In July 1994, more than 210,000 cards from teenagers pledging to remain sexually pure were displayed on the National Mall in Washington, DC.
Twenty years later, the iconic True Love Waits program is being relaunched through a new resource called The True Love Project, a video-driven Bible study for students written by author and speaker Clayton King.
"Over that twenty years, one of the unintended consequences of the True Love Waits movement was that it became more about the commitment card and virginity than about Jesus and His Gospel," said Ben Trueblood, director of student ministry at LifeWay Christian Resources, the organization behind TLW.
While Trueblood agrees sexual purity is an important issue for students today, that alone cannot drive the conversation. He maintains the core message of True Love Waits has always been that "purity is possible because of Jesus and is for Jesus."
The True Love Project, scheduled to be released December 15, brings that to the forefront. "Jesus is the destination and our worship of Him needs to take center stage."
King set out to capture that in the curriculum. "I am not attempting to say anything new," he explained, "but rather to draw attention to the ancient and unchangeable truth of God's Word; that Jesus is Lord of all of creation, including our bodies and our sexuality."
The refocused message has been inherent in True Love Waits from the beginning, according to Richard Ross, one of the cofounders of the movement two decades ago.
Ross, now a professor of student ministry at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Jimmy Hester, a previous director of student ministry publishing at LifeWay, discussed the issue of sexual purity and what could be done about it.
"All we had were napkins at the coffee shop, so we wrote on those," Ross said.
At the time, he was a youth ministry consultant for LifeWay and a student minister at a local church. The first fifty-three students to participate were from his church.
In their commitment, these early adoptees were "affirming their love for Jesus through their commitment to purity," said Ross.
Since that day, an estimated three million students have made that pledge around the world. In Uganda, True Love Waits was used to drop the prevalence rates of HIV/AIDS, which was above 30 percent in some parts of the country, to below 7 percent.
According to Ross, the percentage of teenagers who are sexually involved continued to climb from 1973 until 1993. Since then, however, it plateaued and has been in decline each year.
Ross attributes that in part to True Love Waits and a change in the attitude of Christian leaders. "The Surgeon General of the United States said, 'American teenagers are incapable of controlling themselves,'" Ross said. "Teenagers felt that adults had given up on them."
He said True Love Waits affirmed the fact that through God's strength, students could remain sexually pure.
For King, that legacy is something on which he wants to build. "I was part of the movement when it began," he said. "I spoke at one of the very first True Love Waits DiscipleNow weekends.
"I signed the card, along with hundreds of thousands of students, and I still meet people today who give testimony to a season in their adolescence when they began to discover God's design for love and intimacy through True Love Waits."
Trueblood recognizes "God has used True Love Waits in an incredible way," but he believes "God has opened the door for the True Love Waits message to be restated, to once again point people to the Gospel through this very important issue in our culture."
In the midst of a culture that is sex-saturated, Trueblood said today's generation needs a new message. "They need to see how the Gospel impacts their purity and how their choices in purity are about more than their sexual decisions," he said.
Trueblood would even frame the issue within the Great Commission. "When a student chooses, in Jesus' power, to live out God's plan of purity, they will instantly stand out in the culture and be given a platform for the Gospel," he said.
It can be understood within the concept of worship, according to Ross. "This is about a lifetime of purity," he said. "This is not a temporary thing, hoping a husband or wife will show up. Rather, this is something that I can do for my King."
When students make this commitment to purity, they are "placing before God their most intimate gift," said Ross. "They are saying, 'My purity is my love gift to You.'"
The new eight-session curriculum authored by King, a youth evangelist and teaching pastor at NewSpring Church in Anderson, South Carolina, captures the Gospel-centric focus that Ross implanted in the original and that Trueblood wanted to bring back to the forefront.
According to Trueblood, King's heart for students and desire to see them know Christ made him the right fit for The True Love Project.
"Clayton has long been committed to teaching students the importance of purity and that Christ is at the center of it," said Trueblood. "He is also someone who has followed God's plan for purity in his own life. By God's grace, he was able to live out what we are challenging students to do through the True Love Project."
By beginning lessons in the broader paradigm of the story of the Bible—Creation, Fall, Redemption, Restoration—Trueblood believes King's lessons will give them the proper perspective for later lessons dealing specifically with sex and purity.
When going through the new True Love Project, Trueblood said churches and student ministers can expect their students "will be challenged to live a pure life in Jesus' power."
King said that means more than simply not having sex. "Repeatedly, I say that the goal is not to be a virgin on your wedding day," he said, "but to be found faithful on Judgment Day."
Total Life Lordship
While, according to King, the lessons proclaim unwaveringly the "Lordship of Christ over every aspect of our lives, including our sexuality," there is an emphasis on everyone's need of grace.
"I want people to know they are pure because Jesus purified them from sin, not because they have perfect behavior and have never had intercourse or looked at porn," said King. "The good news is that temptation, lust, porn, sex, shame, and guilt are no match for the grace that Jesus offers us."
That meshes well with what Ross has said from the beginning. "Point kids to Jesus," he said. "Only He has power enough to grip their heart and their will."
Trueblood, King, and Ross agree. Whether a coffee shop napkin, the National Mall, a village in Uganda, or a classroom at a local church, True Love Waits and now the new resource, The True Love Project, has always had one message at its core—"only Jesus can make us pure."
The material will be available for preorder on December 1 with the product launch two weeks later on December 15. A documentary on the True Love Waits movement by LifeWay Films will also be released on December 10.
For more information, visit TrueLoveWaits.com.
Aaron Earls is a writer for LifeWay Christian Resources and is a member of Third Baptist Church in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.