True Love Waits returns to where it began 20 years ago
That month, 53 youth at Tulip Grove Baptist Church committed themselves to sexual abstinence before marriage.
In the 20 years since, millions of teenagers have followed suit, bringing abstinence to the national conversation and strengthening innumerable marriages before they ever began.
The grassroots movement calling teenagers to make commitments of purity celebrated its local-church anniversary with a True Love Waits-themed Disciple Now weekend Feb. 1-3 at the Nashville-area church where the first group of Tulip Grove students made a True Love Waits pledge.
The pledge states, "Believing that true love waits, I make a commitment to God, myself, my family, my friends, my future mate, and my future children to be sexually abstinent from this day until the day I enter a biblical marriage relationship."
Richard Ross, professor of student ministry at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, cofounded the movement with then fellow-LifeWay employee Jimmy Hester while also serving as youth minister at Tulip Grove. During the 20th anniversary weekend at Tulip Grove, Ross watched as a second generation pledged their purity before God.
"In several cases, I was speaking to teenagers who are the teenage children of those who made the first promises," Ross said, marveling at the wonder of leading those he knew as babies in the same commitment as their parents to wait for their future mate.
Susan (Fitzgerald) Bohannon was among that first group of students making True Love Waits commitments at Tulip Grove. Now married and a mother of three, Bohannon noted that the movement that began when she was a teenager has reached beyond her Tennessee church to impact the lives of people across the world as they make the transition from childhood to adulthood with their purity intact.
"True Love Waits was not just for one generation of teens but every generation of teens," Bohannon said. "The children who are being born now will be teens one day, and it will be for them. It is not a movement that is relevant to only our culture or our ways, but [it is] an international, intergenerational and timeless movement."
Since its formation, True Love Waits has spread to more than 100 countries -- something for which Ross said only God can receive the credit.
"For a Supreme Being, this was no problem at all," Ross said. "The fact that the movement continues in its 20th year is a clear indication that it is empowered by the Spirit of God and not by some human ingenuity."
Ross said it was the Lord's hand that allowed the movement to spread beyond the walls of Tulip Grove.
"We had virtually no funds for advertising to let people know about the movement," Ross said, recalling the fledgling days of True Love Waits. "So God simply harnessed the entire news industry at zero cost.
"As I explained True Love Waits to Katie Couric on the 'Today Show,' or as Oprah interviewed the teenagers on her show, that was more powerful than millions of dollars of advertising," Ross said. "Virtually every national news [outlet] or local news coverage carried stories about True Love Waits. You cannot explain that other than the Spirit of God."
Next year (2014) will mark True Love Waits' 20th year as an outreach of LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention. More than 100,000 teens' commitment cards were displayed at the 1994 SBC annual meeting in Orlando followed by a display of 200,000-plus commitments on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., in July of that year.
Though a tally has never been kept of those who have made the True Love Waits pledge, a U.S. government study conducted three years after True Love Waits began found that 3 million teenagers had made a promise of purity. As the movement grew and expanded into other denominations and countries, Ross believes the number of commitments made to date reaches into the multimillions.
In the 20 years of True Love Waits' existence, the United States has seen a decrease in teenage sexual activity. Before then, there had been 20 years of steady increases. In countries where the movement has spread, AIDS infection rates also have declined, while they continue to rise in other nations.
Part of the longevity of the movement can be traced to its leadership, which understands that effective teenage decisions must be heart-based and not fear-based.
"Teenagers live with a developmental characteristic called the myth of invulnerability," Ross said. "They really do not believe that bad things can happen to them, which means calling young people to abstinence and purity only to avoid negative consequences will never be effective.
"We have to give them much stronger and a much higher motivation," he said. "They really need to believe that they're committing the most intimate part of who they are for the glory of the King."
Ross explained that while True Love Waits' focus always has transcended preventing sexually transmitted diseases and unintended pregnancies, it stretches beyond simply being an obedient Christian. The focus, Ross explained, is the glorification and magnification of Christ.
"In the past, True Love Waits young people have often made promises thinking, 'Jesus wants me to do this because it will make my life better, so bad things will not happen to me, so I will not be a disobedient Christian,'" Ross said. "There is an element of truth in each of those statements, but I detect a shift [toward] 'Not that I do this so that my life will be better, but I choose purity for Christ's glory. I am doing this for His sake, not my sake. I am doing this because He deserves adoration, and the purity of my life is a way to show Him that adoration.'
"The focus comes off of 'me,' and the focus goes to 'Him.' There is no moralism," Ross said. "If I choose sexual purity for the glory of Christ, that is just pure worship."
Ross said he has seen that act of worship transfer into worship through marriage.
"In scores of weddings over the past 20 years, brides and grooms have made slight changes to the wedding ceremony in order to celebrate promises they made as teenagers," Ross said. "For example, we know of True Love Waits rings that have been melted down and have become part of wedding rings.
"We know of tattered True Love Waits cards that have been exchanged by brides and grooms after riding in a billfold or purse for many years. I have loved this for the joy it brought to the couple but also for the witness it is to the younger youth watching from the audience," he said. "They got to see the power of promises kept."
By the end of the Disciple Now weekend at Tulip Grove, 65 more teenagers made promises they pray to keep as well. Jeff Pratt, Tulip Grove's youth pastor, told the Baptist & Reflector newspaper that the commitment service on Sunday was a great day for the church.
"It was awesome to see 65 teenagers kneeling before the altar, making commitments to purity and being led by Richard Ross," Pratt said. "Richard has such a great legacy here at Tulip Grove and there could not have been a better person to lead us for our weekend.
Pratt added, "I am praying that this is the beginning of a new generation of students who will be committed to the lordship of Jesus Christ and will demonstrate that through their commitment to purity."
Parents, youth leaders and students who want to learn more about True Love Waits, such as how to hold a commitment service in a local church or how to sign a commitment card online, can visit truelovewaits.com.
Sharayah Colter is a writer for Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).