July 4, 2020

The Church, Youth, and Sex – Did I Report It Wrong?

Ed Stetzer

Ed Stetzer

I am a huge Ed Stetzer fan. I follow a grand total of 14 people on twitter, and he is one of them. Ed, by the way, has 125,000 following him! So who is Ed Stetzer? Here is his bio in Christianity Today:

Ed Stetzer is the President of LifeWay Research Division, a prolific author, and well-known conference and seminar leader. Stetzer has planted, revitalized, and pastored churches, trained pastors and church planters on six continents, holds two masters degrees and two doctorates, and has written dozens of articles and books.

Stetzer is a contributing editor for Christianity Today, a columnist for Outreach Magazine, and is frequently cited or interviewed in news outlets such as USAToday and CNN. He is the Executive Editor of The Gospel Project, a curriculum used by more than 400,000 individuals each week. Stetzer is also Executive Editor of Facts & Trends Magazine, a Christian leadership magazine with a circulation of more than 70,000 readers.

Stetzer serves as Visiting Professor of Research and Missiology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and Visiting Research Professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and has taught at many other colleges and seminaries.

He also serves as Lead Pastor of Grace Church in Hendersonville, Tenn., a congregation he planted in 2011.

In his post in Christianity Today this week, Everything Is Terrible: How Bad Stats Fuel Disillusionment, Ed points out that bad statistics are making things out to be much worse than they are, especially regarding young Christian Evangelicals and sex. He also points out that media are all too quick to use these bad statistics to denigrate the church.

The reason why I mention all this, is that one of the sources that he mentions as being particularly bad, was a source that I had used in a post a few years ago at Internet Monk entitled Increasing Marriage Age and Its Implications.

How do youth in the church look compared to society at large? Well there is some good news, but it is not overly good. For example, according to the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY), when we look at youth in society between the ages of 18 and 23 who are in a relationship but not married, 93% are sexually active. Among conservative protestant youth, that number is 80%. Look out over your congregations Pastor, according to the numbers, on average 80% of your college and career group who are currently dating are sexually active. The number is lower that society at large but not by much.

I used the quote above because the conclusion I drew was faulty. As Ed points out:

But Wait! There is a problem here—it turns out that the question asked if they considered themselves as a “born-again Christian, evangelical, or fundamentalist,” not if they actually were practicing.

The mistake and assumption that I made was the the same mistake pointed out in an email by Ted Olsen to Ed Stetzer:

[The] assumption is that 80 percent of evangelicals being ‘sexually active’ means that 80 percent of committed, Bible-believing, church-going evangelicals are ‘sexually active.’ That’s the mistake.

In that particular part of my article, I failed to distinguish between church going and non church going evangelicals. To my credit, I do mention the significance of Church attendance in another part of my post. I don’t think my article was completely wrong, but I don’t think it was completely right either.

So here is what I would like you to do? Have a read of my original article. Then pop over and read Ed’s article on the topic.

Did I get it mostly right? Where do you think I hit the mark and where do you think I missed the target completely? Do you agree with Ed’s contention that bad statistics are causing disillusionment in the church? Error(s) aside, was I being a pessimist or a realist in the article that I wrote? I would love to hear your thoughts on this one.


  1. Without re-reading the original article in depth (<– yeah, I admit this might cause my comment to be horribly wrong but I need to go to bed soon 🙁 ) I'd throw out that your (and possibly others) use of "sexually active" seems a bit misleading. Do you just mean "has ever had sex"? If so, then the person who went too far once 5 years ago when they were in high school is just as "sexually active" (despite being rather currently "inactive") as the person who gets it on every other night with their boyfriend/girlfriend.

    • srs,

      The CT article does have a helpful breakdown by activity type (um, by statistical frequency — nothing more “interesting” than that). So you can see the different distributions of:

      A) Never Sexually Active
      B) Sexually Active but not in last 3 Months
      C) Sexually Active in last 3 Months.

      But the main point of the article is how much significance one should attach to cultural identification vs. practice. Here’s a related thought.

      As a practical matter, most people’s political “activity” consists only of voting once every so often. Thus, to identify as a partisan means mostly to just vote accordingly. It’s not exactly a full-time job. Perhaps this is why researchers can sometimes get sloppy when reporting about religious issues. Conservatives are conservative because they say they favor the GOP, so Evangelicals must surely be Evangelicals because they favor that sort of Christian tradition. Practice doesn’t really make it into the picture.

