To guys and girls who see dating as a critical part of the high school or college experience, the decision to start dating is a no-brainer. Some half a million teens, though, most of them conservative Christians, are looking at this time-honored tradition a bit more skeptically, and many of them are choosing to go the radical route of ditching dating completely.

In the past few years, a revolutionary "no dating" movement has sprung up, largely through the efforts of a fresh-faced boy next door who bagged dating at age 17 and (amazingly, some teens would say) lived to tell the tale. In his book I Kissed Dating Goodbye (Multnomah, 1997), conference speaker and Christian youth pastor Joshua Harris discusses the hard lessons he learned during his junior high and high school years--lessons that led him to first develop, then pen a book about, a new, spiritually grounded approach to romance that emphasizes personal purity and the glorification of God.

So he dumped dating, you're thinking. Big whoop. The poor guy probably hadn't been on a date in his life.

Au contraire. Described by a reporter from The Baltimore Sun as a "major babe," Harris was a veteran of a two-year dating relationship and had been linked romantically with numerous girls prior to giving his love life the heave-ho. Convinced that the casual dating routines practiced by most teens could lead only to heartache, Harris was determined to find a better way, so he stopped dating and was single for more than five years. At that point he began courting his future wife, which meant spending time together in the presence of a chaperone, and now, at 24, Harris recently celebrated his first wedding anniversary.

Anyone who's gone through a breakup can understand the urge to, at least temporarily, swear off the opposite sex. But surprisingly, many teens whose hearts are intact are willing--even eager--to embrace Harris's philosophy. Influenced by I Kissed Dating Goodbye's teachings, 19-year-old Heather Hlavka has vowed to wait until her wedding day for her first kiss. She says she learned from Harris that, "when you are dating someone before engagement or marriage, it's not their right to use you as an object of their desires." Of her conservative approach to dating, she says, "I don't think there's really a down side. I mean, you can only benefit from it."

Sound a bit extreme? Others agree and see some potential problems with this approach. Melanie Edwards, resident director at Biola University in La Mirada, California, says, "I've had a number of students, guys and girls, that have kind of justified out of their lives any need for relationships, friendships even, with the opposite sex. One of them mentioned, `The only woman I need to connect with is my wife.' I obviously disagree with that and have challenged them by asking, `Well, how do you expect to connect with her if you're not able to connect with any of her kind?'"

Brian Aaby, youth director at First Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Kent, Washington, says that young adults who retreat too far from male-female social interactions "could go into a marriage relationship with idealized views of what their husband or wife should be. Having not gone through the ups and downs, the toughness of the dating relationship, I think they could go into marriage unprepared."

Joel Thomas, a junior at Multnomah Bible College in Portland, Oregon, favors a middle-of-the-road approach. "I don't quite agree with all of Harris's viewpoints," he says. "But I think the overall thrust of the book and the message is very needed, especially right now in our culture. I'll hang out with a gal one-on-one. I have no problem with that at all. But am I going to play the field, date one girl here, see if I like her, move on? No, I wouldn't want to do that in any sense."

Recognizing that many teens will, in fact, choose to date, Jeramy Clark, the associate pastor of student ministries at Tri-Lakes Chapel in Monument, Colorado, has written his own book, I Gave Dating a Chance (due out in February from Waterbrook Press), to help them learn how to honor God while doing so. "What society has said is acceptable is a far cry from what God desires," he says. "But it's kind of like saying, `There's a lot of junk food out there, so don't eat.' Of course there's junk food. But we need to learn how to eat appropriately. We need to respond appropriately in our relationships, so that we know how to interact respectfully with a mate, communicate, resolve conflict, and experience all that comes with developing our own character in a relationship."

Whether you're ready to buy into Harris's brand of non-dating or can't wait to date, both Harris's and Clark's books have something to offer: they can help you work out your own dating philosophy (yes, "philosophy"). It may sound silly, but spending a little time up front thinking about what you want to get out of dating can be a good thing--whether your goals are to honor God or just not to get your heart stomped on. Nothing's foolproof, but these basic guidelines can provide some good food for thought:

Set emotional and physical boundaries. According to a poll completed by the popular Christian speaker Josh McDowell for his book Right from Wrong, 55 percent of evangelical Christian young people claim to have engaged in sexual activity by age 18. A lot of teens end up going farther faster simply because they haven't decided ahead of time what their personal boundaries are. As Aaby says, "I believe that teens go too far emotionally, for the most part, before they go too far physically."

Go on group dates. "It's a blast," says Edwards. It's also a helpful source of information. "You get to see how they interact with their own group, like does he interact appropriately with the opposite sex? Is he a big flirt, looking for attention from all sides?"

Bring in reinforcements. If you and your family are open to the idea, sit down together and come up with a family mission statement that talks about what's important to you in dating relationships. Clark also suggests being accountable to your friends.

Appreciate and honor your date. "God made us male and female," Edwards says, "and we only for our whole lives get to be one or the other. The dating process allows for a pursuit of getting to know the other half of God's creation."

Learn what you can now and make a commitment to act wisely. "I read Josh Harris's book," says Claire, a single 32-year-old personnel manager who continues to date. "But I wish I'd read it when I was 20. It would have saved me a lot of heartache."

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