Thursday, January 29, 2009

True Love Works?

I still remember the drill. The music started, and the lights dimmed. I peered around the solemn room as I floated in a sea of bowed heads. The call went out from the minister who was running the event and like a mad scientist summoning his robot army to life, people around me shot up and headed for the stage. There they found a "True Love Waits" (TLW) card with a dotted line printed below a short pledge:

"Believing that true love waits, I make a commitment to God, myself, my family, my friends, my future mate, and my future children to a lifetime of purity including sexual abstinence from this day until the day I enter a biblical marriage relationship."

At the time, the whole thing felt a bit coerced and contrived, and after some reflection, I still don't know if it was the best way to biblically teach sexual purity. Despite the card's wording, the program implicitly seemed to put too high of an emphasis on the V-card, rather than teach a sustained view of purity. Perhaps that is why all of my friends who signed the pledge that day broke their pledge later. Without fail, almost everyone one of them developed this attitude: "Well, I already lost my virginity, and I can't get it back. Might as well enjoy myself now."

Having played their one and only V-card and broken their pledge, they were remorsefully free to continue pursuing pleasure at will. Maybe their stories simply display human nature and our innate propensity for sin. Or perhaps, they illustrate a sweeping failure of the most pervasive Christian abstinence programs available. I don't think I can personally say for sure.

Last month, however, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health released a large study showing that teenagers who make abstinence promises like TLW are just as likely to have premarital sex and less likely to use protection. Unfortunately, as the Washington Post points out, this data has reignited the sexual education debate that has cooled in recent years. Barack Obama has promised to release millions in funding for sexual education with an abstinence emphasis, and it seems to me that many want to block that funding before the administration releases it.

The question remains whether or not these programs are effective. Many, including a very reputable public health organization, say no. Others, including LifeWay Christian Resources--the organization responsible for distributing TLW cards and selling TLW-emblazoned resources including rubber bracelets, watches, apparel, and a line of expensive silver jewelry--say yes.

My gut tells me that the answer lies somewhere in the middle. There are a whole list of things I don't like about programs like TLW. For example, they assume that teenagers won't see through the contrived program, they come across kitschy with their product lines, and they seem to miss the mark on instilling a holistic approach to sexual purity like the scriptures teach. At the very least, these things have collectively contributed the ineffectiveness of these programs.

Yet, the Church must never give up teaching that God wants sex to be reserved for two people who have been biblically married. This is our responsibility as parents, siblings, friends, citizens and Christ-followers. Rather then recoiling at the criticism, we should use this as an opportunity for reflecting on and retooling these programs. It is imperative that we find a better way to communicate moral truths to teenagers in the 21st century.

What do you think? Are the researchers at Johns Hopkins just out to get us? Do we need to wake up and retool these programs? Do you think TLW-style programs work?


Krissie Inserra said...

1. Greatest picture of all-time.

2. Is it just me or did programs we had as kids (like TLW) seem more about numbers reporting than anything else?

3. You questioned True Love Waits. Consider your salvation questioned by half of the Christian world.

4. Having a two year old...I can't help but wonder how the Church is going to teach purity to his generation...any thoughts on that?

Garet Robinson said...

An awfully good post here sir.

As a child of the programmatic 1980s, I still remember clear as day our youth group trip to a True Love Waits rally in Ocean City, Maryland in October of 1992. As a freshperson in high school I hadn't really thought of sexual identity or interaction much. One of the things I appreciated about the program was it was more authentic and meaningful than the resultant follow up rallies our group would attend.

It was funny for me, even at that age, that the program focused more on statistics and fear tactics than how our sexual union was a symbol of (though I wouldn't have used this term then...or until about 7 years ago) covenant with God. Maybe the didactic nature of the presentation had something to do with it. It seemed that the presenters were obsessed with sex but couldn’t really engage in honest talk about it.

