VENTURA, Calif. — Looking out over the crowd of nearly 1,000 people gathered in California to talk about marriage and families, communication scholar Tim Muehlhoff decided to ask a new question.
"How many of you men had your dad or parent sit down and have the sex talk with you?"
There was an audible gasp. Muehlhoff counted 10 hands.
He asked the same question of the women.
This time 22 hands went up.
"I said to them, 'If we don't have the sex talk (with our kids) we're abdicating it to culture, because you better believe your kids are getting the sex talk,' " said Muehlhoff, a professor of communication at Biola University in California.
That was eight years ago. He still asks that question each time he attends a Family-Life Marriage Conference, a nonprofit ministry aimed at improving marriages and families cofounded by Dennis and Barbara Rainey.
The numbers haven't gotten better.
Today's society is awash in depictions of sexuality, ranging from salacious magazines, ads and Internet sites to more-than-suggestive television shows and movies that glorify casual sex and promiscuity. Yet religious leaders say too many parents are still uncomfortable with the idea of talking to their children about sex and thus remain awkwardly silent.
To encourage healthy and crucial conversations, a growing number of religious leaders are boldly speaking up in church about intimacy — working to drown out society's messages with Bible-based preaching that sex between a husband and wife is beautiful, sacred and essential to a good marriage, and that this proper, healthy understanding of intimacy is essential to the growth and development of well-adjusted children.
Because if parents aren't talking about sex, then critical teaching moments are being left to television, movies and locker-room chatter, says Muehlhoff.
"Sex isn't something we shy away from as Christians," he says. "We (need to) prepare our kids so that when they leave (our) houses, they have a world view and critical skills to be able to decipher the messages that are coming out from culture today. But parents are overwhelmed and scared, (thinking) 'I just hope this isn't an issue,' and 'My kids will find their way somehow.' Would you ever do that with finances? Or homework? No. But we do it with sex all the time."
During the first few minutes of the "True Love Waits" class for teens at The Church of the Redeemer Baptist in Philadelphia, the air is always heavy with a quiet, slightly choking tension.
"I have them stand up and on the count of three, we all say 'sex' and sit down," said Kevin Benton, a youth pastor, author and public speaker who led the classes for several years before moving on to start his own ministry.
"They need to know it's OK to talk about this in the context of church. We know (they're) all talking about it on the phone and with friends. The hardest part is breaking the barrier and reshaping their perspectives (about intimacy)."
These teens come to class having been "taught" about sex through glossy magazine ads that show scantily clad men and women embracing, apparently overcome by the jeans he has on and the perfume she's wearing. Mimicking what they see, those teens then walk their school hallways, wearing the same low-cut jeans, body sprays and come-hither expressions.
Using web-enabled phones, others soak up questionable music videos, "sext" each other scandalous photos, and chat about the sexual encounters they and their peers are having, all while using a coded language so adults don't realize what they're talking about, says Benton.
These teens don't see any problem with their behaviors, as they've seen the same and even worse in popular television shows and movies such as "The Hangover" and "Knocked Up."
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