Ryan Rouse, right, speaks to youth. Rouse uses the True Love Waits program at Kathleen Baptist Church in Lakeland, Fla., where he is pastor to students.
Ryan Rouse, right, speaks to youth. Rouse uses the True Love Waits program at Kathleen Baptist Church in Lakeland, Fla., where he is pastor to students.

True Love Waits turns 20

Founders, participants say the faith-based abstinence program helps youth who wish to remain "pure" in a sexualized society.

By Jeff Brumley

Ryan Rouse, 33, credits a little piece of paper kept in his Bible for helping him remain a virgin until his wedding day in 2002.

“There were definitely times when temptation would start to factor in – girls and dates,” the Florida Baptist and former multi-sport athlete recalled. “I would keep that Bible in my car – to me that pledge card was a huge symbol.”

That commitment card came courtesy of True Love Waits, the LifeWay Christian Resources abstinence program first unveiled in Nashville in February 1993. It has since been adopted by churches and ministries of numerous denominations across the nation and globe.

The scope of acceptance surprised founders Jimmy Hester and Richard Ross.

“Our hope was to impact a few Southern Baptist churches,” Hester told ABPnews. “It got a whole lot bigger than we ever hoped it would.”

Looking back, Ross said that’s likely because many teens yearned for an alternative to the sexualized culture then addressed mainly by the safe-sex movement.

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Condom demonstrations focusing on disease and pregnancy prevention alienated those young people who wanted and needed more support in remaining abstinent, said Ross, now a professor of student ministry and religious education at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

“That left young people thinking everyone around them must be sexually involved,” he said. “That was tremendously discouraging because they were feeling ‘I’m the strange one. I am the misfit.’”

That was the message Ross said he and Hester were hearing as they worked together on a Christian sex-education curriculum for LifeWay. Discussions about that concern led them eventually to draft a plan for what became True Love Waits, with the first group of 53 pledges being signed at Tulip Grove Baptist Church in Nashville, Tenn.

The way people embraced and took ownership of the program showed their hunger to make a promise of purity to Christ, and for a fellowship of like-minded adults and teens to provide the support needed to make it work, Ross said.

“I think teenagers who have identified themselves with a world-wide movement do experience a positive encouragement from peers to keep the promise,” Ross said.

Critics and skeptics have suggested peer pressure accounts for much of the program’s success, and that it alienates young people who do have sex before marriage.

Hester said it’s true that some teens may have signed commitment cards to go along with youth groups. “If you talk to students long enough, you hear that their parents were looking, or ‘I was doing it because my buddy did it,’” Hester said.

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But there are many thousands more who say even those pressures were God-sent, or that True Love Waits gave them the social cover they needed to say no when it really mattered, Hester said.

“And yes there are those who don’t live it out,” he said. For those, the program has gone out of its way to teach that slips are opportunities to seek repentance and move on.  “We produced ‘When True Love Doesn’t Wait.”

Hester also acknowledged that organizers do not have a count of commitment cards signed or statistics regarding how many teens make it to their wedding day as virgins.

It’s impossible to count because churches and other groups don’t always report when they are using True Love Waits or how many people have signed the cards. There has been no polling or other research to provide success rates.

“I would be interested to know that,” said Hester, who is now retired from LifeWay.

But what he does know is that he, Ross and others hear first- and second-hand stories of how the ministry has helped people around the world. Even adults are signing the cards and adopting a lifestyle of purity, Hester said.

“The only way I know it’s been successful is because of the continuing use of it and the testimonies of those saying ‘man, that blessed my life.’”

Rouse was 16 when he signed his commitment card at church in Spring Hill, Fla. It helped him not only with chastity but with the clarity he needed to hear his call into youth ministry.

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And now Rouse uses the True Love Waits program with the youth he mentors as pastor to students at Kathleen Baptist Church in Lakeland, Fla. His own success with True Love Waits gives him credibility in pitching to today’s youth, he said.

“It helps me prove you can be pure.”