by Barna Research earlier this year. The apostle Paul encouraged the Ephesian elders, using his own ministry as a model, to preach the “whole counsel of God,” to not refrain from instructing the flock in anything that could profit them, and in this way to protect them from the external pressures and temptations and internal deceivers that could destroy them (Acts 20:17-32). We need to be equipping parents to teach their children about these things. In my experience, a lot of heads of households in the church desperately want guidance in tackling these tough issues with their kids and are not getting it.
We need to reject formulas, sure-fire methods, and judgmentalism. I would personally rather plead with folk as one sinner to another than try to roast them. Truthful admonition that is forcefully delivered but in kindness, gentleness and humility—that is what we need.
Finally, the one thing I am guilty of neglecting the most is what I also need the most. Prayer. If your church is not committed to regularly and specifically praying for the young people they have in their homes, or are sending into the workplace and colleges, it is not providing adequately for them. We should be praying for our pastors about this specifically, too, knowing that tackling these issues is often thankless and opens them up to a lot of criticism.