      “Good definitions make for easy theorems” someone once said about mathematics. The same sort of thing should hold in survey statistics.

  2. The mistake is to even go there.

    I mean, who is committing which sins and who is not is a poor way to judge who the real Christians are.

    Oh…wait a minute…we’re not supposed to be judging that (who is, and who is not a Christian) anyway.

    • Aidan Clevinger says

      “I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church[b] whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.” – 1 Corinthians 5:9-13.

      It seems like people who are in the Church, whether in reality or nominally, are the only people that we’re supposed to judge at all. Always bearing in mind, of course, that we’re to do our corrections in love, with humility, taking care lest we ourselves fall.

      • Rick Ro. says

        Jesus does indeed seem to slam the religious types who should know better, much more (and maybe even exclusively) than he does the non-religious folks. But boy, oh boy…I’m much more concerned with brothers who are self-righteous and dwelling in religiosity than those stumbling through life. Matthew 23 is my go-to book of the Bible. I’m always watching for what I do and what others do to harm those within the Kingdom or those who Jesus might want to draw INTO the Kingdom.

      • Good example of Paul warning not to do what Jesus did?

      • Loving admonishment for sin…and making judgements about who is, and who is not…are two completely different things.

        Nothing wrong with the former.

      • Man, if the church is going to kick out people for *greed* then there’s going to be a lot of empty seats in churches…

        Here’s another thought: Imagine 2 people both show up at your church. One is a young woman who makes a living as an exotic dancer or stripper or porn actress, etc. In other words, she sells sex for money. A prostitute.

        The other person is a 30-something man, who works for a ‘security contractor’ in Afghanistan or somewhere. It’s a company you’ve heard about, mainly for how it’s being investigated by the State Department for killing civilians there. Heck, *this guy* is being personally investigated for doing that. In other words, he does violence for money. A mercenary.

        Am I going out *too* far on a limb to say that 99% of churches out there would have way, way more problems with the young woman than with the man?

  3. Travis Sibley says

    Semantics when it comes to the “are they active in a church” bit.

    From my own personal experience the 80% of believers are sexually active is accurate.

    Evangelicals are obsessed with virginity and “purity” just as much as they are with homosexuality.

    Time to obsess with another metric. Abstinence doesn’t work for the vast majority of believers and non-believers alike. Never has, never will.

    • Interesting. So what were people doing before we had reliable birth control?

      We forget so quickly that there were actual reasons behind societal norms for female virginity and purity. For a woman, having sex with a man who had no legal obligation to her was playing russian roulette with the rest of her life, since the chances of becoming pregnant were high, and the prospect of having to care for a child on her own (even if her family didn’t disown her, the financial strain was/is real). Even today, it’s not ideal or easy to be a single mother, though not as impossible as it’s been in the past.

      As unthinking as a lot of church traditions make the ‘purity’ stuff, controlling our sexual desires is supposed to be a spiritual and physical discipline to bring us into closer communion with Christ. It’s as hard as heck, but so is so much that we are supposed to do as Christians, and this attitude that “because it’s hard and a lot of us fail” that we shouldn’t keep getting up and trying is garbage. Christianity is always walking that line between striving for Christlikeness and the knowledge that we WILL fail time and time again.

      Anyway… totally off topic. Apologies to OP.

      • cermak_rd says

        But the reliable birth control also changed our whole culture. Before it, women and men weren’t alone so often together and daughters didn’t as often go off to co-ed colleges and live alone for 6-8 years after college before marriage.

      • Robert F says

        “Interesting. So what were people doing before we had reliable birth control?”

        Well, most of them got married, had sex and children by the time they were 15 or 16.

        In fact, I’ve read (though I can’t cite the source) that in a study of early American birth records as compared with marriage records, it’s not at all impossible that many, many marriages were entered into after, and because, conception already had occurred. So, a lot of Russian roulette apparently was being played, and then, when the first fatal shot sounded, the pistol, which also had a second round in the chambers, was turned around and used in the service of shot-gun weddings.

        • *Well, most of them got married, had sex and children by the time they were 15 or 16.*

          That simply isn’t true. The criterion for marriage in most societies is whether the couple can establish themselves economically. In Elizabethan England for instance, the usual age of marriage for men was 2–either to have inherited his father’s land or else finished his apprenticeship–while the usual age for woman was 19. (Shakespeare was *extremely* unusual to have been a married father by the time he was 18.)

