Talking with Millennials about Sex and Intimacy | UMC YoungPeople
Connecting young people and their adult leaders to God, the church, and the world
July 2016

Talking with Millennials about Sex and Intimacy

By Abigail Parker Herrera (SCJ)

As leaders with young adults, we demonstrate a profound commitment to Jesus Christ. We are called to be in ministry with our communities and individuals. We get asked to engage in cultural exegesis…helping others make sense of the world around them. We need to be able to be in ministry and conversation and relationship with people in all walks and stages of life.

This means we, and the church, need to talk about sex and intimacy. If we talk about sex with our congregations, we tend to limit our messages to sexual identity, i.e. LGTBQI people, how they live and the church’s response to those lives. General Conference in 2016 is an excellent example of how the church can spend a lot of time on one aspect of sex, and yet not be of one mind. Occasionally we will talk about faithfulness in marriage. Rarely do we help young adults navigate the cultural landscape around sex and intimacy.

Among the young, the perception of the church’s thoughts on sexuality is mostly limited to the following: “Sex is good, when you are married. Don’t have sex until you are married.” Those understandings seem contrary to some significant statistics about the population in the US:

Given these statistics, the chances are high that the young adults we interact with in and out of our churches have engaged in, or are engaging in, behavior we would consider sexually intimate, whether or not they are in married relationships. This presents a challenge for ministry, as our Social Principles state the following in the section on The Nurturing Community:

“We affirm the sanctity of the marriage covenant that is expressed in love, mutual support, personal commitment, and shared fidelity….”

“We affirm that sexuality is God’s good gift to all persons. We call everyone to responsible stewardship of this sacred gift. Although all persons are sexual beings whether or not they are married, sexual relations are affirmed only with the covenant of monogamous, heterosexual marriage.”

“We affirm that all persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God. All persons need the ministry of the Church in their struggles for human fulfillment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship that enables reconciling relationships with God, with others, and with self.”

We can recognize that marriage itself is generally a good thing, when lived out as defined in the Social Principles; “a covenant of love, mutual support, personal commitment, and shared fidelity.” Yet, we must also recognize that not all young people wait until marriage to engage in sexually intimate behaviors. How do we then have meaningful conversations with young people about the good gift from God that is sex and intimacy? How do we encourage the exploration of covenant, love, mutual support, commitment, and fidelity in a culture where those good things are not necessarily required before someone lives with or engages in sexual activities with another person? Instead of pronouncing judgments or preaching at people about what they should or should not do, we may want to first ask, “Why does a person makes the decisions they do around sex?” Asking “why” may be the first step to form a relational bond that allows us to connect that person to the church for spiritual and emotional care.

Living Together

Many millennial couples are living together before marriage. They may get married and they may not. Why have they chosen to cohabitate without getting married? In my setting of Austin, TX, couples move in together for a number of reasons, but finances and busy lives are major factors. Young people often work more than one job and affording rent is difficult. Some millennials choose to live at home for a longer time because of the affordability problem. For others, living with a significant other can appear to be a smart financial decision. Statistics would say that they are spending nights with their partner anyway, so why not move in? The couples reason that everyone saves money and two busy people now have more time together.

It is a desire of mine to offer relationship counseling to couples before, during and after moving in together – whether marriage is in their future or not. They are making significant lifestyle decisions that affect every portion of their lives when they cohabitate. However, they do so often with little input from people outside of their friend-group about how this choice may change them. Moving in with a partner is like a marriage but without the spiritual, societal or contractual commitments. We who work with young adults should ask questions of people considering this living arrangement just as we ask questions of people before marriage.

We should also make it clear that we’d enjoy having the conversation and being a part of the decision making process. Finally, we should offer relationship coaching for those already living with one another. Can we help young adults make good decisions in their relationships? Can we help young adults living together increase their understanding of covenant, love, support commitment, and fidelity?

Sex Before Marriage

Citing the above statistics, most millennials in the USA are having sex before marriage. Again, the reasons are varied. Many are pursuing other goals before marrying, goals that we often say are good: education, financial stability, exploration of self, and advancement of career. Currently in the US, women and men are waiting until their late 20s to marry on average. Some young adults engage in long-term relationships before finding the “right” partner. Others date or have a variety of other relationships. As couples, these young people are exploring intimacy together. The statistics show that this exploration of relationship and intimacy often leads to various types of sexual activity. Some explore their sexuality in “safe” relationships of friendships and acquaintances, perhaps feeling too busy to date or not ready to settle down.

Here lies some of the tension in ministry. How do we grow relationships and connections when our initial, and perhaps historical or societal, response is that sexual exploration outside of marriage is wrong? By refusing to dialogue about it? How can faith communities again act as life coaches, willing and able to enter into conversations around sexual intimacy? How can we share our understanding that sexuality is a good gift from God, one that we are called to responsibly steward? How do we walk alongside those looking for human fulfillment along with spiritual and emotional care? How do we increase the understanding that sex itself is commercialized, abused, and exploited? How do we affirm the integrity of single persons? In the midst of all that, how do we also affirm and support the covenants of marriage that some young people have made?

Conversations immersed in scripture and prayer could lead to healthier decisions for young people choosing if, when, and how to explore their sexual desires. Healthy dialogue about engaging in sexual intimacy in a way that leads us toward holiness in Christ is good for the whole congregation. Honest, caring dialogue can help people make sexual choices in marital relationships as well as those trying to make good decisions in singleness.

Intimacy without Commitment

Many young people are engaging in incredibly intimate acts with little or no relational commitment. Culture can give the message that this behavior is OK, or even that this behavior is not harmful but healthy! The church has much to say about intimacy and encourages intimacy in our relationships. The church should be a place where young people come to know that persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God. Young people rarely voice, or hear, that baring your body and sharing your body with another person is a vulnerable and holy moment. Ironically, this generation of people can be incredibly open with their bodies and images of their bodies (just look at the statistics on sexting!), yet remain protective of their emotions and spirit—in and out of marriage. What does the church have to say to them about bearing and sharing what is inside, not just outside? How do we as leaders ask, and get honest answers to the question, “How is it with your soul?”

People crave intimate connection but, at least in the cultural context of the USA, seem to have a stunted understanding of what that is. There is a tendency to confuse intimacy with sexuality. Intimacy, when framed only within a sexual relationship, can be a brief encounter or moment, executed for personal satisfaction. In those superficial moments, our actions can be separated from our embodied selves, hence the justification for sending or looking at exciting pictures or have casual sexual contact, yet claim to not “really” have been intimate.

The church sees intimacy differently. It cannot be separated from our embodied selves, it takes time and vulnerability to build real intimate relationships, and intimacy is not only found in sexual relationships. Intimacy can and should be nurtured in many relationships, including our relationship with God! If churches could nurture and develop intimate and vulnerable relationships between its members, perhaps people would not turn to other forms of temporary and superficial senses of intimacy. A faithful way of understanding intimacy enhances romantic relationships as well, including marriage. We can help people of all ages understand that investment of self, and the invitation to vulnerability are important elements of humanity.