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I remember a conversation with my husband around 1992 about how the church was totally on the right track!

We had dealt with some weird televangelism scandals and they were largely behind us. Women’s gifts were being used. A lot of the things that culture made fun of Christians for was really a caricature, and no longer applicable. We were going in a good direction. Things were healthy. We were excited.

If you had told me then that my children would one day hear messages in their youth group that my mother hadn’t even heard, I wouldn’t have believed you.

One of the benefits of being a little older (I’m Generation X; 50 years old) is that you can look back and see how things have changed.

We tend to believe that history has always moved in one direction–growing more and more liberal, opening up more and more, towards more and more freedom for people. At the same time, we often assume that personal morals are worse with each successive generation.

Both of those things are demonstrably false, especially in the church.

And so, for the benefit of my millennial and generation Z readers, and for the nostalgic opportunity for my older ones, I’d like to take you through my youth group days.

What Generation X experienced in youth group

I was 16-years-old, in one of the back pews of church at a youth conference, flanked on either side by boys I was interested in. I hadn’t really settled on which one to crush on yet, but they were both possibilities.

The topic that day was on marriage, and the importance of choosing a good mate. But he went on a tangent about sex, and then I heard this sentence, “God created a body part for women whose purpose is only pleasure.” He talked about the clitoris. I wanted to crawl under my pew and hide.

I don’t remember much more about that talk, but I do remember that: the speaker wanted us to know that sex was meant to be something special; that it was supposed to feel good for women; and that we shouldn’t cheapen it by having sex outside of marriage.

As far as I can remember, that’s the only real message I ever really got about premarital sex.

That’s not to say we didn’t talk about or didn’t think it was wrong; we were always obsessing about “how far is too far” and when should you stop in a make out situation. But that just wasn’t the focus of our youth group conferences or talks.

Mostly we talked about two things: Personal evangelism and living 100% sold out for Jesus

On the youth group wall in my church was a map of the 10/40 window–that part of the world between the 10th and 40th latitude that was the most unreached. It covered China and the Middle East and Indonesia and all those countries that still had to hear about Jesus. There were prayer calendars for the unreached people groups. We kept track of what Bible translations were being completed and in what languages.

We often role played “how to talk about your faith without being super creepy.” We read books like Becky Pippert’s Out of the Salt Shaker and into The World, about how to make evangelism natural. “How to share your faith” was the most popular workshop topic at any convention or conference I went to. And, of course, apologetics fit in with that, too. Everybody had a dog eared copy of Evidence That Demands a Verdict.

Sheila Youth Group - What Youth Group Was Like Before Purity Culture

Serving ice cream at a church social.

Remember that, in the 1980s, teenage alcohol use and pregnancy rate were worse than they are today

Every generation thinks they had pressure that their parents never went through, and for today’s generation, that’s true when it comes to social media (which upended everything). But in terms of the actual rates of bad-stuff-parents-don’t-want-kids-to-do, it was worse when I was a teenager by most measures.

And yet we just didn’t talk about it that much at youth conferences. Instead, we focused on what life looked like if you were sold out for Jesus. We talked about money. We talked about career plans and missionary plans. We certainly talked about marriage, but it was more in the context of “be careful who you marry, because that choice will largely dictate how effective you can be for Jesus over your lifetime.”

I remember in youth group going through the book of Mark for Bible study one year. Another year we did the parables, I believe. We didn’t study books or themes; we actually studied scripture.

You know what I don’t remember? Modesty rules.

I attended summer camps as a teen (for the life of me I don’t know why; I never liked camps. I think I must have just been going for the boys). I even worked at a summer camp one summer. Maybe they had dress codes for the girls; I honestly don’t know. If they did, they didn’t register, and we certainly didn’t talk about them much.

Sheila Teen Summer Camp - What Youth Group Was Like Before Purity Culture

Me with a friend the year I counselled at camp

The only time I do remember modesty rules was when I went on a Teen Missions International missions trip in 1986. That was not a good experience; it was my first foray into fundamentalism and legalism, and it was jarring and actually quite traumatic. It took me a long time to recover spiritually after that. But they had strict modesty codes for the girls. I assumed, though, that that was because we were traveling internationally, and so it made sense to me.

We were consumed with making a difference and making Jesus #1 in our lives.

Not everyone was of course–but that’s what the Christian culture was all about, including teenage culture. When we talked about dating, it was in the context of: “if you date him, will Jesus still be #1 in your life?”, or “are you allowing your boyfriend to come before Jesus in your life?” It wasn’t about rules as much as it was about keeping Jesus as the main thing. (I do think the message went overboard here; I was so worried I loved Keith too much when we were about to get married, or that I loved my children too much when they came. Jesus is big enough to have you love lots.)

