By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
The throng of teens mills around "the loft," a youth-group meeting area sparsely furnished with plastic chairs. They're preparing for an icebreaker game, a prelude to their Wednesday-night Bible class. Some kids watch dismissively from the sidelines as their classmates grip lollipop sticks between their teeth and race to pass a LifeSaver from person to person--no hands allowed. As they slide the tiny candy onto the next person's stick, the kids giggle as bodies and lips brush.
The teens gathered for the midweek service at First Baptist Church of Richardson are a microcosmic high school, right off the set of any teen drama on the WB: girls with straight teeth, glossy hair and very short shorts; boys in starched Polo shirts; one rebel in black with bright pink hair. Like most high school students, they flirt, leaning on each other, limbs intertwined, whispering and trading back rubs.
But many of these teenagers are distinctive in one unseen way: They are card-carrying pledgers of True Love Waits, a Christian-based abstinence program. To join, teens must sign a card reading, "Believing that true love waits, I make a commitment to God, myself, my family, my friends, my future mate and my future children to a lifetime of purity including sexual abstinence from this day until the day I enter a biblical marriage relationship."
In fact, these kids are not that unusual. According to True Love Waits, some 1.2 million teens have made the pledge since the group's beginning in 1993. Programs like TLW, abstinence advocates say, are at least partly responsible for a drop in the number of high school students having intercourse: down to 46 percent in 2001 from 54 percent a decade earlier, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Dr. Richard Ross, the professor of student ministry at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, spearheaded the True Love Waits program a decade ago and is now a TLW spokesman. He dislikes the term "founder," saying that God is the founder and the True Love Waits team merely God's instrument "for protecting the hearts of kids." He says True Love Waits is still a grassroots movement, although more than 90 Christian and secular organizations are listed as cooperating ministries, including Protestant and Catholic groups.
Many students commit to True Love Waits while they're in middle school or early high school and are urged to recommit every year. Ross says most of them do so because TLW articulates a goal to which many teens desperately aspire. "What many of them say on this issue is, 'I love God so much, I am choosing to obey what he has asked of me.'"
The Dallas Observer interviewed some 15 TLW teens and young adults, and indeed most of them speak highly of the program. Some, like Kenneth Sewell, have even married other TLW members. "I don't think kids even understand, until they get into a marriage relationship, the kind of trust that's needed in a marriage," Sewell says. "And when that is hanging over your head, you know, those past girlfriends, those past boyfriends, that really makes trusting in a marriage difficult. I guess I didn't understand the real importance of True Love Waits until I got married."
Others with whom the Observer spoke say what sounded like a simple commitment in their younger years became harder to stick with once they hit high school or college. Matthew (who asked that his last name not be used) signed the card as a junior in high school, before he'd had any sexual experiences.
"I got to college, and I realized there's a lot more out in the world than Killeen, Texas," Matthew says. "I started to realize that this whole 'waiting till marriage' thing wasn't necessarily the be-all, end-all of the way relationships should go." The woman to whom he lost his virginity is now his wife. "In a sense, you could say I fulfilled the promise of the pledge," he says. "Maybe not the wording, but certainly the spirit of it, since she's the only woman I ever had sex with and she's now my wife."
Jill--who, like many of those interviewed, asked that her real name not be used--is a 26-year-old mother who was asked to sign the True Love Waits pledge in her teens (she declined). She agrees that the organizers of such programs gloss over the complications that usually arise when a few hundred thousand years of genetically encoded urges bloom as the kids get older. "I think it's a great idea, and if humans are capable of doing that, I don't believe the program would be there," she says. "I think that kids are going to be kids, and the ones that are, are gonna, and the ones that aren't, aren't gonna...All of those people I know that signed it, maybe two of them weren't already sexually active."
TLW's Ross says that detractors and "adults who are just consumed with sexual expression" don't dissuade teenagers from abstinence--quite the opposite, he says. In the current "tsunami wave of sexuality" in America, he says, True Love Waits becomes a countercultural movement that naturally attracts young followers.