          *In fact, I’ve read (though I can’t cite the source) that in a study of early American birth records as compared with marriage records, it’s not at all impossible that many, many marriages were entered into after, and because, conception already had occurred.*

          But yes, this is correct. I think what you’re referring to is this huge survey of British marriage and baptismal records that covers about 1200 to 1800 or so and it concluded that the average child was born 6.4 months after his/her parents were married.

    • Abstinence doesn’t work for the vast majority of believers

      Obedience to Christ never “works.” This isn’t necessarily a reflection on its value.

  4. Mike, Mike….

    As the actress said to the interviewer, “But enough about me. What did you think of my movie?”

  5. Since I tend to work with data a lot myself I understand that one can make data say almost anything. That is an overgeneralization but in this case it seems that additional levels of granularity are needed. Data points like sexually active can mean different things to different people, from intercourse to petting to French kissing. I think some of the commentary above tackles the whole Church granularity issue.

    But, slightly off topic, I believe it is not so much the Church that will heavily influence the youth in this area (although it does provide a framework), but the parents themselves (and their peers arguably). Here I believe I can speak with some authority, having my own large brood and watching parental interaction and (non) involvement with their kids while I have taught, overseen, coached and mentored youth for the last 25 years. If the parents stay involved, stay connected, teach values (what is expected in this house) then success rates in this area are much higher. Expecting the Church to shoulder this burden with no follow through at home will have negative impacts on success rates. Am I naïve? As a former type of person who a girl would not bring home to her folks – no. Just requires some responsibility and attention from us as parents.

    • Some of the churches I’ve been in, going on a “coffee date” with a girl is sexual activity…

      • . . . and I thought those good feelings were generated by caffeine . . . shouldn’t have let her get away.

  6. cermak_rd says

    What of the phenomenon of the folk who just go to church when they’re not in a romantic relationship? I’ve known a couple women like that. They didn’t go to church when they were in a relationship because they didn’t want to be hypocrites, but once the relationship was over, they’d go back to church to get right with their deity. Then they’d start a new relationship and stop going to church and repeat the cycle. Until marriage. After their marriages one became a regular attender and one stopped attending at all.

    • You raise a very good point. This is why I don’t trust the optimistic stats on divorce and church attendance. If you were attending church, but then get divorced, you are less likely to attend church. So if you survey those who are attending church, of course their divorce rate is going be lower, because divorce leads to lower church attendance.

      • “If you get divorced, you are less likely to attend church! ”
        Unsaid, of course, is WHY they are less likely to attend church. In so many churches, it’s because that’s one of the few sins that are close to being “unforgivable “, and divorced persons are constantly reminded of, and limited by…their “moral failure”. it doesn’t necessarily indicate a cessation of “love for God” in those who no longer attend. Why is it that we can forgive and restore almost any ‘sin’…but that one?”
        Sorry, perhaps a “bit” off topic here as well!

        • Ah, one of those many news laws we just love to add. Apparently Paul was more prolific than Moses!

          • “New laws…Paul more prolific…?” You have a point, but perhaps it’s ‘new laws’….that WE’VE added by accretion. Non RC’s have often (and, rightly, IMHO) criticized the RCC for their mechanistic system of so-called ‘venial’ and ‘mortal’ sins, but we’ve created a similar system of our own, just without the titles. I’ve often said that I could have killed my ex, and not only would I be long since out of jail, but the church people would have forgiven me years ago! LOL!

        • I think the biggest reason is that when a couple divorces, one or both of them will end up leaving the church they were at. Many won’t start attending another church.

  7. We now have clarifications from Tyler Charles and Mike Bell. So when will we see them from CNN, Forbes or the Huffington Post? I’m not holding my breath.

    As far as some of the questions to be considered, I’m an older Christian single who’s stumbled and fallen along the way, although I was somewhat past the 18-23 age bracket by the time that happened. I’ve got nothing against early marriage; after all, I dated during my college years and young adulthood hoping to marry sooner rather than later. Obviously that didn’t work out. However, I’m against the legalism and shaming tactics used by self-appointed scolds (Albert Mohler, Debbie Maken, Joshua Harris, et al.).

