NICK EICHER, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: relationship trends among single Christians.
And a word of caution before we get started. This story is not for young listeners. So if you have any of those nearby, you might want to hit pause and come back later.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: Biblical teaching on sexual intimacy is clear: it should be expressed within marriage. But increasing numbers of singles who identify as Christians—even evangelical Christians—are not saving it for marriage.
David Ayers is a sociology professor at Grove City College in Grove City, Pennsylvania, and a researcher with the Institute for Family Studies. He recently combed through data from the National Survey of Family Growth to get a handle on the latest trends.
Good morning, professor Ayers!
AYERS: Good morning to you!
REICHARD: Well, I have to say your research brief on this data is rather disheartening. Give us a run down of what you found.
AYERS: Well, basically, by the time self-identified evangelical singles are between the ages of 18 and 22—using fairly restricted ways of measuring sexual activity—about three-quarters of them have become sexually active. If we include all different forms combined of sexual activity—not including some of the mildest ones—are even higher than that. And then for those evangelical teens and young people who become sexually active, their levels of promiscuity—by which we would say more than one sexual partner or even as high as four or more—is as high as literally everybody else’s. And that’s very disturbingly high.
REICHARD: One bright spot here is how regular church attendance better informs a single person’s decisions about sex outside marriage. Can you elaborate on that?
AYERS: Yes. Church attendance is a huge factor and another huge factor that I discovered was just being committed to your faith—saying that pursuing your Christian faith every day is important to you. And when you put those two things together, those numbers are still dishearteningly high but they go down dramatically. And that makes a lot of sense—not only because of the social support that people get in the church setting, but, really, if they’re not there, we can’t teach them, we can’t disciple them. And so in that sense—and also parents that are not getting their kids to church regularly aren’t really setting good examples of Christian faithfulness in a broader sense anyway. In fact, lax Christianity is worse than no Christianity, statistically.
REICHARD: Advocates for sex ed in school have insisted that teaching abstinence does not work. I hate to say it, but your research backs that up. What’s going on there?
AYERS: Well, first of all, I’m not sure that abstinence is being taught. That’s something that we would really have to measure separately. And what I tell people is that you really need to have a holistic approach to this. Character development is a connected thing. It’s not simply dealing with sex as a separate area of life apart from things like honesty, respecting people’s property, respecting other people’s welfare and well-being, which are intricately involved in that. And so, you know, I would say that abstinence taught properly within a larger, broader theological framework and connected to a larger web of character issues and Biblical and doctrinal issues, probably does work. But I’m just not sure that churches are really doing it or that they’re doing it very well.
REICHARD: So in light of that data, how should parents and churches craft their message to young people? What can we do to reverse the trend?
AYERS: Well, first of all, I do think that we need to really communicate some of the facts up front that are leading people to make some bad decisions which are going to be really destructive. So for example, we know that young people are practicing—I don’t want to get into details—but certain forms of sexual activity outside of intercourse because they think those are safer, let’s say, from an STD standpoint. They’re not. At all. They also really fail to comprehend the strong relationship between particularly sexual promiscuity and later divorce and marital difficulties. The other thing is we have to make sure they’re in church. We have to really talk to them and find out what they believe and what they’re actually doing and not be afraid to confront what we find there. And I think we need to fit our Christian sexual ethic and our teaching on that within a holistic Biblical anthropology theology, a proper understanding of God, a proper understanding of marriage and its place in God’s creation. Until we do that, what we end up doing is hitting them over the head with rules disconnected from the larger web of things God placed marriage and sexuality within. And that in a sense really doesn’t do them much good.
REICHARD: David Ayers is a sociology professor at Grove City College in Grove City, Pennsylvania. He’s also a researcher with the Institute for Family Studies. Thanks so much for joining us today!
AYERS: Sure, happy to be here.