Bathsheba at the Beach

JEKYLL ISLAND, Ga. -- Every summer, Presbyterians, Methodists, Episcopalians and others flirt with making historic changes in their doctrines on sex.

But the debates that matter the most aren't held in convention halls and ecclesiastical offices. They take place when youth groups pack into church vans and travel to conferences and camps that function as unofficial sex education programs for thousands.

Each summer, counselor Jeannie Gregory faces rooms full of young women here at the Fun In The Son conference, helping them wrestle with sin, salvation, self esteem and sex. This week, she began her seminar with a parable she could have called "Bathsheba at the Beach."

"They always ask the same kinds of questions," she said. "They want to know what I think about America, these days, and why things seem so messed up. ... Then the questions get pretty practical -- like how much, or how little, should they wear at the beach."

So Gregory read a blunt story about King David. The Bible reports that, during an evening walk on his roof, he saw "a woman bathing; and the woman was very beautiful. And David sent and inquired about the woman. And one said, `Is this not Bathsheba ... the wife of Uriah the Hittite?' So David sent messengers and took her ... and he lay with her."

This story of adultery includes a pregnancy and two deaths. It's easy blame David, but Bathsheba made some bad choices, too.

"Many of these girls don't like to hear about that," said Gregory. "They don't like to hear that there are all kinds of choices that can lead to being pregnant and abandoned. ... Too often, we don't want to be responsible for our choices. Nothing is ever our fault."

When told that it might be wise to be more modest, the girls laugh. That's not what they see in thousands of media images or hear at school or the mall.

"All I can say is, `OK, so you put on that bikini and you bounce out there, today," said Gregory. "Now, what do YOU think that says and is that what the GUYS think it's says? ... They know where they're leading the guys. The question is, do the girls really want to go there?"

People still ask these kinds of questions at Fun In The Son, one of a cluster of national conferences run by Presbyterians For Renewal. More than 800 attended this week's sessions, which have been held on this island for two decades. The week includes Bible studies, prayer time and sessions on subjects such as dating, college and coping with parents. Worship services mix rock music, low-key preaching and multi-media humor based on TV and movies -- entertaining evangelism. The leaders know these teens were baptized in church as infants, but have been immersed in media ever since. And then there's the free time.

"Fun In The Son raises some good issues about faith and Jesus Christ, but mainly it's a four-day hormone rush," said one girl, watching the parade to the beach. A bronzed guy loitering in the deep end added: "What's this all about? It's about looking pretty at the pool. Some people really get into that."

Youth pastors know this tension exists. They also know church kids have been touched by divorce, the hidden sins of parents and head-spinning church debates about sexual morality. Many of those who tote study Bibles at Fun In The Son also carry secret burdens. Polls in many denominations have yielded sobering results about premarital sex, abuse, abortion and broken hearts.

Yet most churches seek safety in silence.

"We're so concerned that people may think we're fanatics or something," said Gregory. "Many pastors and youth pastors are scared to talk about these kinds of issues because they're afraid people may leave the church. .... Well, we may have to cause some guilt. We may have to offend some parents. But how many will we save? How many kids will we prevent from making terrible mistakes? How much pain will we prevent? How many marriages will we save?"