By Juan Gallo, Director of Youth Ministry at First Presbyterian Church of Waynesburg
A Reality Check
My parents never gave me the talk. You know…“the talk.” I don’t know why; it could have had something to do with our culture. It could have had something to do with whatever was the norm in society at that time. It could have been that my father wasn’t in the picture after I turned 13 and my mother had enough on her plate just trying to support my sister and I. I don’t know why it didn’t happen, but I do know what happened to me after, and I know the residual affects I deal with today as a 33 year-old man.
I became aware of Jesus the summer between middle school and high school My eyes were opened to who He was, what He did for me, and how He wanted a relationship with me. That’s what it took for me to invite Jesus into my heart.
Unfortunately, at that point I had already been exposed to sexual content and pornography. I had already had sexual encounters that I did not go looking for – they just happened to me. It’s sad to say that even long before I met Jesus, while I had never been forced to do anything, I was exposed to things no child should ever be exposed to. I was robbed of innocence, and my developing mind had been altered by this exposure.
On top of that, there was the environmental factor of the male-dominated Hispanic culture that I grew up in. I love so many things about my heritage, but it is littered with sexism. Women are objectified while lust and physical appearance are idolized. I grew up in an environment that propagates the idea that a woman’s worth and value is in her looks and that this is the ideal that should be observed, celebrated, and pursued. I observed that most women have no choice but to play the game. They either use their advantage of sex appeal and beauty to advance, obtain power, and gain influence, while others accept that they are not endowed with those traits and submit to a lesser role or learn to play a different game.
But I was also a teenager – growing, changing, and curious – surrounded by other pre-pubescent teenagers who were growing, changing, and curious. We were all just trying to figure out what to make of it all in a world that seemed to be giving us more than we were equipped to process mentally, emotionally, and rationally. Boys in class were laughing and talking about all sorts of things that they did not understand but which carried a certain appeal, because of their seemingly forbidden nature. Girls who developed quickly were wrestling with the attention they were getting, whether they were being desired and made popular or being called sluts and exposing themselves in corners of classrooms for the attention they received and the affirmation it provided. In middle school, the world was a sexual jungle, and I was alone.
To my middle-school self’s downfall, the Church rarely spoke about these things. Thankfully, immersing myself in a biblical environment did do some good. I loved Jesus. I wanted to follow Him and obey Him. In my youth group I was surrounded by individuals who all wanted the same thing. We were youth on fire for Christ using our gifts and talents for His glory. People I looked up to and people walking alongside me were all on fire and gave me amazing examples to follow. It was an incredibly impactful culture to learn to walk in my faith. But when the territory of the sexual jungle invaded my youth group, it broke my defenses, and it broke me. When I realized that older students in my youth group were having sex and struggling with sexual sin, I was devastated. The safe-haven that I relied on suddenly felt like it had been constructed on hypocrisy, lies, and facades. Again, my immature and still developing mind struggled to comprehend this, so the light inside of me flickered and slowly faded. I questioned everything I had come to know and drifted away from the Church, into the jungle to fend for myself where, inevitably, it consumed me.
I don’t know how many people out there can relate to my story, but I suspect it might be quite a few. Today, as my heart burns with a passion to love and disciple teenagers, I can tell you that the world, the jungle, has not gotten better or easier. In fact, I’d argue it is more dangerous than ever.
If you are surprised by this – whether you are a parent, a youth worker, a teacher, a pastor, etc. -it is not because you don’t see it, but rather because you’re reluctant to accept or acknowledge it. It is a willful blindness, and it is costing you. Simply put, the Church cannot afford to be blind, refusing to see what’s right in front of our faces, and it cannot afford to be silent. If only someone had talked to me. If only someone had instructed me. If only someone had offered to listen. If only someone had reached out.
I have been a youth director for two years for a church in a rural community. I work with middle and high school students, and I go into their world as much as they come into mine. That’s why I can tell you, quite frankly, it is scary. It feels like a losing battle, and we are significantly outnumbered. But this reality is why I fight, refusing to be blind to the jungle around my students. I fight my own personal battle, too, every day, so that I can fight for students.
Let’s Be Practical
There are three things that I believe every church and youth group needs to do in order to effectively have a chance at winning this battle for the pure hearts of teenagers:
1) Influence students, or rather, be influential to students. How? Love relentlessly. Pursue tirelessly. Listen attentively. Walk with integrity. Always speak in Truth and grace. Any good youth leader will tell you that relationship is the vehicle for discipleship, but when it comes to this jungle of sexuality and relationships, we must learn how to be a voice that speaks and teaches the Truth of the Word of God. We can’t afford to run away from the topic, to remain silent and hope for the best.
Though the voices calling for a secular or worldly approach to sexuality are loud and, in many ways, appealing to our sinful and broken nature, the picture of sexuality in the Gospel is beautiful. The Gospel approach to sexuality honors and glorifies God. It protects our bodies and our hearts, and it values and affirms others. God designed sexuality – it is good when it is reclaimed for God’s Kingdom! Through marriage, it reflects the covenantal relationship between Christ and the Church as the marriage vow and commitment between a man and a woman. It also reflects the way we were created in God’s image, male and female, for relationship and partnership, as well as God’s command to be fruitful and multiply.
The Gospel portrait of marriage makes the jungle’s pale in comparison.
