‘Come to church, we have the best sex:’ Christian leaders rethink purity culture messaging

This story is part of a series about purity culture, sex education and the role of family, faith and communities in addressing the lasting impacts of purity culture’s teachings.

John Paul Basham remembers, when he was a teenager, participating in a sexual abstinence program called True Love Waits at his Southern Baptist church in Hoover, Ala. in the late 1990s. 

In fact, athe program’s height in the 1990s and early 2000s, thousands of teens pledged to remain sexually abstinent until marriage – aethic of many conservative Christian churches that the program termed “sexual purity.” 

But in recent years, some millennials, including some of those in the church, have taken a more critical look at how the so-called purity culture movement affected them and their outlook on sex and relationships.  

For a lot of millennials who remember coming up through the conservative evangelical student ministry world, there was a pretty prevalent ministry dynamic in the 90s and early 2000s of (sexual) dos and don’ts,” Basham recalled.  

“Do this, don’t do that, here’s your checklist for Christian behavior. 

As the purity culture backlash grew in some circles, former participants expressed publicly the ways in which they felt harmedmisled and let down.

Basham said he gets it, both as a Christian who experienced purity culture as a teen andlater in life, as a student ministry pastor who worked with teensHe now manages student ministry publishing at LifeWay Christian Resources, the Southern Baptist-affiliated nonprofit that created the True Love Waits curriculum in the early 1990s.  

Basham, 37, believes there is much that True Love Waits got right about a Bible-based Christian sexual ethic. But, he said, he understands that messages from the larger purity culture movement – the rallies, the purity ring ceremonies, the anti-dating books, the celebrity endorsements – caused hurt and confusion too, for his generation.  

As he and other Christian millennials reckon with the legacy of purity culture, they’re hoping to recast a conservative Christian sexual ethic in a different light for Gen Z kids 

“My generation, the millennial generation, we were left with these unexpressed doubts, those unanswered questions,” said Basham. He said the “do’s and don’ts” version of purity culture didn’t give teens the space they needed to ask difficult questions about why they were being told to remain sexually abstinent until marriage. “We were left with that interior trauma saying, I didn’t get to ask about the whole story.” 

Rings, rallies and bestsellers 

Purity culture is nebulousThe official True Love Waits curriculum and its arena-style youth rallies were one of the most visible and prominent examples of itBut purity culture stretched further throughout the 1990s and 2000sweb-like, as churches, religious schools and Christian leaders looked for more ways to get teens interested in sexual purity 

Some churches hosted purity ring ceremonies in which teens pledged to remain sexually abstinent until marriage, and their parents gave them rings to mark the occasionSome hosted father-daughter purity balls.

Contemporary Christian artists recorded abstinence-related songsDC Talk’s “I Don’t Want It” included lyrics like “So just wait for the mate that’s straight from God / And don’t have sex ‘til you tie the knot.” 

The bestselling book “I Kissed Dating Goodbye, written by a 21-year-old future megachurch pastor, Joshua Harris, sold more than 1 million copies in the late 1990s. Harris later disavowed the book and questioned his own relationship with Christianity.

(Click here to read Reckon’s interview with Harris.)

Even celebrities like the Jonas Brothers and Britney Spears spoke publicly about purity pledges.  

It can be hard to talk about what purity culture got right and wrong when there were so many moving parts, said Dr. Sean McDowell, a Christian author and a professor at Biola University, a private evangelical Christian college in California. 

A whole lot of books and messages and youth ministry practices are lumped in this together, and sometimes people are guilty by association,” he said. 

This month, Lifeway released a new Bible study book McDowell wrote called Chasing Love. It’s the company’s latest addition to its True Love Waits series. 

McDowell said he wishes more church leadership had publicly questioned some of the purity culture messages that were promoted in Christian circles without a deeper examination of how Biblically sound they were. He gave Harris’s now-disavowed book, “I Kissed Dating Goodbye,” as an example. 

“The fact that so many churches, parents, homeschool groups and Christian schools uncritically jumped on to some of these unbalanced Biblical teachings,” McDowell said, is an indictment of the church to learn from this and do better moving forward.” 

A 30+ year-old movement 

McDowell’s father, popular Christian author Josh McDowell, was a leader in the sexual purity vanguard in conservative Christian circles. In the 1980s, he launched the predecessor to True Love Waits, a campaign called Why Wait?”. It came out at a time when the AIDS epidemic was gaining ground and the public grew more fearful of sexually transmitted infections 

The younger McDowell was a teenager at the time, and remembers listening to his father speak about sexual abstinence. 

“The heart of Why Wait was that the church, at that time in the 80s, was often characterizing sex as bad without nuance,” he said. “My father’s spin was that sex is good and sex is beautiful when it’s followed within the guidelines and commands God has given us.” 