I remember feeling as a teen that many of the conferences I went to were treating me like an adult Christian. The message was that we could change the world. We could make good decisions. We could put ourselves in strategic places so that we could do something important with our lives.

We were definitely not consumed with relationship advice.

That didn’t mean that we didn’t have relationships–we sure did! I dated two different guys in my youth group in my early teens, and then spent about 2 1/2 years single until I got to university. But those single years weren’t by choice!

Nobody thought you were bad if you dated–though we were all worried if someone seemed like they had “gone too far” and was having sex. But dating was normal and natural, and kids would hold hands as we chatted about the gospel of Mark and talked about how to be sold out for Jesus.

Keith Sheila Dating - What Youth Group Was Like Before Purity Culture

Keith and I when we started dating.

I am not saying that everything was perfect in the 1980s.

Not by a long shot. We were way too concerned with End Times, and I think perhaps the “being 100% sold out for Jesus” was partially because a large segment of the population was convinced Jesus was coming back tomorrow. The Soviet Union was falling apart; there was upheaval everywhere. We had book upon book being published analyzing headlines and comparing them to the book of Revelation (I’m so glad that’s largely stopped).

There was definitely a tendency to judge who was and who wasn’t sold out by what music they listened to or whether they went to school dances.

By the time my kids became teenagers, I hadn’t realized how much had changed.

I assumed the main messages would still be to be 100% sold out for Jesus, and personal evangelism and knowing your Bible. But somehow it had morphed in those 25 years, and things had become really weird with purity culture.

In our survey of 20,000 women last year, we wanted to measure just how much the purity culture message had changed how couples behaved before marriage. So one of our questions was, “did you kiss before the wedding?” Over 99% of women over the age of 60 had kissed their first husband (or their only husband) before marriage. But of women under 40, that number goes down to 93.2%. Now, that’s still an astronomically high number, and is really quite interesting. Despite the millions of copies of I Kissed Dating Good-bye, despite all the purity culture balls and the Duggars and everything else, we’re still kissing in huge numbers. Yet even so, our grandmothers dated more and kissed more than many millennial and generation Z women! That’s something important to keep in mind. Purity culture was something new; our grandmothers wouldn’t have recognized it. It wasn’t the way things were always done.

The Great Sex Rescue

Changing the conversation about sex & marriage in the evangelical church.

Great Sex Rescue Cover - What Youth Group Was Like Before Purity Culture

What if you're NOT the problem with your sex life?

What if the things that you've been taught have messed things up--and what if there's a way to escape these messages?

Welcome to the Great Sex Rescue.

We haven’t run a lot of generational data yet; that’s on our list of projects to do as we’re looking at writing articles for peer reviewed journals.

But I do wonder if my generation had an easier time adjusting to marriage than younger generations did. I do wonder what the effect has been of becoming hyper-conservative and legalistic when it comes to dating and marriage. I’d still like to find out.

One of the reasons that I wanted to do this series on sex throughout the ages was to show people that what we think of as “natural” or “the way things are” is not necessarily true. Different cultures see things in different ways. I just finished reading The Making of Biblical Womanhood by Beth Allison Barr this weekend, and she was talking about how in medieval times women were seen as the ones with the higher sex drives often, and women were the seductresses. My how things change!

But the fact that our culture changes should give us some hope. That means that if they’ve changed in the past, they can change again. That means that if things aren’t great for you in your marriage, it doesn’t need to stay that way, because this stuff isn’t fixed in time. This isn’t just biological. This is largely determined by how we think and how we act. Change those two things, and sex can change, too.

So a word about the image for this post:

This wasn’t actually youth group–it was second year university. But I couldn’t find a good picture of a group of us in the 1980s that somebody in my past wouldn’t have objected to! 

I think Keith must have been taking this picture, because normally he would have been part of this group and he’s the only one missing! 

And interesting story: the woman to the left–Amanda Wiersma Benckhuysen. We lived together as housemates for two years, and then largely lost track of each other. But she’s an author now, too, writing about women in the church! She’s a professor at Calvin College, and her book The Gospel According to Eve was published last year. So it’s amazing that we’re doing such similar work now!

How Youth Group Has Changed since the 1980s - What Youth Group Was Like Before Purity Culture

If you’re Generation X, what do you remember about youth group messaging? Were your experiences like mine? If you’re a different generation, how have you seen things change? Let’s talk in the comments!

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Sheila Wray Gregoire

Founder of To Love, Honor and Vacuum

Sheila has been married to Keith for 28 years, and happily married for 25! (It took a while to adjust). She’s also an award-winning author of 8 books, including The Good Girl’s Guide to Great Sex, and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila is passionate about changing the evangelical conversation about sex and marriage to line up with kingdom principles. ENTJ, straight 8

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