Our churches are facing a significant threat. It’s not dramatic, and it’s slow-moving, but nonetheless, it’s there. I am talking about the transgender movement, whose influence is making its way steadily from mainstream media into mainstream thought and now into public school education. Even schools that haven’t signed up to the controversial “Safe Schools” program1 (and note the number is growing) still include aspects of a so-called “progressive” gender theory in upper high school teaching units.2 If we don’t raise our kids in the truth in this area, it’s not that they’ll be uneducated; they will simply be educated by the world.
While it is parents—and fathers, in particular—who are responsible for bringing up their children in the “discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:4), God has provided the church to help them in this task. What are our youth and children’s ministries doing to equip both kids and parents to face the transgender challenge? Our minds naturally think of a reactive approach—responding well to a teen questioning their gender identity, or counselling parents who are trying to deal with their own questions. But what about a proactive approach? How can our ministries position themselves on the front foot in raising a generation that not only knows God’s design for gender, but sees it as beautiful and compelling?
Here are three things we can start with.
1. Teach gender as a gift, not merely a fact
The fundamental biblical statement about gender is that God created us as embodied creatures—male and female (Gen 1:26). As important as this truth is, teaching it to our kids and youth isn’t enough; the idea that each of us has been assigned as male or as female isn’t actually as counter-cultural as we might think, because it’s becoming more and more common to refer to a person’s birth sex as that which was “assigned at birth”.3 But the question it gives rise to is “Was it assigned for our good?” Where the biblical worldview differs radically is not the fact that our sex was assigned to us, but that it wasn’t assigned arbitrarily or incorrectly: God made each of us male or female according to his will. Gender is as a precious gift—a gift to embrace, enjoy and live out.
Our sex (a biological fact) should inform our gender (how we think of and express ourselves). Whereas the transgender movement insists on the separation of sex and gender, the Bible affirms their connection. Our kids and youth must know that this is not only right, but good. Too often, we stop short, explaining God’s truth without celebrating how good it is. Our bodies aren’t just made by God; they are fearfully and wonderfully made by him (Ps 139:14).
But as we live in a world broken by sin, our feelings and perceptions about our bodies can become skewed and distorted—to different extents for different people. So how should we respond when our feelings about our gender differ from what our bodies tell us?
Firmly lodged in the philosophy of the modern West is the belief that our bodies are inferior to our minds: we naturally consider our inner being to be “the real me” and our body as the thing we live “in”. But this kind of Platonic thinking is completely foreign to the teaching of the Bible: we are not souls trapped in a body; we are an inseparable combination of material body and immaterial spirit. Our resurrection hope is not a disembodied existence, but life in a renewed creation with renewed (and gendered) bodies. Our transformation will not be from gendered to genderless, but from perishable to imperishable (1 Cor 15:42). While the gospel removes any advantage to being male or female (Gal 3:28), it doesn’t remove our created distinctiveness. Just as we will retain our ethnic diversity in heaven (Rev 7:9), there is no reason to think that we won’t retain our gendered diversity.4 God has given us our bodies as a precious gift, and they are as much “us” as our inner thoughts and feelings.
2. Beware of gender stereotypes
Secondly, beware of gender stereotypes. It may seem counterintuitive, but emphasising the differences between boys and girls in our kids’ ministries can actually work against the truth we are trying to affirm. This became clear to me one Sunday morning when I was dropping two of our sons (aged 1 and 2) to crèche for their program. While my boys toddled over to the train set without hesitation, one of the girls grabbed a doll to push around in a pram. One of the leaders looked at me and exclaimed with a smile, “Doesn’t that just show how God made boys and girls!” After agreeing wholeheartedly at the time, I found myself questioning this logic later that day: if my boys had run over to grab a doll instead of a train (which they do occasionally), does that mean they aren’t reflecting God’s design for boys and girls? There is no doubt God has made men and women differently. Even so, we need to be careful when determining what exactly these differences are.
We need to remember that first and foremost, the God-given distinction between male and female is a biological one, not something based on our abilities or interests. Biblical manhood and womanhood is about receiving the gift of gender we have been given, and expressing that gift in the roles and responsibilities in church and family that the gift enables. We may see generalities in the interests and behaviours of the kids and youth of our church, but we mustn’t communicate that these generalities are intrinsically linked to our God-given gender.
Furthermore, we need to be mindful about our activities: if your youth group’s “girls night” is only ever a pamper party and chick flick combo, what does that communicate to a girl who has no interest in these at all? The message from her peers and the media will not be that she is simply a girl with different interests, but that she may, in fact, be a boy trapped in the wrong body.
We need to be careful about what we communicate—even unintentionally—about what it means to be made male and female. God has given each of the kids and youth in our care a unique set of qualities, gifts and interests—some of which may run against the gender norms of our moment in history.5
3. Partner with parents
Thirdly, in our kids and youth ministries, we need a strong culture of partnership between leaders and parents. In an age where we outsource almost everything to the “professionals”, it’s easy for a certain attitude to creep into our kids and youth ministries: we leave it to the experts when it comes to maths, music and swimming; why not do so when it comes to the even more important matters of faith and doctrine? Unfortunately, the better a youth or kids’ program is, the more likely this is to become a danger: Christian parents feel they can relax on the home front, because their kids’ spiritual development is in such capable hands. One solution is to make your programs so poor that parents realise they need to up their own game, but, unsurprisingly, this isn’t a strategy I’d recommend!
It may be helpful for your church to run a seminar for parents on the topic of gender, or give them helpful material to read with their kids.6 But in my opinion, the best long-term strategy is cultivating a strong culture of partnership between leaders and parents. How well do your leaders know the parents of the kids they lead? In my experience, it’s unusual for the relationship to be anything more than superficial, with communication usually being limited to informing parents about an upcoming event, or telling them when their child has misbehaved. A culture of genuine partnership between parents and leaders will pay dividends in every area of Christian growth—particularly when it comes to important and sensitive areas such as gender and sexuality. A leader who can both care for kids and work with their parents is a great gift to Christian parents.
Preparing them for battle
Ministry to kids and youth can be a difficult, tiring and often thankless job. But we have a wonderful calling—to help “tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord” (Ps 78:4). God’s gracious gift to us of our gendered bodies is certainly one of these deeds, and one that the young people of our churches need to be reminded of. As we encourage the next generation to live for Christ, we’re inviting them to swim against a strong cultural tide—especially in the areas of gender and sexuality. If we fail to help them in this area, the world is ready and willing to step in and teach them who they are. And if we don’t take a proactive approach, our churches won’t just be facing a transgender challenge, we will be facing a transgender crisis.
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1 While the “Safe Schools” program helpfully highlights some issues related to bullying, it promotes a radical transgender ideology completely at odds with the biblical vision of gender and sexuality.
2 Public sexuality education, You’re teaching our children what?: http://youreteachingourchildrenwhat.org/get-informed-2/sexuality-education/. Accessed 27 January 2020.
3 This is the language now used in official federal government documents: see, for example, “Australian government guidelines on the recognition of sex and gender”, November 2015, p. 3 and 9: https://www.ag.gov.au/sites/default/files/2020-03/AustralianGovernmentGuidelinesontheRecognitionofSexandGender.pdf. Accessed 27 January 2020.
4 Jesus also seems to suggest this in describing the New Creation as one where God’s people will “neither marry nor are given in marriage” (Matt 22:30).
5 For further reading on biblical manhood and womanhood, see God’s Good Design: What the Bible really says about men and women by Claire Smith.