Historically, Christians have been known for the adherence to the Biblical principal of sexual purity, particularly the prohibition on sex before marriage. Evangelicals, in particular, seem to place a higher emphasis on those ancient Christian values.

But according to a new study, young evangelical singles are not living up to traditional teachings on sexual morality.

The study found that, “Most self-identified Evangelicals engage in premarital sex. And doing so has become increasingly morally acceptable among them, regardless of what their churches teach. We have seen a long trend toward greater liberalization of sexual ethics among Evangelical laypersons over the past several decades, underscored in recent years by several prominent Evangelical leaders breaking ranks to embrace progressive views on sex.”

“By the time they are young adults, roughly two-thirds of Evangelical young people have engaged in sexual intercourse, and about three-quarters have engaged in at least one of three forms of sexual activity.”

This is quite stunning considering the reputation that Evangelicals have for purity. Indeed, some Evangelicals have taken purity so seriously that they have a whole ‘culture’ named after them, the so-called “purity culture.” 

Following the news that purity-culture warrior Joshua Harris had left the faith, David French wrote the following regarding his time in youth ministry: “The youth ministry had gone all-in on purity culture. The previous youth pastor had even declared ‘no date ’98,’ placing a moratorium on every kid in the youth group: not even a single date for the entire year. When it came to relationships, it would be ‘courtship’ (tersely defined as parental-supervised visits and outings) or nothing.”

In other words, some young Evangelicals have placed such a high emphasis on purity that even dating is taboo. While those who hold to such an idea are certainly a minority, it does highlight the surprising results of this study.

Importantly, the research also found a correlation between church attendance and sexual activity among singles. “Looking at only Evangelicals ages 18 to 22, 51% of those who attended church weekly or more had engaged in sexual intercourse. Percentages for those who attended at least monthly and less than that were from 17% to 31% higher, and percentages for those who never attended church were even greater.”

Now, though young Evangelicals did not fare well according to this study, other denominations did poorly also. For mainline Protestants, 72% of females between 18 and 22 and 75% of males in that age range have engaged in sexual intercourse. For Catholics, the numbers fall slightly to 71% of females and 73% of males who have had sex. 

The study goes on to mention a potential reason for the high rates of premarital sex among Evangelicals. It seems only about half of young, single Evangelicals attend weekly church services. “Only 55% of young women and 48% of young men attend religious services at least weekly, while 25% and 31% (respectively) do so less than monthly or never.”

In addition, the amount of importance young singles place on their faith also may play a key role in determining their sexual behavior. “70% of young women and 61% of young men consider their religion to be ‘very important’ to their daily lives—majorities, but still not too impressive. This certainly helps explain why being Evangelical is, in itself, not as correlated with lower levels of premarital sexual activity as we might expect given the substance and importance of Evangelical teaching on this issue.” 

This study could be depressing for us who hope that young Evangelicals would be holding more closely to traditional Christian teaching on sexual morality. However, it is important to note that both the importance singles place upon their faith, and the frequency of church attendance play large roles in helping young Christians remain chaste before marriage.

Despite this trend, Evangelicals cannot give ground on the morality of premarital sex. To do so would be contrary to Scripture, and to 2,000 years of Christian teaching.

Yet, we must remember that no matter what our past looks like, Christ bring hope. In Romans 8:1, Paul writes, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Though not a license to sin, this verse reminds us that Christ can and does forgive, redeem, and restore us.

Focus on the Family has great resources for those seeking to understand traditional Christian teaching on sexual morality. This article answers some of the common misconceptions regarding premarital sex, and reminds Christians of the hope we all have in Christ, no matter what our past may look like.