If you think that the media is incapable of hearing the music of faith and presenting it fairly and if you think that the Church has nothing credible to offer young people, then David Frost's Alpha TV series, the profoundly moving The Monastery and the recent widely, though not universally, admired, No sex please we're teenagers provide compelling counter-arguments.
If The Monastery potently demonstrated the capacity of a Benedictine community to change the lives of those who chose to retreat from the world for a season, then No Sex Please We're Teenagers more extraordinarily demonstrated the capacity of a Gospel principle to radically the change the lives of typical, promiscuous, unchurched non-middle class, North London teenagers while they were still immersed in their sex-focused, booze fuelled, relationally impoverished school and leisure culture.
So here's the deal. You're 14. You've had sex. You intend to have sex again. Indeed, having sex is part of the way you live your life. Having sex is part of the way that most of your peers live their lives. Having sex gives you cred in your community. Having sex makes you feel good about your body. Then someone nearly twice your age comes along to you and says, "How about not having sex for 5 months?"
Most teenagers would think that you're having a laugh. Why on earth would you not want to have sex? What's the benefit?
This is the outrageous proposition that was put to twelve Harrow teenagers who between them had had 50 sexual partners. 11 of them were not Christians. Christian youth workers Rachel Gardner and Dan Burke called it Romance Academy and their radical, counter-cultural experiment became the subject of a three-part BBC2 documentary - No Sex Please We're Teenagers. It was a brilliantly crafted programme which was enormously rich in insight, capturing the bleak disillusionment of the culture that teenagers find themselves trapped in but doing so without judgementalism, censoriousness or voyeuristic glee. All the people speak for themselves with minimal intervention from a narrator. This was TV that trusted its viewers to observe and think for themselves as those involved were allowed to speak for themselves with minimal commentary from the narrator. So when the narrator does comment it makes the intervention all the more powerful, as. for example, when he summarises Rachel and Dan's leadership:
"The reaction to the mistakes that the teenagers have made is typical of the way Rachel and Dan ran the Project. They never judged them. Their love and care is clearly unconditional."
If you haven't seen it - buy the DVD. It will, I believe, prove to be a useful resource in itself - to parents - Christian or otherwise - schools and churches across the land. A 15 week resource will soon be available, as well as training days. Go to the excellent website www.romanceacademy.com.
The results were extraordinary. And perhaps point to ways in which the UK can begin to address its appalling record as the country with the highest rate of teenage pregnancy in Europe and to reverse the massive rise in sexually transmitted diseases which cause enormous emotional and physical damage and cost taxpayers billions every year. What is clear is that sex education in schools has failed to slow the rate of promiscuity or change the habits of the 65% of teenagers over 14 or so who have had unprotected sex.
Rachel and Dan's approach is much more radical than it seems, particularly for people coming from an evangelical stable. They were entirely open with the kids about their faith but neither the focus, nor even the hidden agenda of Romance Academy was to see the kids converted. Rather they wanted to see them liberated. They did not begin by trying to persuade the 12 about the merits of abstinence or the folly of promiscuity, or God's hatred of sexual impurity and debauchery. Nor did they seek to preach Christ crucified and resurrected as a precursor to the transformed life. No. They did something apparently quite out of sync with post-modern sensibility. They invited them to keep a rule - an idea that interestingly came not from them but from the production company. Try not having sex for five months and see what happens.
They positioned this experiment as a radical way to explore relationships more deeply, as a radical way to challenge the culture around them and as a radical challenge to their will power - could they achieve it? In other words, Romance Academy was a complete package - not just sex education but education for emotional maturity and relational health. Furthermore, by calling the experiment Romance Academy they positioned the experiment in the context of a positive aim that instinctively most teenagers yearn for - finding real love. In sum, they sought to harness a teenager's natural yearning for challenge and for loving relationship to the natural desire that teenagers have to explore their emerging identity and personality. Who am I? Who am I becoming? Am I happy with the person I am becoming?
In addition to trying to keep the pledge, Romance Academy required the teenagers to come to the weekly group meeting and to attend other occasional activities. The Academy did not remove them from their normal life but the group meetings provided vital ongoing support, a context to discuss issues honestly and to help one another through challenges, successes and failures.
What was astonishing was just how quickly the teenagers saw for themselves the benefits of abstinence and just how quickly they realised that the lifestyle they had been leading was not delivering what they really wanted. After only a month a number of the girls had noticed that they were being treated with more respect by boys, rather than less. They began to feel better about themselves and this revealed how much conforming to the 'yes to sex' culture had become a way to boost their own self-esteem. In reality, saying 'no' achieved more. Furthermore, they began to see the people around them differently and to recognise that there could be much, much more to relationships.
