How do you know that what you want is what you want and not what others want you to want? Confused? You should be. Desire is super confusing for everyone, and especially for young people.
French philosopher René Girard says that we desire according to the desire of another. That it is as we see other people wanting something that we come to want it ourselves. He says that if we think we’re making choices based on our own set of authentic, unique desires we are deluded, because what we want is formed by the society around us.
Take Love Island. This is the world in which porn sets the morals and consumerism sets the rules. Over half of its 3 million viewers are members of Gen Z (those born after 1995), which begs the question: what does a Love Island education in sex, relationships and intimacy make more or less possible for them?
A few episodes in, I became fed up of watching people denying themselves the beauty of commitment. There were rare moments of genuine vulnerability as they sought to build what they had on something more than a fumble under the duvet, but mostly they seemed unable to demonstrate sacrificial love and friendship in this setting. Maybe I expect too much from reality TV. Or maybe I want more for Gen Z.
First we need to acknowledge a few things. Members of Gen Z are the cultural product of decisions they didn’t make. They didn’t create Love Island or the filter feature on iPhones. They didn’t invent online porn, deepfake imagery, Blue Whale challenges or child sexual exploitation. They didn’t create YouTube, WhatsApp, Tumblr, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook or online chat rooms. They can’t imagine a world without mobile phones and superfast broadband, and according to American pastor James Emery White they are at “the heart of the missional challenge facing the Christian church”. So what do we need to know about Gen Z when it comes to how they construct and define their sexual ethic?
As the first wifi-enabled generation, Gen Z is the most self-directed, with pocket-based access to most of the world’s humans and information. The adolescent years hinge precariously on the psychological question: “Who am I?” In today’s climate of unparalleled pressure to conform to consumerism, this question can lead to an emotionally and mentally painful experience, as young people fear they are never good enough.
Living online also means close proximity to a universe of pornography, the consumption of which has the power to rewire their brain and recalibrate their ideas about self-worth, connection and intimacy. A study of 14 to 19-year-olds found that females who consumed pornographic videos were significantly more likely to become victims of sexual harassment or sexual assault. A Swedish study of 18-year-old males found that frequent pornography viewers were significantly more likely to have sold and bought sex than other boys of the same age (fightthenewdrug.org).
Gen Z members instinctively ‘get’ intersectionality: the idea that someone may be vulnerable to discrimination or disadvantage because of the interconnected nature between the social categories they are part of such as race, gender, sexuality, class and disability. Because they get it, they pay close attention to the voice of the victim.
Yet for all this enlightenment, gender-based aggression and violence within youth culture is increasing. The culture of ‘nudes’ is a case in point. Young people in violent or abusive relationships are twice as likely to send a sexual image or text. Sexting isn’t gender-neutral. Girls are more negatively affected but boys aren’t safe either, as the most significant influence on a young person’s understanding of consent is gender, and specifically ideas around masculinity. How many heterosexual boys get ‘man points’ from their peers for respecting a girl’s ‘no’? This is all played out against a backdrop of violent, aggressive behaviour against girls and women that is perpetrated by men who hold some of the most powerful positions in the world (and Church) today, whose actions seem to be consequence-free.
The fastest-growing religious group of our time is accounted for by those who tick the box next to the word ‘none’ on national surveys. This is the first post-Christian generation, no longer governed by an ideology of Judeo-Christian morality that has dominated Western thinking for the past 1,500 years. Religion is seen as a straightjacket that curtails any sense of personal freedom. In this climate of hostility towards, and ignorance about, faith, ‘fundamental’ Christian youth are any teens who express conservative ideas about sexuality and purity. So when it comes to sexual ethics, many teens growing up in Christian homes are metaphorically ticking ‘none’ when it comes to buying into the traditional views of sex that every church youth group in the 1990s would have taught.
Gen Y defined tolerance as: “I’ll disagree with you on this issue but I’ll fight for your right to disagree with me.” Gen Z takes tolerance a step further: “If someone thinks that, they will act negatively, so they can’t think that.” The no-platforming culture at some of our universities is an example of the invisible censoring of ideas, and it leaves young people trapped in an ideology war, which ironically makes discussion and debate about ultimate reality and what it means to be human feel potentially dangerous.
