Which do you prefer? Pleasure or pain? It's not such a stupid question... because when we're looking at the twin issues of passion and sexuality, the issue of pleasure or pain lies behind the whole debate. You see, to my secular colleagues I'm one of those repressed Christians who goes to the pain of denying himself wild, liberated sexual expression today because I'm saving myself for some dull, and probably sexually hung-up marriage down the line. A relationship which, incidentally, I seem to have no prospect of entering in the medium, let alone the short term. (First I've got to find a girlfriend... )
Now, of course, I respond to my sexually liberated friends that they are the ones who miss out on the pleasure stuff in the long run. As they ricochet through their series of pleasure first relationships, they become caught up in a series of sexual encounters in which the pain increasingly outweighs the pleasure. Not much fun, for man or woman, when the person you gave yourself to last night doesn't want to see you today. Not much fun for parents - or children - when our `modern families' keep dissolving. The `Cosmopolitan' Gospel of Pleasure is read by a generation which seeks happiness but finds it more of a mirage than the proverbial oasis in the desert.
There's truth in both perspectives. But both are based on the false notion that what we really, really want is pleasure. Not true. What our souls crave for is secure relationships. Being loved for who we are, not what we can do. Unconditionally. For it's when our friends and family, colleagues and lovers, demonstrate that they will stick by us through good and bad times, that we gain the confidence to value ourselves. And it's in such committed long-term relationships that we find ourselves surprised by joy - a quality much more enduring than mere pleasure. Yet here's the real problem. Not the pleasure or pain debate. No, our dilemma at the end of this century is that commitments are increasingly hard to find. Increasingly elusive for both Christians as well as non-Christians.
The whole of society is wedded to freedom philosophy. `Don't tie me down' is the attitude behind everything from our romantic relationships to our work contracts. Commitment is fine... so long as it's convenient. Yet our commitments are the very things that shape us. The decisions we take and stick to are the ones that become the girders in our lives. They don't only give us structure, but also strength. For every time we exercise our self-discipline muscles they become stronger - and our character, that is our capacity to achieve in life, grows. (You and I both know that when we look back at our lives, anything that we have achieved so far was done through discipline.)
But isn't it so tiring developing our self-discipline muscles when the rest of our society is getting flabby on self-indulgence! There's something very lonely about working out on the treadmill in the gym when all my mates are having fun in the bar next door. Intellectually we are salmon swimming up stream. Yet swim up stream we must. For unless we both live the life and are willing to suffer ridicule for telling liberal Britain that it has got it wrong on sex and wrong on relationships, there is no chance that our nation will change course. Otherwise, the only reference points our friends have are those who are living life by the same values as them.
Like passengers on the ocean liner SS Great Britain they look around at the others on the pleasure cruise and think nothing is moving. Yet only you and I can tell them that there is an iceberg straight ahead. An iceberg of wrecked relationships, divorce, unhappy adults and insecure children. So with increasing urgency we must warn them. But just as on the Titanic, the passengers on SS Great Britain don't want to listen to anything that disrupts the party music. So how do we communicate? Well, our holy lives talk. And so does an attitude of compassion.
By compassion I don't mean a shallow touchy-feely empathy. No, compassion is -`with' passion - paying the price of understanding the joys as well as the pain of our secular friends. It is the passion of the Christmas time message of `Emmanuel - God with us', who gets involved with the messiness of our fallen world and is swift to bless and slow to chide. Yet we are so swift to judge when it comes to sexual immorality. John 15v1 tells how tax collectors and sinners were all gathering round Jesus to hear him. Do sinners gather around us? If a colleague's cohabiting relationship breaks up, is my attitude `they're reaping what they sowed' or weeping with them?
Casual sex and semi-committed relationships are pale imitations of the glory of marriage. Yet for so many in our insecure nation, it is the only intimacy they know. It takes courage to leave behind that relationship with no certainty of anything better to replace it. If they are not coming to us and our churches, it is because our compassion is not as attractive as their fleeting moments of passion.
Nor is our dating scene. Because, as I wrote in my book No Sex Please, We're Single, non-Christians coming to church often find they're jumping out of the frying pan into the freezer. They may have found worldly relationships too hot to handle and just been burnt by someone. But do they see in the church a happy, smoothly functioning romantic process? Or do they find people struggling in their inability to find a marriage partner - depressed in their loneliness, frustrated in their longing for emotional companionship, physical intimacy and children?
I am convinced that so much of the gradual decline in church attendance over the past 30 years has been down to single Christians despairing about their marriage prospects. Both new Christians and long-time believers ask themselves, `If I stay here what chance is there of my finding a marriage partner?'
So what can we do? It is not just a question of how we get more `same faith' marriages. It is about seeking to make it more fun to be a believer than a non-believer - for at the moment the pagans seem to have all the best parties! Still more fundamentally, it's about how we build up community for single people. Gone, at least for the moment, is the culture of early marriage.
So how can we help create more intimacy in the lives of single believers who have left their parents' home but may have many years of singleness ahead? Some of the answers lie in the local church becoming more single-friendly. A church where sermons show at least as much understanding of singleness as they do of marriage. And one where singles are given real responsibility and respect within their congregation.
If we accept that society has been radically transformed over the past generation - has become so much more atomised - so we need to accept the need to explore radical new solutions. For my part, I've set up an events organisation - holding glamorous balls and parties for Christians in their twenties and thirties. Called SimpleIdeas, our last event was a Dance with the Dinosaurs at London's Natural History Museum in October. We had 1100 people dancing the night away from scores of churches in south-east England, at an event sponsored by the Christian holiday company MasterSun, TearFund and Kingsway publications.
Now we're planning a series of events for 1999 in London, Birmingham and Manchester. The emphasis is on making events both glamorous and affordable with tickets under 'A325. With lots of prayer and help this organisation may develop into something really useful. Certainly the need is huge. Would you be interested in attending an event or helping organise one? SimpleIdeas: 0171 352 2221 or e-mail: email@example.com
Ian Gregory studied politics, philosophy, and economics at
Oxford University. He is a BBC TV news producer. His book,
No Sex Please, We're Single is published by Kingsway publications, £4.99,