Programs like Why Wait and True Love Waits should be considered in the context of the time they were written, McDowell said. While schools and other non-religious groups were teaching about safe sex in an effort to curb AIDS, the evangelical church took that a step further, drawing on verses from the Bible to promote an “abstinence until marriage” message as the only way to be truly safe. 

There was a lot of fear about STDs, especially with the AIDS epidemic,” he said. “We might have used fear too much to motivate students in a manner that, looking back, might not have been fully balanced.” 

‘Come to the church, we have the best sex’ 

On the flip side, a popular promise of millennial purity culture was that God would sexually reward those who waited until marriage. 

It was sort of like a “sexual prosperity gospel,” McDowell said. The prosperity gospel idea – that God rewards faith with financial and other blessings  is frowned upon in Southern Baptist and some other conservative traditions. 

“Sometimes the way sexual purity has been taught,” McDowell said, “is that if you just don’t have sex right now and remain a virgin, God will reward you with this perfect spouse and you’ll have endless sexual bliss for the rest of your life.” 

If fear of STIs was one purity culture tactic, this was its inverse – an evangelical attempt at a sex-positive message. 

The church’s response sometimes in purity culture was to basically say, ‘You think sex is good without God? Come to the church, we have the best sex,’” McDowell said. 

It’s a message many millennials took to heart, sometimes with damaging consequences. Basham said he’s counseled some of them.  

Some told him they were disappointed that the mind-blowing sex life they were told to wait for never materialized. Others said they struggled with switching from a “sex is wrong” to a “sex is OK now” mindset on their wedding day. 

“I’ve done a fair amount of premarital counseling and have talked to a lot of couples that struggle with flipping off the guilt switch when approaching this day when they’re allowed to have sex,” Basham said. “It’s a tough thing to wade through when someone has only had a single lens to look through when it comes to sex and Christian holiness.” 

But that right/wrong lens was never supposed to be the message, he said. “I think True Love Waits in those days spoke very clearly from scripture,” Basham said. “It was painting a picture of the model God gave us in scripture that is a man and woman coming together in a holy union that are given this gift and privilege of sex.” 

The problem, he said, came in the delivery of the message. 

He and McDowell argue there are many who were helped, not harmed, by the message of sexual purityMcDowell said those peoples’ stories matter, too. He said he’s heard personally from people who benefitted from his father’s message in the 1980s. He counts himself as one of those. 

“I’ve been married to my high school sweetheart for 20 years and I’m so grateful for the message my dad taught me when I was growing up,” McDowell said. “I hear some (negative) stories of people who feel deeply affected by purity culture and their experience of it, but that was not my experience. 

“On the flip side,” he said, there are a lot of people that do have some hurt from it, and some regrets, and are rightly upset with the church or their leadership because they taught an unbalanced Biblical sexual ethic. I recognize that and I hurt for them.” 

A new sexual ethic 

The True Love Waits message is still, unapologetically, that sex should be reserved for marriage. LifeWay still uses the term “sexual purity” on the True Love Waits section of its website.

“God’s model for human sexuality hasn’t changed,” Basham said. “It’s the same model then and now, and will be if we’re still here on this earth in a thousand years. 

McDowell said the motivation for teens to be sexually abstinent until marriage shouldn’t be fear, and it shouldn’t be that if they wait they’ll have the best sex for the rest of their lives. 

“The ultimate motivation should be, ‘Be holy because God is holy,’” he said.

The thing purity culture got right, McDowell said, is that sex is a big deal. 

“But what I think it got wrong is saying that sex is the biggest deal,” he said. “It’s not the end-all issue of somebody’s discipleship and life. Sex matters deeply and it affects our kids. Our culture is sexualized. But what about gossip? What about jealousy? Idolatry? 

Teens who have sex before marriage shouldn’t feel like they are ruined, he said. 

“If you have fallen short in your life and made mistakes, and been given the message by purity culture that because you’re not a virgin somehow you’re a second-class citizen, all I can say from the depth of my heart is I am sorry you got that message, however it was translated to you,” McDowell said.  

“That is not a Biblical message. The Biblical message is that none of us are pure before God. All of us have fallen short. 

Basham hopes millennials who felt negatively impacted by purity culture will “give the Lord another chance in that conversation” and ask deeper questions about God and sexuality. 

“We see the Lord throughout scripture saying, ‘Come as you are. You don’t need to change anything about yourself to come and be loved by me,'” he said.

McDowell said his main message to millennials hurt by purity culture is one of forgiveness and seeking. 

My hope would be, forgive yourself, forgive those in the church who, in the right spirit, maybe didn’t teach you a Biblical sexual ethic they could have,” said McDowell. “It doesn’t mean the scars are gone, but there is real healing that takes place, and I’ve seen it.” 

The Reckon Report.
Sign up to receive the Reckon Report newsletter in your inbox every Tuesday.