It also renders the idea that a church might teach that same-sex relationships are not supported by scripture yet still be welcoming of gay people impossible for Gen Z to accept. As one young person said recently: “My church seems more concerned about defending their doctrine than they are about defending young people.”
So, what’s our response? Here are four areas I’d like to see Christian youth ministry take a lead on as we invite the next generation to connect with and be utterly transformed by Jesus.
It matters that we ‘do’ theology, delving deep into the idea of who God is and how he reveals himself to us. What do our scriptures and the Spirit tell us about God’s desire in terms of human sexuality? To discover this we need to pay attention not just to individual verses that address sex but to the overall themes that run through the Bible, such as covenant, holiness, grace, marriage, God’s sovereignty, our new humanity and sacrifice. Let’s fast, pray and allow God to break us free from ideas and traditions that misrepresent him. Then let’s hold our convictions with grace and humility, always aware that our goal is not to remain true to our convictions but to remain true to God.
It’s time we engaged with a new language that belies a far more intelligent and culturally engaged approach to making sense of Christian morality. Youth ministers need to be equipped and supported in this as front-line workers. We need to consider how we’re expressing a biblical sexual ethic. Do we tend only to use stories of sexual mistakes as supporting points in our teaching on sin and shame? Or do we also talk positively about the questions we might have about sex as examples of discovering more about who we are and how we tick emotionally and sexually, so that we can choose practices of abstinence from a position of knowing ourselves and honouring God rather than of repression and trying to keep God happy with us?
As we navigate these complex issues we also need a renewed commitment to speaking well of people who disagree with us. Christ’s words recorded by John feel like a vital steer for us in these days: “In the same way I loved you, you love one another. This is how everyone will recognise that you are my disciples—when they see the love you have for each other” (John 13:34-35).
We must increasingly speak out against the messages, attitudes and actions of businesses, corporations and institutions that are wilfully damaging young people in this area. If our framework is human flourishing we have to ask insistent, consistent and persistent questions about the way bodies are used in advertising. Monogamy is systematically ridiculed in media, selfworth is coupled with sexual performance and toxic masculinity supports abusive behaviours. Let’s be winsome advocates (and role models) of the fact that disagreement doesn’t mean hatred. Let’s take the lead in developing anti-oppressive practices and engaging with hot topics in ways that are deeply kind as well as honest about what we believe.
I’m not sure that personal sin should always be the starting point for Gen Z, as if Jesus is mostly concerned about teens masturbating. Jesus cares about it all, but he comes to save more than individuals. His mission is to make all things new. He brings a new, liberating system that will ultimately overtake and overthrow the broken systems we find ourselves in. Online porn, sex trafficking, abuse, prostitution rings, transphobic bullying and gender-based violence are all things Jesus has something to speak into and will ultimately destroy.
Let’s help members of Gen Z identify the power of sin at work in their world as well as in their own lives. Let’s assist them in lamenting their own pain and regrets, and in finding the rhythms of hope that include repenting of their sin. As they find the forgiveness and freedom that Christ alone can bring, let’s support them in becoming a voice of justice and peace amid the brokenness around them. Christian youth ministry must foster safe communities so that young people are able to develop practices that help them live freely in the resurrection life Jesus offers, and where desire for him shapes all desires.
I call these our practices of resistance (“What will I say no to?”) and engagement (“What will I say yes to?”). We do this by building plausibility shelters where Paul’s instruction to “flee sexual immorality” becomes possible because what it looks like for each young person can be explored, understood, contextualised, celebrated, supported, practised and empowered.
For me, the sexual purity movement went wrong when it became the cause of a personal badge of salvation (two-tier Christianity) rather than a surrendered way of life that took responsibility for the part we play in the systems that hurt human beings, pointing to God’s dominion over and restoration of all things. Resisting porn is a justice issue, not just a personal purity issue.
I pray that God would give us courage and grace as we devote ourselves to him and to the mission. May he raise us up to be theological, pastoral, innovative, compassionate and prophetic champions of Gen Z so that our young people reach beyond us to Jesus, a life of obedience to him and a life lived in all its fullness.
RACHEL GARDNER is relationships lead at Youthscape, founder of Romance Academy, president of Girls’ Brigade England and Wales and author of The Girl Deconstruction Project. This article was adapted from ‘Marooned on Love Island’, a St Mellitus and Youthscape lecture.