News Archives

'Created by God' program targets pre-teens — and parents

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
The Rev. James Ritchie
July 21, 2006

A UMNS Report
By Jan Snider*


The fifth- and sixth-graders filing into the church classroom have the enthusiasm of a slew of sloths.

After all, their parents have insisted that they spend the weekend learning about, of all things, sex. Well, not sex exactly, but pending puberty and the physical and emotional changes these pre-teens are beginning to experience.

As they roll their eyes and fluff the pillows they've brought from home, the kids settle on the floor to hear what the Rev. James Ritchie has to say. He is an ordained United Methodist minister and author of the "Created by God"sex education curriculum.
Designed under the auspices of the United Methodist Publishing House, the program is a comprehensive look at human sexuality coupled with a faith foundation.

Ritchie picks up his guitar and begins singing about "he-bodies" and "she-bodies" as he lyrically affirms that we are all "wonderful, marvelous, glorious" creations of God. After the song, he holds up the kids" self-portraits depicting their facial expressions when their parents told them they would spend the next three days involved in the course.

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
Rebecca Griffeth

"I have the kids draw a picture of what their face looked like when they first found out they were going to be taking part in a study," he says. "It is a great cathartic experience for the kids. They get all their feelings out about not wanting to be there, the basketball games, the soccer games they're missing, the birthday parties, whatever, or just their basic resistance."

But somewhere amid the songs, the artwork, and the get-to-know-you exercises, it finally occurs to his audience that this classroom isn't like anything in school. "Created by God" is an opportunity for the kids to open the door to communicating about their sexuality.

Dr. J in action

Ritchie travels the country acting as a facilitator at churches. Group leaders are recruited at the local level to help. While the study is available for a church to present on its own, Ritchie says congregations often opt to have him come in to discuss this sensitive material.

"Churches are more comfortable bringing in an outside resource person to do that,”"he says.

The kids call him "Dr. J," a nickname that began at his local church in Pennsylvania. "I have found that when I put on my 'Dr. J.' nametag, it’s like putting on your superhero suit," Ritchie explains. "I can answer any question the kids ask."

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by Rebecca Griffeth

Sixth-grader Ellen Jones works on a collage.

Belmont United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tenn., hosts the seminar biennially. "The greatest benefit of offering the 'Created by God' study is that it opens the door for communication between children and their parents," explains Rebecca Griffeth, director of children's ministries.

On the first evening of the study, Ritchie exposes the parents to some of the material their children will cover. He begins by handing out cards with anatomical terms. Within minutes, the grown-ups whisper among themselves and laugh nervously. The words are more often spoken by physicians than in passing conversation.

The vocabulary is necessary to connect the parents and kids to the conversation. "Parents and kids are saying words that have never come across their lips before," Ritchie says. "All of a sudden they have the communication tools, they’ve had this experience, they have a common vocabulary to work from."

Laughter is essential in situations like this, he says. "It's not because we’re trivializing the whole issue of God’s gift of sexuality, but it's because it's just sort of the way we're wired. It's one of those things that helps us get beyond it."

Asking questions

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by Rebecca Griffeth

These faces represent the reactions of the children after learning they would be attending a sex education seminar.

During the study, kids are given the freedom to ask any question they want by putting their queries on index cards and leaving them in Ritchie's "question box." There’s no limit to the number of cards they can insert.

Their curiosity ranges from, 'Why does it hurt to get kicked in the groin,' to more weighty inquiries like, 'How can I be popular and not have sex?'

Kids often ask for definitions to particular slang terms, and Ritchie has no qualms about using those and connecting additional street language to their queries. He then introduces the correct vocabulary and discusses the meanings and implications.

"They feel like they're safe and respected, and in that context they're willing to ask, and excited about asking, all of the questions they have. And they have a lot of them," he says. "There are times when kids ask questions for which there is no answer. And sometimes, the response is, 'This is one of those things you need to talk to your parents about.'"

The boys and girls take the course together. Boys ask questions about girls and vice versa.
Ritchie directs the kids to be sensitive to the other sex about their changing bodies and not to tease one another.

Intimacy and abstinence

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by Rebecca Griffeth

The Rev. James Ritchie sings one of his original songs.

Griffith says her youth were initially upset and nervous about being involved. "They were also extremely embarrassed that they were in mixed company to discuss the dreaded anatomy and puberty. By the second day, the kids were much more comfortable saying the terms and talking with the adult facilitators."

By the end of the study, Ritchie has stressed the importance of waiting to have sexual relations until marriage, the wisdom of dating in groups, the celebration of one's own body, its rate of development, and the need to continue dialogue with parents and trusted individuals.

Most importantly, he says, he emphasizes intimacy. Intimacy with God is primary. "I tell the kids I hope that some day you'll find that person with whom you have the deepest form of intimacy," Ritchie says. "It takes somebody who is really committed and earnest to develop an (intimate) relationship."

During his spiel, Ritchie pauses. The children get quiet. Then, with deliberate delivery, he introduces the term, "abstinence." He explains what it is and why it makes sense.

Parents whose children have gone through the study have reported to him that the "wait until marriage" message hit home. Ritchie recalls a father approaching him four years after his son went through the program. "He said, 'My son says that his whole value system around sexuality he traces back to his involvement in 'Created by God.'"

Growing up

By the middle of the second day, the kids are absorbing the information eagerly. All of a sudden, they are "in on" what all that sex stuff is about. They still act like kids, and the new discoveries don’t seem to have unhinged anyone.

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by Ronny Perry

Some of the children's questions are posed on index cards.

When parents are reintroduced to the seminar on the third day, they approach the subject matter more gingerly than their children. The tweens perform skits and then break off into groups consisting of them and other kids' parents. They participate in a communication-building exercise that invariably concludes with laughter and excitement.

Finally, the parents sit individually with their own children in the classroom. Ritchie calls out subjects for them to discuss. He might ask the parents and kids to briefly discuss guidelines and rules for using the Internet, or have them talk about the best way to let a boy or girl know that they are attracted to them.

Over the weekend, things have changed. "There's a lot of growing up on the part of everybody," Ritchie says.

The church's role

This method of addressing human sexuality is not embraced by many churches, but Griffeth is a staunch advocate of the study.

"What other place than church are we supposed to come together and discuss the difficult subjects in life?" she asks. "Church is one of the foundational places in which children learn about who they are and how they fit into the world. It is imperative that children learn that they are part of God’s creation, and as part of creation, they are created to be sexual beings."

Ritchie says his work allows him the opportunity to respond to a clear calling of the United Methodist Church. He explains that the church's Social Principles outline a commitment to children.

"We are responsible for being advocates, making sure that children have access — actually that all ages have access — to education related to human sexuality," he says. "And so, I think it really is responding to what's in the (Book of) Discipline, telling us that this is what we should be doing as United Methodists."

*Snider is a producer for United Methodist News Service in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Jan Snider, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5474 or newsdesk@umcom.org.



 
Related Articles
Local minister leads seminars about sex
United Methodist congregation offers chance to ‘be real’
Resources
Youth Ministries
Created By God Website