Immodest Students On The Beach

I spent 10 years as a campus minister at OU with RUF. One of the big events in our national ministry each year was the Summer Conference that took place. Hundreds of students from RUF campuses gathered at Laguna Beach to hear speakers, attend seminars, worship, play basketball and volleyball, hang out and – yes, even spend time on the beach.

1000 college students on the beach each May. Think about it.

This posed a few dilemmas as you might imagine. What shall we do about the raging hormones, the large amount of free time and the expected morality of the church?! None of us wanted our students to come home pregnant as a result of our time at a Christian conference. Neither would you have.

There were three possible solutions. The first approach was just to ignore the whole situation and not worry about it. That was pretty easy to do, though worrisome if you thought too much or started to care at all. Some people took this approach, and you would never know because it just looked like normal people at the beach. I doubt there were ever many problems or situations where this mattered. Most people wore whatever they would wear and it was fine. Once a Dallas Cowboy cheerleader came to Summer Conference with one of the campus ministries, and indeed she did cause quite a stir.

The second approach was often debated and sometimes advocated – create rules. This approach advocates rules, especially modest bathing suit rules. It can also be linked with other rules, and then you start to realize that we’re going to have to enter in to some sort of world where these rules are decided upon and then agreed upon and then enforced somehow upon and we’re going to create a place where we have to either start ignoring stated rules or cracking down on these very rules that some of us hold very dearly.

This feels like a good approach when you’re either not at the beach at all and thinking about morality and clothing – or when you’re at the beach and looking out on so many people in so few clothes.

It also presents a slight problem when you start to delve into it – What is modesty exactly?

Perhaps you might think, “I know it when I see it!” Really? Modesty has certainly changed over time. Ideas of modesty are radically different in the last 100 years and they keep on changing. What people were aghast at 50 years ago would now be considered modest. So modesty certainly cannot be a fixed concept.

Modesty is also different in different societies and cultures. Modesty varies in families. Modesty varies in generations.

Modesty also varies in contexts. The same person might find one set of clothing acceptable in one situation and then never agree that that same set of clothing is okay in a different context.

Should you accept my standards of modesty? Should I accept your standards? Shall we have no standards?

If you can pull this off, you also can make it through the week without many problems. You are also headed to a place where you will have to have bathing suit monitoring and you may end up banning mixed bathing altogether. You’ll start to shun those who break the rules. You’ll start to make people want to get around the rules. You’ll start to promote and accept those who love to follow the rules. You’ll forget that the women are comparing themselves to the women already no matter how modest or immodest their bathing suits are. You’ll be solving some possible problems and then creating a whole host of other problems that can remain undetected and could in fact be even worse.

It could even be that rules about bathing suits make the bathing suits themselves a big deal and no one really would have cared if you hadn’t started talking about it every second. The rules themselves could become a distraction to: the beach, the waves, the sand, the games, the fun, the seminars, the learning about Christ, the friendships, the fact that college students can be on the beach without what you see in all of the movies. I remember another campus minister telling me about one of his students who followed every rule and had the most modest swimsuit of his group – until she came out of the water and it was absolutely see through. So that didn’t exactly work out.

There was a third approach. It was more personal and strange. Each Spring before Summer Conference I’d make a few announcements to our group about the beach and ask the women especially (though I’d always make a few jokes to the men about Speedos (I was the only male I knew to break that rule and wear a Speedo for a few minutes my last year)) to bring two swimsuits with them. A modest one and then one even more modest than that. Then I’d let them handle what they thought that meant. I would take for a few minutes about honoring each other and our lives and stories and bodies and how God created us beautiful and we needed to work on together a non-comparative way of friendship and help each other do that without judgment and suspicion.

Out of the hundreds of women who came with us in our group, I can only remember one or two conversations that I felt like I had to have. I didn’t want to have them. I was reluctant. I didn’t want to instill any judgment or shame or shock or guilt. I didn’t want to be the bathing suit police. I didn’t want to be the morality police. I didn’t want a young woman who had come with her think that she was inflaming our students to lust, that she was the harlot among us, the temptress.

But I also felt like I was a pastor and this whole trip, this whole life, was about loving friendship discipleship. So I’d steel myself and go up beside her and ask her if we could talk in private and that I had noticed (awkward!) that her swimsuit was uh, shall we say noticeable. And that I was telling her that not as some perverted weird old guy but trying to be more like an older brother (in the good way) or a loving dad or a friendly uncle and that I didn’t think she was presenting herself in the best way. That getting sun right there for the week might not be as important as she thought. That I wanted her to have good conversations on the beach and that was difficult but not her fault in a shaming way. Sometimes it was an easy switch to a different swimsuit. Sometimes it meant her asking more questions. Sometimes it meant a trip to the store to get something different because she didn’t own anything besides this. Sometimes it meant a few tears and a few prayers and sometimes it didn’t go exactly correctly. But I didn’t feel like I was trying to fix this huge problem. I felt like I wast trying to walk with her in love, even if I didn’t really know how.

I tried to think of what it might be like for her to have that incredibly awkward conversation. I tried to think of what it might be like for her to want the attention and hate it or not realize it or to have her body looked at or her motives judged or her life exposed. And that in a few hours she’d be sitting in a worship service with the same people all around her – me too – and we’d be singing songs about grace and mercy and Jesus and hear a sermon about grace and mercy and Jesus. And I didn’t want her to think that how much cleavage she had shown at 2pm was the deciding factor about how much Jesus loved her. I didn’t want her to think that her pastor looked down on her and judged her at 2pm but now wanted her to listen and pay attention again to grace and mercy now.

I think that third was was the best way. I didn’t handle it correctly. I probably should have had more conversations with more women. To be fair, I should have had more conversations with men and their suits and their bodies (I did have some). I should have learned how to be a better pastor in those situations. I did try to walk with these women in love. We did talk about it, not just with the ones who needed it but all of them because they needed it. Many came from very conservative fundamentalist backgrounds and they were appalled at the whole thing, the whole event.

We’d sit on the beach in our swimsuits and look into the ocean and talk about life, gender, dating, sex and marriage. We’d talk about politics and society. About classes and majors and degrees and careers. About the stupid things we’d done that we regretted. About ex boyfriends who were on the trip. About good words and bad words. About the reason the Bible could be trusted or why they didn’t think so. About morality and ethics. About children in Africa who had never heard. About theology and Calvinism and TULIP and worship music and how many days it took to make the world and evolution.

We sat on the beach to talk about those things because they were there on the beach with me and I was there on the beach with them. Whatever we were wearing.

Doug Serven