Joshua Harris has taken a rare step for a pastor and author: he’s admitted he was wrong. And he’s trying to make amends.
Harris is the author of the 1997 bestseller “I Kissed Dating Goodbye.” The book encouraged young people to eschew casual dating and enter into formal courtship arrangements, supervised by their parents, with an eye toward marriage. It discouraged all forms of pre-marital contact (even kissing and hand holding were verboten among Harris’ most devoted disciples).
The book sold more than two million copies. It became a “bible” of sorts for the teen purity movement.
In 2018 Mr. Harris renounced the book (which he wrote as a 21-year-old single man), and his publisher no longer sells it. Harris stars in a new documentary exploring the damage IKDG caused.
Why did this book become such a runaway bestseller? Why did hundreds of thousands of Christian moms buy it for their kids? And why was there a mini sex panic in the church in the 1990s, just as Harris’ book hit the shelves?
The origins of the 1990s sex panic in the church
Travel back with me to the 1970s. The first wave of the sexual revolution was reaching its crest. Sex was everywhere – much more so than today. Almost every pop song on the radio was about sex. Magazines featured sex on their covers. Even family oriented movies were full of gratuitous sexual content.
Then, in 1982 a mysterious new disease began killing actors, musicians, athletes and politicians. AIDS made a generation of young adults much more cautious about casual sex.
So, by the 1990s churches were filling up with young adults who still bore the scars of their pre-Christian promiscuity. Naturally, they wanted to spare their children the pain they themselves had experienced.
When Harris’ perfectly timed book hit the shelves, hundreds of thousands of anxious moms bought it and gave it to their kids. They pressured youth leaders to focus more on chastity. Dads bought their daughters purity rings. The goal was well-meaning, but the method was flawed.
By putting such a strict emphasis on virginity, Harris realizes he was making the same error as the culture: elevating sex above everything else. For 30 years popular culture had worshipped sexual license; in response, Christians overreacted by worshipping virginity. By adding to the Bible’s sexual ethic (no kissing, for example) Harris admits that he fell into the same trap as the Pharisees.
How IKDG suppressed the church marriage/birth rate
One other point that’s barely addressed in the film, but I believe is vitally important: by pathologizing casual dating, the purity movement artificially suppressed the church marriage rate, birth rate, and ultimately, attendance rate.
In the film, Harris interviews a man who claims the marriage rate in the church has plummeted over the past two decades – and he points to Harris’ book as a prime reason.
I think he’s right.
During the 20thcentury, couples met and married in church with great frequency (My wife and I are among them). Churches were even referred to as “meet markets” for young Christians.
But today the church dating scene is a mess. Christians rarely go out on dates.Less dating has led to fewer marriages, which in turn has led to fewer children being raised in church.
So here’s the irony of IKDG:
- panicked mothers bought it for their kids
- youth pastors discouraged dating (with the approval of moms)
- people who never date never marry
- these mothers now have no grandkids. Whoops.
I’m going to make a bold claim: I Kissed Dating Goodbye (and the purity movement it encouraged) may have significantly depressed the birth rate in the church and may be partly responsible for the decline in church attendance we see today.
The vast majority of today’s churchgoers were themselves raised in church. For centuries Christians have met, fallen in love, married and raised their kids in church. The purity movement interrupted this flow.
Kudos to Joshua Harris for admitting he was wrong, and for being willing to work on a film that exposes his young folly. Such humility is refreshing.
Chastity is a good thing. Discouraging young Christians from dating is not.