Now, this is the hard part: It is a skill and an art to understand the biblical perspective of sexuality and then to effectively communicate it to teenagers in a safe and healthy environment. As a skill, it can be learned and perfected, but we need to start studying, practicing, and seeking out resources that equip us in every way for this battle. Our youth groups and our churches need to be a place where a Godly approach to sexuality is taught and discussed, the biblical view of marriage is celebrated and modeled, and God is honored and glorified in every area of our lives.
When we keep certain things in the dark, we preserve them in the realm of the enemy. But when we bring all things into the light we exercise our God-given authority to reclaim them for God’s kingdom. As the Gospel of John says, “But those who can do what is right come to the light so others can see that they are doing what God wants” (John 3:21). Children need the Truth, and our voices, as well as our lives, need to be loud and bold.
2) Partner with (and equip) parents. You will never have as much influence in a young person’s life as their parents do, for better or for worse. At most, youth workers get to spend a handful of hours with students each week; parents get to spend dozens. Plus, the mission of the youth program should not be to create a multitude of lone ranger teenage Christians, who, despite their family life, become on fire for Jesus; but as much as possible, to strengthen, fortify, and equip families on mission.
For the most part, parents are at odds about how to approach this subject and how to navigate today’s world of social media, over-stimulation, instant-gratification, and non-stop evasive sexuality; and who can blame them? We are all playing catch-up every day! This task requires community. It requires support, accountability, and encouragement.
It takes a village.
As youth workers, it can be easy to fall into a “me versus them” mentality with parents, but this is dangerously unbeneficial and not at all biblical. However, a proper understanding of what our role is in students’ lives and what a parent’s role is, should inform us that we ought to be doing all that we can to love and reach out to parents as much as possible. We must seek to come together, to present resources and information to equip them and to walk alongside of them as they wrestle with the challenges that they and their children are facing.
3) Produce leaders. I am learning now that by the time teenagers reach their junior and senior year of high school, there is a potent combination of freedom, choice, and possibility, that together make it very difficult for them to choose coming to youth group over any other alternative that is available. By this time, if they are not even coming to youth group, how much opportunity do you have to meet with them, to listen to them, to speak to them, and to walk with them? At this point, you just hope that they have heard enough and are equipped enough to face what is coming in college, although you fear that the reality is that they are not.
This Truth has taught me this: It has to start much earlier. There has to be a system for leadership that allows students to become invested and to take ownership of the ministry in order for them to remain plugged-in and connected.
For youth directors, youth pastors, and youth leaders, this means that wherein and inasmuch as possible, there has to be a relinquishing of control. Students must be trained up as leaders. This is discipleship. Follow me as I follow Christ, “…imitate me, just as I imitate Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1), but then go and make disciples of all the nations. There is an element of challenge here that is necessary for growth, as no one can grow from a place of comfort and ease. We must teach, train, equip, model, and then challenge. Challenge students to live pure lives. Challenge them to oppose the popular views of relationships and sexuality. To live the lives that they were created for, lives that honor God and reflect His glory in everything – fulfilling lives that produce the fruit of abundance in Christ.
Why We Have Reason to Hope
You and I are born with a need. As we all come from one Creator, this need is one of our common traits. It is there for a reason. It is a homing device. It is a seed in our soul and our subconscious, whispering to us that we came from somewhere and we are meant to return there. You may never in this life realize it, but you need this more than food and water, and your soul cries out for it like your lungs do for oxygen. Without it, we will die long before we stop breathing. With it, we will live a true, whole, abundant life.
We all need to be known and to be loved.
I didn’t know this until I met Jesus, and even then, though my heart recognized it, my mind and my intellect didn’t put it together until long after that. When my soul glimpsed the reality of my Creator, who became my Savior, who longed to be Lord of my life in the best way imaginable, I came alive. Jesus knew me, and He loved me. This changed everything; it still changes everything.
Every day I come face to face with my brokenness. I stare down a past that refuses to let go as I walk into a future – a marriage that promises to be a calling to growth and maturity like I’ve never experienced before, with a woman who knows me and, still, chooses to love me in the same fashion as the One who knit me together in the womb; and because of it I fall more and more in love with Jesus every day. Through sin, repentance, redemption, and restoration, and the manner in which this process manifests itself in my life every day, I am reminded of how known and loved by my Creator I am and always will be.
This is the heart of the fight. The fight for our souls that we take part in and are subjected to every day. It’s the same fight going on in the lives of teenagers. The environment may be different and the weapons that are deployed might be new, developing, and foreign to us, but in our souls and in our spirits the adversaries are the same; good versus evil, light versus darkness. We are all separated from God because of sin, and we desperately long to be made whole. To that end we are willing to subject ourselves to any means; but nothing will satisfy. If it isn’t the river of living water then it will all leave us thirsty again. “But those who drink the water I give will never be thirsty again. It becomes a fresh, bubbling spring within them, giving them eternal life” (John 4:14).
Jesus satisfies. Jesus suffices.
This is what we have to offer.
Juan Gallo joined as Youth Director at First Presbyterian Church of Waynesburg, Pennsylvania in January of 2017. He’s passionate about sharing the love of Christ with middle and high school students, working to empower them to live out the Gospel. Juan is also a varsity soccer coach and enjoys the creative arts, reading, and writing music. He’s engaged to be married to Sammie Franks, the Creator of Abundant Life: You Were Made for More in May 2019.