Talking About Gender Identity
Two weeks ago, I walked into our church’s sanctuary with my middle school son for the annual archery tag event. During registration, I motioned towards a girl I didn’t recognize and asked our youth pastor, “Who’s she?” The youth pastor turned to me and said, “He goes by Alex.”
Yeah, the landscape of youth ministry is changing. Here’s what it looks like and a few ways to address it.
Faith and Sexuality
Christianity Today recently highlighted a study from The Barna Group that outlined the shifting identity of kids now walking into youth groups across the country. Researching Gen Z, the 70 million young people born somewhere between 1999 and 2015, analysts found that teenagers in the coming generation “are at least twice as likely as American adults to identify as LGBT or as atheist.”
According to their findings, 12% of Gen Z kids claim a sexual orientation distinct from heterosexual. (Interestingly, over half, 7% of the 12%, identified as bisexual.) By national comparison, just 4.1% of American adults, roughly 10 million, identified as LGBT in a 2016 study by Gallup. (Gallup found that 7.3% of Millennials identified as LGBT in the same survey.)
In addition to more frequently identifying as LGBT, our youngest generation seems more impressionable to it, as well. There may be several reasons for this:
- 37% of Gen Z says their gender and sexuality are very important to them
- roughly one-third of this generation personally knows someone who’s transgender
- a whopping 69% say it’s OK to be one gender at birth and feel like another in life
Laying aside the issue of sexuality and looking at the broader subject of faith in general, there seems to be additional obstacles for today’s youth ministry leaders. That’s because the same study by Barna found that 13% of Gen Z consider themselves outright atheists. Again, comparison to all American adults shows the growing disparity between the generations. According to Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study, just 3.1% of adults labeled themselves atheist. While it’s encouraging that 59% of Gen Z kids identify as “Christian,” Barna’s statisticians believe that only about 1 in 11 of those kids are actually “engaged Christians.” The vast majority of those claiming Christianity do so “in name only” while less than 10% model a life that’s shaped by biblical beliefs and practices.
Though this research is somewhat new, it definitely matches the observations I’ve seen at my speaking engagements around the country. So, what should youth leaders (and parents) do to minister to this up-and-coming generation of students?
A Proven Strategy
Some might label these challenges as “new,” but they’re not. As long as humans have been called to faith, we’ve struggled with various hindrances such as doubt, fear, and insecurity. Today’s kids have their own set of struggles – questions about sexuality and faith and much, much more – but those struggles can be greatly offset by following an ancient blueprint: love. Here are a few very simple ways youth pastors and other caring adults can minister to the questioning kids visiting our youth groups and open doors of dialogue about gender identity.
- First, celebrate their presence.
Every student you get to pastor is a gift from God. Make sure you treat him or her accordingly. For decades and decades, each generation of adults has been faced with the same two options for dealing with the emerging generation of kids: either show condemnation or show compassion. At our church, we don’t allow rants about “kids these days.” That doesn’t mean we necessarily like what today’s generation believes or does; it just means we influence kids for Christ as frequently and deeply as we can in spite of the obstacles. Their misguided and/or confused ideologies in no way removes our call to selflessly love and minister to them. Impactful ministry begins with celebrating their life and their search for truth.
- Offer biblical answers in compassionate ways.
A pediatrician won’t prescribe kids Tylenol for leukemia, so don’t provide them anything less than a sound, biblical response to their questions about faith, sexuality, or any other aspect of life! A great place to begin, on both fronts of sexuality and atheism, is the literal beginning: Genesis. The opening lines of Genesis richly describe God’s intention behind His masterful design of the universe we call home. In the same account, we even see that God gives us our gender (and more) as a gift. A careful explanation of both points may lead to radical transformation in their lives. Just remember: providing answers is only half the assignment! The Apostle Peter reminds us of our whole obligation in 1 Peter 3:15-16. We are to share our faith, our beliefs, and our views, with “gentleness and respect.”
- Provide resources for additional help.
Rarely does one leader have all the answers, and that’s OK. When that happens, just make sure your students get access to tools that will provide further help than what you can give alone. On the subject of sexuality, a wonderful reference for kids is the book, Sex Matters. It outlines God’s overall plan for sex and then tackles the question of gender/sexual identity head on in the final chapter. Or take a peek at the recent debate between Sean McDowell and Matthew Vines on YouTube as they go through scripture verse by verse. If a student you’re ministering to needs more help than a book or video, make sure to connect them to a counselor you trust in your community. On the other point, if several of your students are struggling with belief or faith in general, here’s a great resource to help students understand the Christian faith (with 8 built-in Bible studies). The bottom line is to make sure the kids you lead get all the help they need…even if it doesn’t come from you.
Look, chances are good that someone made a sacrificial investment of time and love in your life to help you understand and receive the love of Jesus. They may have even mentored you through some tough questions and situations. Do the same for the kids God entrusts to you.
David R. Smith
David R. Smith is the author of several books including Christianity... It's Like This and speaks to parents and leaders across the U.S. David is a 15-year youth ministry veteran, now a senior pastor, who specializes in sharing the gospel, and equipping others do the same. David provides free resources to anyone who works with teenagers on his website, DavidRSmith.org David resides with his wife and son in Tampa, Florida.