I don't doubt the study from John's Hopkins. Rather, I fear the results are far more vexing than we might realize. Depending on how we extend the definitions we will quickly cancel out responses. In our faithful (albeit small) youth group of the wonderful church I grew up in I had many good friends that I watched in the resulting years. Almost 75% of them made decisions to walk away (often with others from the group) from purity and most never came back, having multiple partners by the time the reached the end of their college age. (It's funny how you can keep up with people you grew up with better than those around you.)

I don't know if True Love Waits failed, or we (the Church et al) failed the hope of the True Love Waits. If it hadn't been for a seriously strong home life and deepening spiritual commitment (of course my years of personal awkwardness helped) there would have been no support mechanism to keep that commitment in place.

When was the last time you heard a Christian (never mention a leader) who was seriously broken about sexuality? When was the last time you heard an authentic message that wasn't couched in rhetoric, Christianese, and fear tactics delivered to the target group dealing with these issues?

Maybe we’ve (the Church et al) have missed the mark dramatically on this and True Love Waits is a bystander. When I stand before God one day I know I won’t be accountable to a program I did or didn’t participate in, my accountability is my personal life.

One of the finest times of rejoicing for me personally was that moment of finding that love one was able to wait for. How should the Church et al support and encourage such a profoundly personal commitment in a culture that is absolutely opposed? I don’t know yet.

Good post.

chadwick said...


Excellent post!

I also reject the TLW 'program.'

Krissie hit the nail on the head with TLW being a pragmatic program rooted in numbers reporting!

Those little pledge cards and cute rings are useless in times of temptation!

Just imagine Joseph's great sexual temptation in Genesis 39. The TLW 'trumpeteers'' version of Joseph's trial is: Joseph resisted sexual temptation by pulling his pledge card out of his back pocket and simultaneously rubbing his TLW ring!

Did young Joseph say, "How can I do such great wickedness and break my TLW pledge!"

Nay! The only true weapon for any young man (and old alike)to resist sexual temptation is to KNOW the Sovereign Lord . . . by Faith-Alone!

How did Joseph, a young man with raging hormones, resist one of the most powerful & beautiful 'hotties' in all of Egypt?

How was Joseph able to resist Potiphar's wife on a daily-basis?

I imagine Potiphar's wife was driving poor Joseph crazy by wearing Egypt's sweetest perfume, dressed in some skimpy "hottie"
outfit, and being constantly in young Joseph's face . . . ALONE!

How was Joseph able to resist having a sexual experience that virtually NO ONE would ever know about? . . . By knowing that the Omniscient & Omnipresent One had His Sovereign Eye on him! For this is the only reason the young Hebrew could say, " . . . how then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?" (Gen 39:9)


Jonathan Merritt said...


You make very valid points. Glad you liked the picture. With regard to #4 and your two year old, I think you should rely on your local church and the education that goes on in your home. Don't trust some stuffy, 68-year-old man in Nashville to design comprehensive sex ed cirriculum for your child. Chances are, the 68-year-old LifeWay executive will know less about sex than your teenage child will. And, YES, I just said that.


Jonathan Merritt said...

Did I say "creepy?" I bet that LifeWay exec is creepy too.


Dan said...

All I can say is where do you find a picture like that?

(the blog is worth comments too, but those can wait!)

Julie Tiemann said...

Great post, Jonathan. I definitely agree that the church MUST find a way to change the way the message of abstinence is delivered. It hardly helps the old-fashioned image of abstinence that everything is so "kitschy" in comparison to the culture at large (the culture that is promoting sex-at-will).

Thankfully somehow I missed the TLW phenomenon (not sure how since I sure was a So Bapt through and through in those days). I think it definitely would have messed with me since I'm such a rule-follower. It would have made it all about that pledge and less about honoring God and my body, which was how I always viewed it.

