Humans—we’re complicated right? We do and say funny things, make questionable decisions without meaning to, hurt easily and at the same time, love deeply and sometimes too quickly. We are the layered, twisty, turny, upside down and inside out people that God created us to be. Our sexuality lies within this complicated creation as a piece of ourselves we separate out from the spiritual creatures that we are. We remember that God created us to be spiritual with layers and woven threads that make us deep and fascinating, but forget to acknowledge that God created us to be sexual. How confusing, silly, fascinating and devastating.
We have not had a good relationship with our sexuality and have suffered. We have grown up in the webs of shame spun over centuries from a lack of knowledge, low self regard, desire that felt out of control, and unforgiving lies held as messages of truth. We hold the capacity to marvel at God’s expansive creation, but forget to extend that sense of curiosity and awe when it comes to humanity. When it comes to humans, we seem to limit and forget our imaginations.
I say these things because I believe that the church for a long time has gotten it wrong. We have climbed the ladders of hierarchical sin, placing sex at the top while not talking about it, providing limited or inaccurate information, or declaring that those who do think about it are not okay. Only in the past 15 years or so has the church started to recognize that sexuality represents the vibrancy that is God’s great creation as being more than just male/female and straight.
Bringing our whole selves to church
When I teach at churches, I discuss what it is like to sit in a pew, chair, or in front of a screen and compartmentalize ourselves. Ideally when we go to church, the place that represents where God dwells, we hope to bring our whole selves. We wish for all parts of ourselves to be cared for and tended to with nourishment and needed accountability; however, we often only bring the parts we believe will be accepted. Often the parts we leave at the door involve our sexuality. We have been told this part of us is unclean, or only can exist in a certain way under certain circumstances.
The result can include feelings of guilt, shame, or embarrassment. If we show up to church feeling badly about a part of ourselves that has been there from the beginning and created by God, how can we ever have a deep and loving relationship with God and ourselves?
For centuries, the way sex has been discussed in church spaces puts a direct divide between ourselves and our creator. We are set up to fail at knowing true intimacy that goes beyond understanding and why we tend to struggle with that sense of knowing in our relationships with others.
It is important for this to change in church spaces so we can reframe the way we see ourselves—our whole selves include the parts of us that are sexual beings. Part of that is learning how to speak more broadly about sexuality every day, bringing it into our worship experience, service offerings, sunday school spaces, and more. It doesn’t need to be scary, but it does need to be very intentional and trauma informed.
This idea sends many into a panic, but when we take time to understand that sexuality includes how we feel about our bodies, the way we express and experience emotions, relationships we build with other people, education on how our body works, and the ways we feel love and express that love, there is so much more we can do.
Take a moment and think about these ideas:
- Does your church space have different options for passing the peace, especially for children who may not want to touch the hands of adults?
- Does your church have the option of holiday dinners to be shared with singles who may not have family in town?
- Does your church have art or other imagery that represents all people?
- Does your church have a sign language interpreter or listening devices for the hard of hearing?
- Does your confirmation curriculum involve conversations around healthy and unhealthy relationships or classes on puberty and digital citizenship?
All of these examples are ways we can foster and support people’s sexuality in our church spaces, because part of sexuality is feeling seen and heard. It is learning that our spirituality and sexuality go hand in hand and we cannot function as half a person. When we find ways to provide accurate, caring, and trauma informed education in our church around sexuality and offering space where we can acknowledge that holding hands is wonderful for some but fearful for others, we are saying, “We see you. God sees you. You have a place.”
Will we make mistakes in our attempts to offer these new ideas and actions in our space? Of course, we are twisty, turny humans. Do we try anyway knowing grace is a key ingredient? Yes, we do because the more we don’t enter into the spaces of trying to minister to the whole person within church, we won’t be ministering to anyone at all. We need this. We have needed this for a long time.
I have asked students in some college classes I have taught, “What influenced your sexuality the most?” The three answers that are said the most are: my parents not talking about sex, the church only saying sex is a sin, and porn. We take in messages spoken and unspoken everyday about our worth and this is also applied to our sexuality. Home and church influence how we see ourselves and how we interact as sexual beings. They are our first sex educators.
When I teach parents I ask them to think about what they really want for their children around relationships. How do they want them to feel? What do they want them to experience? Consider putting those feelings into written words that could look like this:
I want you to know what it feels like to be loved by another person but also truly loved by your own self. You deserve to be treated with respect and care, where your feelings are honored and your thoughts are listened to. I want for you to find relationships that build up the best parts of you and challenge you in areas where you need to grow. I also want you to experience pleasure, the best that is out there in ways you can feel good about. For this to happen, I know I will need to have conversations with you that may feel strange and somewhat awkward, but you, my child, are worth the awkward.
“You are worth the awkward” is my key phrase that I say in every teaching experience I have with people and sex. Learning how to have sexual conversations everyday in little moments at home and in church will help foster the desires we have for one another like what is written in that letter above. When we feel cared for, we do better. When we learn how to enter into these brave spaces and start to nurture our sexuality alongside our spirituality, we will do better. Think of yourself as that child in the letter. We deserve to know what it feels like to be cared for and to embrace the fullness that intimacy has to offer both spiritually and sexually in whatever way that may look like to you.
How to start:
When we want to start talking about sexuality, we need to look at ourselves first to understand where some of our triggers are. I also suggest doing a sexuality history questionnaire that I have created, or start with these questions:
What is my definition of sex and how did I come up with this definition?
What do I believe every person has the right to sexually?
How has spirituality affected my sexual intelligence and relationship with my own self and body?
Where has the church caused harm?
Where does the church need to change?
Where are the gifts in my own church to help that change?
Figure out the strengths in your own community. For example, if it is hospitality, then how can that hospitality be used to address sexuality?
- Finding ways to let people be seen. (While passing the peace, say the words, “I see you.” instead of “Peace be with you.”
- If you have done the work to earn your denomination’s LGBTQIA-welcoming designation, then create a group who is intentional at welcoming the LGBTQIA community through dinners, special events, storytelling, etc.
- Maybe you set up dinner and discussion groups: an intentional time where people come together and eat and ask each other questions provided in the center of the table to create a sense of intimacy.
- Interview your community and ask them how their needs are being met and where they are not. What are the themes?
The key is to start small and grow from there. Don’t try to do everything at once.
- Gather parents of children and youth and encourage them to take action together, such as writing letters and having key conversations with their kids around the same time.
- Start with parents before you address youth. Parents are the first sex educators and they need the education and the confidence in knowing that they are capable of having conversations and that the church will be a support system for them.
- Create a group who will be intentional about this work. Find individuals in your community who are passionate about sexuality, but also who bring knowledge around how to reduce harm, such as someone who works in social services or the mental health field.
- Look at where you think the biggest need is in your community and start there.
- Write out a goal statement of how you want people to feel as a spiritual and sexual person in your space as they learn about their faith. Let this guide you.
- Read books or listen to podcasts on consent and healthy relationships. Consent is so very important and is multi-layered and something we don’t have a really good understanding of.
- Lastly, be aware of how your needs have not been met in past relationships and why. It is important to have this understanding because if not, it is easy to project these unto others as we are building this work.