The United States has one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in the western world. Due to conflicting religious and political dialogues, American society as a whole cannot determine any particular method of prevention or response to teenage pregnancy that is both moral and effective. However, there are a variety of organizations that attempt to aid young mothers in pregnancy and motherhood. One of these is YoungLives, a non-profit whose mission statement is to “reach teen moms by entering their world, modeling the unconditional love of Christ, and encouraging them to become the women and mothers God created them to be.” The issues of abstinence-only education, pro-life politics, and teenage pregnancy create conflict within Christianity, but YoungLives responds by reflecting the unconditional love of Jesus Christ.
Contextualizing the topic of teenage pregnancy within Christianity requires knowledge of abstinence-only education and the abortion debate. One cannot comprehend the marginalization a teen mom feels without understanding the emphasis the church places on abstinence from sex outside of marriage. Yet teaching abstinence without contraception is rarely effective.
Pro-life and pro-choice attitudes tend to go hand-in-hand with other cultural variables including feminism, belief that life begins at conception, social traditionalism, and church influence. Christians, specifically Catholics and conservative Protestants, are “most influenced by church leaders on the abortion issue, and what they hear at church would lead them to take a negative view of legalized abortion.” Although the Bible never mentions abortion specifically, many pro-life activists cite the sixth commandment, “You shall not murder” (Ex. 20.13). The debate about when life begins ranges from conception to birth. The Bible supports the argument that life begins before birth: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you” (Jer. 1.5). Christians with strong pro-life values must learn to uphold their beliefs while whole-heartedly serving their neighbors in a nation where 3 out of 10 women in the U.S. have an abortion by the time they are 45 years old. This might seem impossible, but YoungLives does so with grace and in the image of Christ. The fact that the Church encourages abstinence and discourages abortion does not eliminate the necessity of ministry to teen moms–it augments it.
YoungLives does not publicize stances on abstinence or abortion, although they do support considering these matters with a Biblical worldview. Instead of passing judgement, the organization responds to teen moms with unconditional love and grace. This is demonstrated through a variety of services. “Club,” a youth-group style get-together, offers fun, food, childcare, and Christian outreach; mentors and leaders build relationships with girls and serve as a friend and confidant during difficult times and a counselor in the face of tough decisions; camp is a week during the summer at one of seven camps in the U.S. for girls to spend a week bonding with their mentors, hearing the gospel, and learning practical life skills from parenting to finance. YoungLives provides a uniquely Christian response to the prevalent issue of teenage pregnancy because it does not, as the church too often does, cast the first stone. Instead, YoungLives obeys the great commandment of loving and serving one’s neighbor by providing specialized ministry to the teens who need it most. Said YoungLives participant NoDasia Fisher:
After I got pregnant with my son I felt so unloved and so wrong. I kept thinking to myself that God couldn’t possibly love me. Through camp I learned that God’s love overflows. Being abused, raped and neglected left a lot of hate in my heart until [a YoungLives leader] gave a talk at club one evening and stated while Jesus had nails shoved through his hands and feet he was still able to say, “Dear God forgive them, for they know not what they do.” That touched me, because Jesus was in all that pain and still had such a merciful heart.
Fisher’s story, as well as that of many girls aided by YoungLives, is reminiscent of the Good Samaritan. Replace the man beaten, stripped, and robbed with a pregnant fourteen-year-old girl, and perhaps it is easier to understand why pious Christians turn away from someone in need of help. Lucy Hayward Droege, director of YoungLives in Plainfield, NJ, said to a group of teen moms, “We don’t put these events together for you because we feel sorry for you. We don’t. We just plain love you.” YoungLives does not ask why a girl is pregnant or what sins brought her to her current state. They provide Christian ministry and life skills to teen moms, without the atmosphere of judgement too often associated with the Church.
Given the complications and controversy surrounding teenage pregnancy, there are a variety of organizations whose goal is to prevent and deal with pregnant teens ethically and effectively. One of the most well-known in American culture is Planned Parenthood. They are best known for abortion, although according to their website, it consists of only 3% of their health services, with others including pregnancy prevention, testing for pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections, and educational programs. Planned Parenthood does not endorse abortion, nor do they claim it to be ethical or moral, merely that it is “safe and legal” It is up to the client to decide what she wants. YoungLives and Planned Parenthood are different in almost every aspect, but specifically in that Planned Parenthood aims to provide medical service where YoungLives strives to foster relationships and build character. An organization more similar to YoungLives is the Pennsylvania Alternative to Abortion Services Program, which provides “comprehensive, life-affirming alternatives to abortion to pregnant women and assistance to parents with infants.” Their services include pregnancy test kits, counseling, education, and temporary shelter. Although PAASP is closer to YoungLives than Planned Parenthood based on their shared goal of guiding teenage girls in their choice to keep their babies, PAASP’s services are immediate responses to a girl’s pregnancy, whereas YoungLives emphasizes sustaining holistic health and happiness in Christ. What separates YoungLives from other organizations for pregnant teens is the relationships that are fostered. Each girl spends one-on-time with her mentor, who helps her in every stage of parenting, from deciding between abortion, parenthood, and open/closed adoption to juggling work, school, and childcare. Teen moms also have the opportunity to enjoy fellowship with one another and hear the Gospel, many for the first time, at YoungLives clubs and camp. Based on the various services provided by different organizations, YoungLives does not fulfill all the necessities of a teen mom. She may need to begin by visiting a pregnancy center such as PAASP in order to take a pregnancy test and receive immediate counseling or temporary shelter. However, YoungLives is unique in providing a holistic approach to sustaining faith and fostering discipleship in the face of unplanned pregnancy.
YoungLives demonstrates Christianity at its most gracious by obeying Jesus’s commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself. Jesus did not walk among kings and Pharisees, but sinners and prostitutes. In the same way, He calls his followers to reflect His image by extending His grace to their neighbor. If Christianity condemns both sex outside of marriage and aborting unwanted pregnancies, a pregnant teenage girl is likely to turn for help anywhere but the Church. There are many demographics of people who feel isolated or judged by the church. In serving others, it is vital to remember that Jesus called His followers to “love thy neighbor” (Luke 10.27), and Christian love is, as is Christ’s love, unconditional. This means Christians must love their female neighbor, their gay neighbor, their transgender neighbor, their foreign neighbor, their neighbor in prison, their Muslim neighbor, their Buddhist neighbor, and their atheist neighbor. Reconciliation does not mean sacrificing one’s orthodoxy – it means looking past a neighbor’s situation in order to actively serve him or her. Sacred neighborhood transcends the bounds of worldly circumstances. Everyone, even teenage mothers, have a role to play in God’s plan. YoungLives steps up to the call to “go and do likewise” (Luke 10.37) by serving their neighbor regardless of circumstance.