The other thing I think that most abstinence programs miss, is that by making it all about "don't have sexual intercourse," they miss all the other things kids are doing these days - things they justify doing because it's not "real" sex. If it becomes "just don't do this one thing," then everything else can be seen as permissible, as opposed to adopting a lifestyle of purity - in thoughts, in actions...

With a six-month-old daughter now, these questions make me more nervous than ever! :)

Anonymous said...

May I recommend a book:
Purity: The New Moral Revolution by my friend Kris Vallotton.

This book shakes the traditional understanding of why we are to wait. Sure - Christians know we are to wait - but why. It has rarely been accurately or even honestly portrayed.

This book really explains why it is God's design to wait, and how it is such a blessing to the marriage and to the Kingdom.

It is an easy read - I would think most of you could read this book in an afternoon.

Check it out. Even if you're married - you can still understand that blessing and amazing wonder that sex is within marriage.

Seriously, until this book - waiting until marriage for Christians was pretty much "do it because God said so"...and that leaves such a radically sour taste in our heart.

Anonymous said...

And, if you read it...let me know what you thought.

Erik said...

What a pic!

I think one of the main problems here is the highly passive approach that most parents take to this issue. Instead of taking the time to dig into this topic candidly with their kids, parents ship 'em off to a conference, buy them a TLW promise ring, make sure they signed the card and then feel like their work is completed.

I'm sure it's a difficult topic to discuss with your kids, but taking a totally passive approach and trusting that a conference or a ring is enough education for your kids doesn't seem too bright.

Anonymous said...

I agree Erik. As a father of 4.3 children (and counting)...we make sure we take responsibility to talk with our children about this things.

But we don't take the "issue" as an issue - meaning, we discuss it freely with our children as it comes up. If our 3 year old asks how a baby gets into mommy's tummy, we tell him. If our ten year old asks questions about something he might hear from his friends - we explain. The difference is - we share all this in the reality of God's love and grace - and not "don't have sex until you're married"...

We also don't play kid games with it either (calling parts nicknames and such)...because that kind of stuff just makes it all the more taboo in their experiences.

Please, seriously everyone...get this book and check it out. It's a must read for every shakes off the bondage and depravity of religion and brings the reader to understand the joy of passionate purity.

Stuart Homeskillet McGillicutty said...

The methodology for promoting sexual purity needs to stay fluid. But beating on the TLW model without offering clear, applicable alternatives is problamatic - likened unto this conversation that took place with a critical onlooker and D.L. Moody:

Critical Dude: I don't like your methods.

Moody: I don't like them very much, either. What methods do you have?

Critical Dude: I don't have any methods.

Moody: I like my methods.

But anyways, I didn't need John's Hopkins to tell me that a bunch of hormone driven teenagers who aren't prepared for sex wind up getting pregnant more often.
I've found cheesy Christian T-Shirts to be a good deterrent to sexual activity.

Jonathan Merritt said...

S.H. McGillicutty-

I totally agree. Too often, us "cultural commentators" simply curse the darkness without lighting a candle.

If I had the time or the ginormous LifeWay VP salary to develop something better, I would give it the good ole heave-ho. I don't fault an organization or program for trying to adapt and failing, but I can fault them for failing to try to adapt.


Jonathan Merritt said...


I totally agree with your comments about parental laziness and passiveness.

Good point.


robert fortner said...

I would just like to say that Stuart Homeskillet Mcgillicutty may well be the best name that I have ever seen anyone use on a comment. Stuart, you are my new hero.

Chase said...

So TLW pledgers and non pledgers are engaging in premarital sex at similar rates, but pledgers don’t use contraceptives as much as non pledgers, and 5 years after initially pledging, over 80% of pledgers denied ever having pledged in the first place...the divorce rate among believers is about the same as that of nonbelievers...and while a considerable percentage of Americans believe in God, a growing percentage of “evangelicals” (I use the term lightly) don’t ascribe to Jesus as the only God/way to God or the Bible as inerrant and infallible. My point? The results of the Johns Hopkins study seem to be consistent with other disturbing trends that reflect a beleaguered Church Body that have been building for years. And having actually read the study, it looks pretty solid.