    I do think the church needs to do a much better job of taking care of its single members; perhaps that could cut down on premarital sexual activity, not just among the 18-23 age bracket but among older singles as well. Too many churches, including my congregation, place excessive focus on married couples at the expense of their single brothers and sisters.

    • Rick Ro. says

      ->”…the church needs to do a much better job of taking care of its single members; perhaps that could cut down on premarital sexual activity…”

      Sorry, but I had to laugh at that. Just what kind of “taking care of its single members” would “cut down on premarital sexual activity”? My mind went in all sorts of weird directions with that question, most of them R-rated or NC-17…LOL.

      • Some of the ideas I had in mind include church members inviting singles into their homes after Sunday services or on holidays; acknowledging that singles have more value than being the church’s cheap labor pool; supporting singles when they go through difficult periods such as the loss of a parent; providing practical assistance, with permission, for singles who want to marry (thoughtful introductions, help in overcoming social awkwardness, etc.). None of these come anywhere close to being rated R or NC-17.

  8. Danielle says

    I think both studies are interesting, but I would not trust either set of numbers to be an accurate representation of people’s behavior. I gather from the article that the competing studies returned these results:

    -21 percent of self-reported single fundamentalists/evangelicals also report having never having had sex [National Campaign]
    -56 percent of single fundamentalists/evangelicals attending church, reading the Bible, and claiming to hold evangelical doctrines have never having had sex [Grey Matter]

    The huge variance between these results seems to suggest a fairly “safe” conclusion: people who are embedded enough in a religious community to be attending its services, reading its texts, and correctly identify its core beliefs are more likely to care about and follow its moral codes. Okay. But do I believe that the actual numbers (~80 percent of self-reported evangelicals vs. ~44 percent of practicing evangelicals have had premarital sex) are accurate? I’m not jumping in front of any bullets.


    1. Asking people whether they self-identify as evangelical will always return a pool of respondents different from the pool of people the researcher would like label “evangelical” (or “liberal,” or “conservative,” or “black,” or “white,” or what-have-you). People understand these labels in different ways, and people have many reasons for identifying with them, or disassociating themselves from them.

    2. People lie when self-reporting information about their behavior. They are especially liable to over- or under-report activities that seem to reflect their identity or character, like church attendance, sexual activity, how often in the past week they went to the gym, or how many servings of vegetables they consumed. (Also, what does “sexually active” mean? Even if you provide the respondent with a definition, they will define it in ways that appeal to them.)

    3. It is tempting to correct for the problems inherent in observation 1 by attempting to identify an evangelical by current behavior. Olson stresses that church attendance and Bible reading as good measures. But this data tells us a bit less than it sounds like it would. It does not tell us how many former Bible-reading, church-attending evangelicals got the abstinence message and later stopped attending church, temporarily or permanently, when they became sexually active. These individuals may disappear from the community; but these lapsed persons had been practicing, so they should be interesting to us if we want our statistics to help us develop a picture of what “happens” to the practicing evangelicals or of how effective church programs are.

    Disclaimer: I am not a statistician! In truth, I’m terrified of using statistics in my own work, because they are used badly so often.

    • Radagast says

      +1…. Lots of subjectivity in black and white surveys based on individuals perspectives…

  9. Dana Ames says

    1. I’m so tired of polls and surveys.

    2. Why use the metric of sexual activity, as opposed to something (anything!) else?

    3. This is simply another indication that (many? most?) Evangelicals are fixated on marriage and getting people married, and of the devaluation of/cluelessness with regard to single people.

    4. Because of the way “salvation” is understood in Evangelicalism, there is (depending on your church) little to no help or tools available for people – singles and marrieds alike – for following the path of inner healing and transformation, to help people take steps “forward” and so that when people fail they can get up again and go on without being dogged by toxic shame. We didn’t get in our predicament overnight, and the vast majority of us don’t get out of it overnight, either. “All I need is Jesus and my bible” is only partially true; for various reasons, we don’t/won’t admit that.

