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In 1994, 16-year-old Rebecca St. James released her first Christian album, unaware that her high-profile ministry would span more than 15 years and make her a spokesperson for sexual purity. She has even written books on the subject, including the devotional Pure. During a visit to Focus on the Family, Rebecca talked openly with us about her passion for purity, the sexualization of young celebrities, and practical ways young people can protect themselves in mind, body and spirit.

Because of your stand for purity, do teens open up to you about their struggles?
I've had a ton of that over the years. I started out as a teen talking to other teenagers about it. That has evolved into more of a big sister role. So yeah, I do sense that I have a certain trust that makes them feel comfortable talking with me. Some want to live a pure life, but don't know how. Others confess mistakes they've made.

Your book Wait for Me came out in 2002. How is your devotional Pure different?
Wait for Me attacked the "how to" side of purity. I shared my story and tied it in with the love song [of the same title] that I wrote to my future husband. Pure goes to the heart by asking, "Where does purity really come from—the kind that lasts?" It walks through ways our mind, body and spirit need to work together to honor God.

Let's quickly examine the roles of all three, starting with the mind.
So much happens there. I've argued for years that, as young people, we can say all we want, "This media doesn't affect me. I can watch this or listen to that music and the words don't have any impact." But it's so important to protect our minds and fill them with things that are honoring to God, just like it says in Philippians 4:8. Meanwhile, the body involves things like boundaries, which have been crucial in my relationships with guys. The book also talks about mentoring—having people ask you the tough questions. Finally, there's the spirit, which I think is the most important part. Going deep with God. Being challenged in our faith. That's where those important decisions stem from, along with the ability to stand strong.

You mentioned boundaries. At one point in Pure you explained that you won't let a man touch you anywhere a bathing suit covers.
I heard that somewhere and thought, That is so practical! Young people are looking for practical tips and ways to live out purity. That gets right down to the nitty-gritty. And I might add we are talking about a modest bathing suit (laughs). But it is good to give teens something they can grab onto and say, "That's a boundary."

What are some other concrete examples you've found effective?
A commitment to modesty. Sometimes girls will say, "I'm pure and I'm waiting. I have my promise ring." But then they're dressing in a way that's sending guys a totally different signal. Modesty doesn't mean you have to be an old fogy and wear huge T-shirts everywhere. You can start by layering, not showing heaps of skin, not letting shorts or skirts be too short, things like that. Also, I won't be alone in a room with a guy at night without having people in the house and the door open. You're not going to get into mischief if you know that someone could walk in at any time. That accountability is really key for me.

Is it fair to say that those habits support an overarching attitude toward purity?
The core of the whole thing is practicing faithfulness. Even in my song "Wait for Me" it says, "I want to be now and always faithful to you." If you practice faithfulness before marriage, it makes faithfulness in marriage a lot easier. The lie of the culture is that we should live for today. I bring that up in my concerts sometimes as I tell people to think about the future: Think of how this will impact your life, your marriage, your kids. Imagine in 15 or 20 years needing to talk to your kids about this issue. What will you say when they ask how you met the challenge? Let that shape how you approach dating.

How did your parents handle the sex talk?
I love how my parents talked with the seven of us about sex. They didn't waffle or dance around the issue. They weren't embarrassed. And they didn't paint sex as this awful, scary thing. I've noticed that protective parents can err on that side, creating such a stigma that it drives kids the other way. My parents were clear that sex is beautiful and that God created it to be celebrated and enjoyed in marriage. They also explained the consequences of sin, from STDs and pregnancy to emotional scars and the whole comparison game. My dad got into some really tough issues with my brothers, including pornography. And even though the boys may have chuckled a bit after their "talk with Dad," I know how valuable they found it and how it has protected them.

At what age should parents have that talk?
I think the age is getting younger and younger because there is so much exposure to sexuality at a young age. It's coming from movies and television and the Internet. It's what the kids are talking about at school. Parents need to focus on getting in before the culture does. I hear stories about children 6 and 7 years old hearing about stuff at school and I wonder, What happened to innocence?