I fully support teaching abstinence until marriage b/c it is the morally correct choice, and abstinence works every time it's tried, but I think too many parents and local churches have "farmed out" discussions about sex to groups like TLW and/or the local school. So will my children learn about “safe sex” alongside the superiority of abstinence until marriage? Well, they are going to get one version from their peers, and that alone will demand both preparation and response. So, yes, they will learn from their parents, and in the larger context of training up our children up in the way they should go so that they will not turn from it when they are older (Prov. 22:6). The key word is “train” (not merely teach).

And some food for thought: if efforts to prevent youth smoking can be successful (and they are), why can’t efforts to prevent premarital sex be comparably successful--it’s the same target population? I reject the argument that they (youth) are going to do it anyway and believe many in public health speak out of both sides of their collective mouth when they push prevention and cessation for one high risk behavior but merely less risky (“safe”) behavior for a different high risk behavior within the same group.

You get a gold star if you made it to the end of this rambling (sorry for the length)

Jonathan Merritt said...


I want my gold star ... great comments.


Zack said...

Two things:

1) I understand why you disabled anonymous posting; but dang it I'm lazy, and it seemed like a hassle to create an account. That said, I do understand why.

2) I figured you'd be interested in this follow up article which appeared in the WSJ (Opinion section) a few weeks after the original study was released. I'm not saying I agree or disagree with the article: I just figured you might like the continuing "conversation."

Jonathan Merritt said...

Good article, Zack. I have updated the post and added the link.

Sorry about the anonymous thing. Just too many crazy posts from anonymous people.


Anonymous said...

Great post. I don't believe I've been to a TLW gathering. I often think back on what it was that convinced me to wait on my future spouse, but nothing really sticks out. To me it was probably a mixture of having parents always there for me and growing up in the Church and knowing that God was who He IS and what I read in the Bible, and in the end, it was a personal decision. Maybe the fear of becoming pregnant or getting a disease was what did it and I was scared into not having pre marital sex, but it's definitely something that is not discussed enough in the Church.

In my opinion, if they were to "revise" this program, which it's a program that I don't know much about, they should have people from all generations put their two sense into it and of course teach exactly what it says in the Bible, by the TRUE author of LOVE. We are bombarded with sexual images on a daily basis by the media, that our parents didn't grow up on.

Now that I sit here and ponder it more, I am starting to get worked up about it and pray that something will be done. It just so happens there's going to be a guy speaking on abstinence at my church (in my college town) next week, I am super curious as to what he'll be saying.

I hope what I've typed has made sense :)

Chase said...

I wholeheartedly relate to Lindsey. While I remember the TLW pledge and a Sunday evening service, it was in the larger context of a strong youth group with a dynamic leader who significantly challenged us yutes to live for God. TLW was just one part of a larger system that reinforced the message on multiple levels, and ultimately led to the development of spiritual disciplines and personal decision making that will not only remain with me for life but will also be passed down to my children.

I haven't looked at the full design of TLW, but the failures being associated with it (and abstinence ed in general) are just as much an indictment against the churches who approach TLW as a program rather than a lifestyle that calls for wise decision making in friendships, entertainment choices, and exposure to tempting circumstances. It's also an indictment against parents who, as I previously posted, farm out the discussions of sex with their children, and who demonstrate lifestyle choices that are inconsistent with the Biblical call to purity in body and mind.

Michael said...

Great post Jonathan.
As an owner of a Christian bookstore, we do sell the TLW merchandise. I always like the attitude of the parent (usually the mother) when they buy the ring, necklace or bracelet. They always look angry and have this "sexual chip" on their shoulder.
I can pick up on the fact many are using the TLW stuff in place of a conversation with their preteen/teenager.
Pretty sad when the purchase of an item supplants real parenting.