Christians, Paul tells us in Galatians 5, are set free in Christ. For what? Set free to do what is right. Liberated from attitudes and behaviours that diminish who they are and freed to become who they really are in Christ. What happened in Romance Academy was that the teenagers' decision not to have sex began to liberate them from attitudes and behaviours that were destroying them. They discovered the wisdom of God's blueprint that sexual purity is life enhancing. This was not a conversion experience - though God clearly manifested himself to one of the teenagers - but it was nevertheless a transformative experience in which the good fruit of obedience to God's ways was experienced. And it clearly demonstrates the wisdom of the Gospel which, as far as sexual purity is concerned, does indeed look like a stumbling block to young males and foolishness to young females.
Romance Academy did not stop with abstinence but sought to create other opportunities for the teenagers to think about their choices more carefully. So Dan and Rachel took the 12 to Florida to stay with Christian families and to be exposed to the Silver Ring Thing - the US initiative that encourages teenagers to promise not to have sex before marriage and wear a silver ring as an outward symbol of that pledge. Rachel and Dan were naturally very concerned about such an experiment. On the one hand, would the exposure to a very strong conservative Christian culture turn the teenagers off the whole experiment? On the other hand, might some feel manipulated into taking the silver ring pledge without really thinking about it. In the event seven of the 11 teenagers who went to America took the ring. As one 16 year-old put it: "I wished I'd come to Florida when I was 12 years-old."
Overall, Rachel and Dan were trying to give the group the tools to continue to make good choices. To that end, they took them to a clothes designer to teach them to become more responsible for the impact that their clothing choices had on others and on themselves. It was very moving to see how such a simple thing like the careful selection of elegant but more modest clothes made a number of the teenagers realise that not only could they influence the way others treated them but they could actually become the kind of person they had perhaps hardly dared to dream they could be. Similarly, rather than denying the natural desire to dance, Rachel and Dan affirmed it by teaching the teenagers to do the Salsa, thus providing them with a vibrant alternative to the 'vertical sex' teen dance culture.
In sum, Dan and Rachel did not restrict themselves to a single destructive behaviour but rather to a range of behaviours and attitudes that reinforced destructive patterns and to the underlying ethos that spawned them. This is a vital distinction. If you want to address an 'issue' you can do so by developing a view, arguing a position but if you want to transform a culture you have to develop a values system which does not simply address an issue but offers people a different way to live. Show and tell. It is not enough to say don't have sex, you have to give young people a different way of relating to peers, you have to help them discover a different way of responding to situations, and a different way of making choices. And this is precisely what they have achieved. Maybe I should get out more but this is the first whiff of genuinely 'whole-life', holistic Christian mentoring that I've seen.
Paul Woolley, the former director of the Conservative Christian Fellowship, once said, "If you can get people to think, you are 90% of the way there." And this is what Rachel and Dan were hoping, that as the teenagers began to think about one area of their lives so it would open up other areas. And that is precisely what happened, with a number asking searching questions about relationships, about purpose, about identity and indeed about faith.
Naturally, Rachel and Dan would love to see every teenager in Harrow become Christians but though that is their yearning that is not the focus of the Project. Just as Christians founded hospitals to take care of the sick, just as Christians founded schools to teach people to read, just as Western Christian business people help poor people in developing countries to start businesses in order to alleviate their deprivation so Rachel and Dan seek to bring healing and wisdom and long-term life-enhancing skills to those who went through the Academy. Will it lead some of them to faith? Yes. And in one case it certainly has. But whilst that may be on their hearts it is not on the programme's agenda - any more than it can be part of a nurse's professional agenda to see their patients converted - though the Christian care and witness of medical professionals do lead many people to Christ.
Of course, it is one thing to invite 12 teenagers to try to abstain from sex with the obvious incentive of being on TV and flying to Florida, it is quite another to invite 12 teenagers to join a Romance Academy without the cameras and the travel perks. Interestingly, however, as Dan and Rachel have taken the abstinence message to other Harrow schools the response has been positive, not least perhaps because those teenagers who have been through the Academy are such eloquent advocates for its benefits. As one girl said at her 'graduation' ceremony in front of her friends and her family: "Without the Academy I wouldn't be the person I am today and I'm proud of the person I am today."
Is that what the teens in your church are saying about their youth group? I hope so.