A few years ago, you appeared onstage in the rock opera !Hero. When did you get bitten by the acting bug?
I dabbled in it a little in school and at church growing up. I dreamt I could get to do it ever since I was five or six, when I wanted to be in The Sound of Music. I really love acting and drama. My grandmother was an actress of sorts, so it's kind of in the blood. In !Hero [which retells the biblical account of Jesus' life in a contemporary setting], I played Maggie, who is basically Mary Magdalene. It's sort of ironic that this woman starts out as the opposite of everything I've stood for as a spokesperson for purity. It was interesting seeing the character evolve and come from a place of shame and guilt to redemption. I loved doing that.

Have you had to turn down roles that made you feel uncomfortable?
As I'm transitioning more and more into acting, I think there will be those times when I have to say, "No, this doesn't align with what I feel able to do. It's not a good fit." So far I haven't been tested too much in that way, though one time I was asked to play a New Agey girl who had to speak against Jesus at some level. I just could not do that. I couldn't speak the words. There will probably be more times like that when I'll have to take a stand.

Plus, over the years, people have developed certain expectations of you.
Right. Considering what I've done for 15 years, people have this understanding of who I am and my ministry. I need to protect that. Right now I'm focusing on taking roles that align very much with who I am so that people can adjust to the idea of Rebecca the actress.

It has been great to watch you mature without sexualizing your image like so many young singers do as if to say "I'm grown up now!" How did you avoid that trap?
A lot of it comes down to who's speaking into your life. A few years ago, a news service asked me about Britney Spears—how she used to talk of purity and virginity, then strayed pretty significantly from that. They knew I was outspoken for purity, and they wanted to know what I thought about what had happened to her. I said that I was sad for Britney Spears, which got talked about quite a lot. But I think many people feel sad for her because, like water dripping on a stone, there have been many people speaking into her life, saying, "Show more skin. Be more revealing. Grow up. Branch out in this way or that." No matter how strong your convictions are, if everyone around you is telling you that, you're going to compromise at some level. One thing that has been a real blessing to me is that I have such rich accountability with so many godly people speaking truth into my life, including my family.

Do you think celebrities like Britney Spears turn overtly sexual so that they won't fade into obscurity?
They may be looking for the shock effect sometimes, but I don't think it's always that premeditated. Sometimes the enemy speaks in subtle ways that lower their conviction about things. It's like any of us. We're all capable of any type of sin, so we have to be on guard. Maybe sometimes they are actually thinking marketing, shock value or something that will get them attention, but it can also happen subtly over time.

You've been so faithful and public about your purity pledge that fans are rooting for you to find that special someone. Anything to report?
I feel in my spirit that I am right on the brink of that. God will be the one to determine and prove that, but so much is happening right now that feels like it's grooming me for that next season of my life. There are lessons I'm learning in my relationship with Him and my relationship with others where I just feel like, yeah, I'm near the finish line. (laughs) I'm encouraged.

Published November 2008

Plugged In Plus
In early 2011 we caught up with the recently engaged Rebecca St. James to congratulate her on her upcoming marriage to Jacob Fink, which is scheduled for late April, 2011. Here's a bit of our conversation, which appears in its entirety in Episode #090 of the Official Plugged In Podcast:

Congratulations are in order for something special that happened around Christmas. Why don't you tell us about that?
I love telling about it. My boyfriend at the time was coming home for Christmas to be with my family, and I had spent Thanksgiving with his family, so we were really excited about that. And he kept on saying, "It's going to be the best Christmas ever." And I'm thinking the whole time, Well I hope he enjoys Christmas with my family, because he's very strong on this "best Christmas ever" thing. I had no idea that he was planning our engagement at that point. How beautiful, he asked my dad and my best friend and my mentor and the closest brother to me all for their blessing, and got it from them. Then he asked me to marry him in my parents' backyard in the snow at Christmas. So it was absolutely magical.

I'll bet a lot of folks are rejoicing with you, because when it comes to living the life of a Christian single with integrity—not to mention being such an outspoken voice for purity over the years—I think a lot of people have wanted to see that patience rewarded. Are you hearing that from people when you talk to them about it?
Very much. I have actually been just beautifully overwhelmed by the fact that people are so joyful and so happy for us—truly, unselfishly happy for us. It's just been a beautiful gift that I don't think I really anticipated, how people have poured out their love and their support. [Focus on the Family president] Jim Daly heard about our engagement and sent us flowers, and I've had all of these people be so incredibly loving in this process. So we have been blessed by that. We really appreciate your prayers as we prepare for marriage. We've had a couple premarital counseling sessions, which are going so great. As we navigate our lives together, we'd just love that prayer support.