Book Review: Understanding Sexual Identity: A Resource for Youth Ministry

"We have too many Christians out there who are strong on convictions but embarrass the name of Christ in how they relate to the world around them. At the same time, we have too many Christians who are remarkably civil, but you would have no idea what convictions they hold. We need both convictions and civility." Dr. Mark Yarhouse

Youth pastors and those who work with young people have always had a responsibility that is at once exhilarating and excruciating. From late night lock-ins to after-service conferences with concerned parents, the student pastor and his assistants have always been at the "tip of the spear" when it comes to shaping the church's next-generation leaders.

But, youth ministry has never been as precarious as it is today.

In generations past, the youth pastor always had to wrangle the hearts of disinterested teens, and comfort the emotions of students passing through life's rough waters. And, they always bore the weight of impressing on young people a Christian worldview, to include a biblical ethic of human sexuality.

But, it seems that the youth pastor of old never faced the nature or intensity of an increasingly hostile culture like those who minister to students today. Sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll have always been alluring to teens, but the sexual revolution of the 1960s has morphed into a movement that now rejects nearly every once-culturally-assumed marker of sexuality. 

Today, the very words once used to describe how ministry to youth gets done, i.e. "boys over here and girls over there," are slandered as socially constructed tools of discrimination that are emotionally abusive to the children upon whom they are imposed. Today's youth pastor is increasingly on the horns of a dilemma where he must carefully maintain his witness, defend the Gospel, protect his church, and effectively love those entrusted to his care by the Chief Shepherd while not capitulating to popular culture.

And here's where things get strained: He must do all this while learning how to understand and work with words and phrases like same sex attraction, same sex orientation, gay as an identity, LGBTQ, transgender, and gender dysphoria

To minister to youth in a post-Obergefell world demands familiarity with these issues and some level of competence in working with students who are being ever confused and wooed by the "affirming" culture that surrounds them--a culture that is louder and better funded than any youth ministry ever has been.

A Valuable Resource

Enter the book "Understanding Sexual Identity: A Resource for Youth Ministry" by Mark Yarhouse. Yarhouse is a Christian psychologist who teaches at Regent University, and is the founding director at the Institute for the Study of Sexual Identity. He has written extensively on the issue of homosexuality, and is considered a leading Christian researcher in the field. Much of his work is devoted to helping the church minister to those who are navigating the sexual waters of today.

I had the pleasure of reading this particular book from Yarhouse as part of a course on sexuality that I'm taking at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. In short, I highly recommend it for every youth ministry team, to include senior pastors.

Yarhouse does an excellent job of writing a book to youth ministers who are probably more often than not less than equipped to minister substantively to teens who are struggling with issues related to same sex attraction (SSA). As an expert in his field, he writes in an accessible tone in order to better equip his audience to minister with conviction and compassion.

Yarhouse's aim is to provide the youth pastor with tools that will help him understand the spiritual and emotional battle faced by teens who are questioning their sexual identity. He calls the student worker to engage with their teens in a way that transcends the culture war. 

He reminds the church that living, moving, and breathing in youth ministries everywhere are children who are experiencing thoughts, messages, and emotions for which they are ill-equipped at such a formative stage of life. He calls the church to not abandon them to willful ignorance, or condemn them with words they do not fully understand.

If anything, our failure to discuss the topic in meaningful and relevant ways is one of the things that drives young people toward greater isolation and the consolidation of a new sexual identity. (Yarhouse 2013, Kindle 765)

While holding to a biblical sexual ethic, Yarhouse lovingly persuades his reader to what he calls a "convicted civility" in working with students who are considering who they are as created, sexual beings. In so doing, Yarhouse doesn't merely wax theoretical, but he provides his reader with tools for ministering to youth that neither capitulate to culture nor send the student away from the church feeling guilty and ashamed.

No Child Left Behind

As a biblical counselor, I appreciate Yarhouse for his conviction concerning biblical sexual ethics, while extending grace to young people who are navigating difficult terrain, and often without the biblical compass they so desperately need. As I read the book, I was impressed in my heart concerning the many young people who may populate our youth ministries, struggling with profound questions related to their sexuality, yet feeling unable to safely bring their concerns to light.

The question I found myself asking is: How many teens is the church losing to culture unnecessarily because it only knows how to address same sex attraction on an individual counseling level with one script---sinners be damned?

I have sat with young people in my counseling office who found themselves questioning their sexuality. I can confirm what Yarhouse informs, that the church must provide (and indeed does possess) a more compelling script than the culture at large. Sadly, as it has been caught up in the culture war, much of that script has been lost at the tip of the spear where lives are changed.

My hope is that this book would gain wider exposure as a needed and helpful tool in the perilous times in which our children live. While there must not be any capitulation to the culture at large, no young person should search for answers to questions of sexuality alone simply because in their mind, only rejection from the church awaits them.

"It is important that [we] communicate to [SSA] youth that they have worth and value before God. You want them to see that it is God who ultimately gives their life worth and value." (Yarhouse 2013, Kindle 1017)

Join the Discussion

How is your church preparing to minister to SSA youth?