Churches pushing contraceptives on their singles? Yikes! I picture condom vending machines in church restrooms, or a young adult rite of passage in which purity rings are exchanged for NuvaRings. I was part of the Q panel on reducing abortion; folks working in higher education (that would be me), research, crisis pregnancy support, and adoption offered many ideas for reducing abortion. One was that churches take a both-and approach to abortion reduction: both uphold premarital chastity as the biblical ideal, and encourage and educate unmarried singles about the effective use of contraception. Encouraging, not pushing. Educating, not affirming.
This may sound like a compromise (it certainly does to me), but consider where years of abstinence absolutism have left us. The National Association of Evangelical's Generation Forum presents data that says 4 out of 5 Christians aged 18-29 have had sex, many within the last year. About 1 in 3 unplanned pregnancies among evangelicals end in abortion. People aren't "just not doing it," and the consequences are severe. There are many ways to reduce abortion; a few obvious ones come to mind immediately: promote abstinence and earlier marriage, and cultivate church and para-church supports for crisis pregnancies. Encouraging contraception is hardly the first, best, or only way to respond to premarital sex that may lead to unintended pregnancy, but it is a valuable tool in the abortion reduction toolkit.
Now, if I were an unmarried Christian considering sex in my intimate relationship, church would not be my go-to place for contraceptive consultation. Information is readily available online, from peers, a doctor, or a local drugstore. By presenting young adults with choices that shut down conversation and relationship (either do it God's way, or your own way that is so depraved we can't bear to discuss it respectfully or extensively), churches don't prevent people from learning about or accessing contraception, nor from having premarital sex. Instead, we deny young adults conversation and prayer about the moral, spiritual, and practical dynamics of their intimate relationships, support that is not nearly as easily available as contraception. If church support is available only when abstinence is practiced or professed, many will either go elsewhere or feign chastity in order to avoid shame or even expulsion. When unintended pregnancy happens, church may then be far down the list of potentially helpful places to go, and deservedly so.
Advocating contraception for unmarried churchgoers certainly is a compromise, but consider what that really means. Com- means with, and promise means to agree, or to make a pact. To compromise is to work toward agreement or commitment with another. Like compassion, community, or companion, com- is about being in relationship with others. Unipromise isn't even a word; without compromise, you're just alone, speaking your ideal into thin air. It's fine to have ideals, and to proclaim them with perfect phrases in perfectly planned church services. Contemplating perfection is a holy exercise that lifts our aspirations. Lived experience, however, is far from perfect; when I consider ideal parenting, ideal marriage, or ideal teaching, my life pales in comparison. I count on my gracious children, husband, and students to make daily compromises—as I do for them—as part of healthy relationships in the real world.
Early in our marriage, when James and I worked in urban ministry together, I wondered whether our efforts made any difference at all. Even after years in our church and ministry, girls still got pregnant, and boys still went to jail. "True," James said, "but maybe they'll be better teen moms than they otherwise would have been." My either-or mentality cast chastity as the ideal, and premarital sex as failure. James reminded me that compromise can be sacred, even purifying us of our illusions of controlling others through well-intended religious influence.