Tom Dumser is convinced of the need for sex education for today's youth, but he is also convinced that not just any education program will be effective in reducing the rise in teenage pregnancy or the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.
"I don't think a plan to provide condoms and birth control is the solution," said Dumser. "The only thing I know that will work is to teach abstinence."
As Marshall County schools prepare to launch a series of state-mandated classes on family life education for eighth-graders, Dumser is one of several people from the religious community to speak out about what they believe such a program should -- and should not -- include.
Each of the ministers interviewed for this article readily agreed that teenage pregnancies and the spread of STDs among young people is a problem that needs to be addressed on several levels.
"It should be in the schools," declared Dumser. "It should be a parent thing. It should be in the churches. All of us should be involved in teaching abstinence."
Justin Morton is youth minister at Church Street Church of Christ, which has one of the larger youth programs in the county. In his work he talks daily with teens at his church and elsewhere about sex and other issues facing young people.
"I think there is even more pressure on these kids now than there was when I was in school," Morton said. "It's coming from every angle."
While some teenagers are embarrassed to talk about such a personal issue, he said, others are increasingly more open.
"There are a lot of kids I work with that are in the school system that see STDs and pregnancy as a problem and a concern," said Morton. He added that it's not always about them personally, but they are very worried about friends who are trapped in that kind of situation.
"It really eats at them; it bothers them," he said, "because they understand that it's something that they shouldn't have done and now their life has been changed. At the same time I think there are more young people engaging in sex than what we'd like to think."
The statistics back him up. The 2007 Youth Risk Behavior Survey in Tennessee combines survey results from both urban and rural teenagers in this state. The numbers show that 36 percent of those 15 and younger and 59 percent of those 16 or 17 years old who were questioned admitted to having had sexual intercourse. By their senior year in high school the percentage climbed to 74 percent.
Shaun Grant, youth minister at First Assembly of God, lays much of the blame for the problem on the disintegration of the family.
"The majority of young ladies that end up in an early sexual relationship did not have a strong male role model," Grant said. "Our society is taking away the dignity and respect of the strong male, and men are partially to blame. Men have dropped the ball. We've stopped doing our job as the loving, caring, tender, gentle but firm father. When you see a father dissociated from his daughter, she is going to find love" to fill that gap.
In talking with young people, Morton said he approaches the problem from the perspective that each individual brings certain gifts to a relationship.
"In every relationship you give time, you give energy, you give a part of yourself," Morton said. "That's the one part, though, that you hang onto and save for when you're married. Most kids don't think about the future. We need to get caught up less in the moment, so to speak, and think how the present is going to affect the future. You can receive forgiveness, but there is always regret."
Grant echoed that thought.
"You can give them a condom," said Grant, "but you can't stop the emotional trauma. Condoms don't take care of the whole picture. We're treating the symptoms of the problem. If we would teach abstinence in a relevant way, it would work."
Grant argued that abstinence is not just for those kids who have never been sexually active. Abstinence, he said, carries a fundamental message that has the power to alter a teen's behavior. The message is simply this:
"You can stop, you can change, you can be healed," he said. "You are still valuable. Don't listen to them. Every human being is valuable. You can recover. You can succeed. At the church we have to teach God's love, perfect love, to teach kids they are valuable. They do have a heavenly father that loves them."
Grant said abstinence involves teaching teens not only that it's worth waiting, but how to wait, how to have healthy relationships.
"We should be teaching classes about respecting each other and ourselves," he said. "What would be wrong with bringing in parents? Say, 'Here are some unobtrusive ways to be involved in your kid's life.' Here are the warning signs, not just sexual signs, but about anger, depression and drunkenness. Bring in testimonials. 'I was in an abusive relationship. If he or she doesn't respect you, these are warning signs.'
"'Just don't do it' doesn't work. I hope you have compassionate doctors and pastors to teach the value of waiting to them. Someone has to reach these kids."