    One of my Orthodox friends, a brilliant guy who answered my questions, explained many things to me, and helped to open the doors of the Church for me, is 63 years old, gay… and a virgin. Yes, he’s been lonely at times,and living celibately hasn’t been easy for him. Guess what? I as a married person of 36 years with 3 living children (thank you, Lord!) have been lonely at times, and marriage hasn’t been easy for me. I have found more help in the Jesus-shaped spirituality, if you will, and the sacramental life of the Orthodox Church than any other place for actually living into the life of Christ in the midst of the real difficulties I’ve experienced. Willard was a big help; the Northumbria Community ethos was even more helpful. Everything good in them, and so much more, I have found in Orthodoxy – where all people, no matter their marital status, are called to the same kind of life. The sacramental life isn’t magick – the only Certainty is Jesus Christ himself – *and* in it and the Body of Christ where it resides is to be found the fullness of what is needed for ultimate healing/the Life of the Age to Come.

    Yes, marriage idolatry irritates me, has done for a very long time; forgive my pointed words, and thanks for the place where I can safely vent… Soap box put away for today. May our Lord by his Spirit help me to bow before the suffering of others.



    • Radagast says

      Dana… you go girl… agreed.

    • Rick Ro. says

      1. 50% of all Americans are tired of polls and surveys. The other half are tired of statistics.

      2. Sex sells.

      3. No, and my adult Sunday school class filled with married couples would debate you on that!

      4. Toxic shame is the only way to change behavior!

      (And I hope you know I’m being sarcastic with my reply. Love your points!)

      • Brianthedad says

        To elaborate on your no. 1: serious studies by people with letters after their names have shown that 47% of all statistics are made up on the spot, with the remaining 33% being the result of shoddy arithmetic.

  10. Shalimar The Clown says

    “Figures often beguile me, particularly when I have the arranging of them myself; in which case the remark attributed to Disraeli would often apply with justice and force: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.”
    – Mark Twain

  11. This is becoming a pattern.

    A survey shows little difference between “Christians” and everyone else when it comes to X (sex, divorce, whatever X may be). Then the No True Scotsman pushback follows, in which our side tries to recrunch the numbers to show that REAL, TRUE Christians are different. If we keep rejiggering and restricting the definition of real, true Christianity, eventually we’ll come up with an algorithm that produces some apparent difference.

    Yes, Christians who never miss a Wednesday night Bible study are probably less sexually active than others … especially on Wednesday evenings between 7 and 9 p.m.

    I like Stetzer, too, but this is weak tea. If our Christian witness depends on our ability to reanalyze and reinterpret the data to highlight statistical differences others overlooked, then we’re doing something wrong.

    • Or maybe those who never miss a Wednesday night Bible study can’t get any.

      A great question for all these types of polls would be “Is that by choice?”

      • I don’t buy that. Sex is for sale, or free on the internet. Those who indeed want it will go out and find it. The idea that some people are incapable of “getting any” is a myth propagated by people with inflated sexual egos who insist their indulgence is simply the result of their irresistibility, and not a moral weakness.

    • Rick Ro. says

      There’s the strategy! Keep ’em busy with church stuff, and they won’t have time for sex!

    • From a sociological perspective (and theological perspective, for that matter), the relationship between practice and identification with a religion is a complicated thing. Yes, I’m wary of defining who is a “real Christian” – at the same time, though, evangelical is such a broad label that it includes Joel Osteen, John Piper, and Peter Enns all together. And when surveys show that Americans are often confused about their own religious affiliations (for example, a small but significant percentage of self-defined atheists in America say they believe in God), just how far does self-identification go?

      I would say that both surveys are important and neither should be isolated as “the real story on Christian sexual practice.” They should be used together when talking about this topic.

      • To put it another way – there are some people who haven’t been to church in five years and seldom give religion much thought, but will still call themselves evangelical just because that’s how they were raised. Without judging the state of their hearts, can they really be considered representative of evangelical sexual practice?

  12. Of course, then you have to ask if the “practicing” Christian is lying. If you’re in the club, it’s all about wearing the club mask.

    • Ouch. Yes. And I’m not sure “mask wearing” is restricted to being in the club. I’ve got lots of masks, too.

  13. You ever notice how the ‘make you a better Christian’ preachers are always so popular?

    While the ones who quietly go about their business proclaim God’s law (to kill you – not to make you better) and His gospel, and who then hand over Christ in the sacraments, remain unknown and fly under the radar?

  14. A good piece of self reflection.

    So here is my two cent thought: those of us who are critics– friendly or unfriendly– of the church, tend to be quick to agree with things that point to the negative. So, I think you probably felt that the data seemed right– and it came from a reputable source, so I don’t think you can be blamed.

    So, go in peace… and sin no more. 😉