Dating in the 21st Century

with Shelby Abbott | June 3, 2019

Author and campus minister Shelby Abbott reminds us that Scripture calls us to something greater and healthier in our relationships with the opposite sex. It calls us to love through self-sacrifice, communication, service, and patience. How does this apply in the dating phase? Shelby, now married, shares his own dating history and talks about how technology has changed the dating game.

Author and campus minister Shelby Abbott reminds us that Scripture calls us to something greater and healthier in our relationships with the opposite sex. It calls us to love through self-sacrifice, communication, service, and patience. How does this apply in the dating phase? Shelby, now married, shares his own dating history and talks about how technology has changed the dating game.

Dating in the 21st Century

With Shelby Abbott
June 03, 2019
| Download Transcript PDF

Bob: The rules about dating in our culture have changed over the years, and technology has made the whole dating experience a little more complicated. Shelby Abbott says some of the current rules about dating need to be reconsidered.


Shelby: I always tell girls that, if a guy texts you and doesn't ask you out, face to face, text him back and say, “Have the guts to come to my face and ask me out to my eyeballs.” And then I say that, if he ghosts you and he doesn't respond at all, you've dodged a bullet; but if he does respond and he comes and asks you, out face to face, he's teachable.

Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Monday, June 3re. Our hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson; I'm Bob Lepine. How can young people today navigate the sometimes choppy waters of relationships and dating? We've got some wise counsel for you today. Stay with us.

Bob: And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. I've got two questions to start off with. [Laughter] Okay; you ready?

Dave: Oh, you know what? This happens every time—I'm always scared when Bob says—

Ann: Me, too: “What's he going to say?”

Bob: Here's question number one—and listeners just need to know—we do not do show-prep, where we talk about—

Dave: We certainly don't!


Ann: Obviously. [Laughter]


Dave: It might be a good idea, every once in a while, Bob.


Bob: No; I like the spontaneity. [Laughter]


Dave: I know you do!


Bob: If you could have a do-over on your dating years, would you take that or not?


Ann: Yes!


Dave: My dating yearswith Ann or my dating years before Ann?


Bob: Your total dating years.


Dave: Oh, definitively, a do-over.

Bob: I've talked to parents, for years, and I've asked the question, “Raise your hand if you would like your kids to have the same dating experience, as they go through their teens, as you have.”


Ann: What a great question.


Bob: And you get, like maybe, one hand in the back of the room. And the next question is: “Is there anything you can do to help them have a better one?”—we start the parenting process with that.


Dave: You're a wise man. [Laughter]


Ann: I can't wait to see what you're going to say about this today. [Laughter]


Dave: I'll tell you this, though—my dating experience before Ann was so bad that, when I tried to date Ann, her dad barred me.

Bob: Yes; because he knew your reputation.

Dave: He was my baseball coach; he knew my history. Talk about a tool—[Laughter]—I was the definition of a tool, which we're going to talk about here in a second.


Bob: And here's the second question before we get into the tool thing; okay?


Ann: Ah, there's another one.


Bob: The second question is: “Do you think that young people, going through the dating years today, are having an easier time or a harder time with that phenomenon than you had?” Yours was not good; you'd like a do-over—do you think young people today have an easier or a harder time?


Ann: Yes; yes. I think, now, it's way more confusing.


Dave: Social media has changed the game.


Ann: Yes.


Bob: So: “We messed up when we went through it and, now, it's harder.” What conclusions should we be able to draw about how this is working for teenagers; right?


Dave: That's why I'm glad we have—

Bob: —a tool.


Ann: —the expert! [Laughter]


Dave: We have somebody that can make this sensible—[Laughter]


Bob: The reason we keep referring to this as Tool Time and talking about tools is because Shelby Abbott is joining us. Shelby, welcome to FamilyLife Today.


Shelby: Thanks for having me. I'm excited to be here.


Bob: Explain to everybody why we call you a tool. [Laughter]


Shelby: Well, I wanted to come up with a clever title for the book.


Dave: You certainly did.


Shelby: “I am a tool” is a phrase that is used to communicate ineptness, in some form or fashion; so I thought it would be clever to name the book: I am a Tool (To Help with Your Dating Life). [Laughter] The pause in between those two is quite important. [Laughter] You get a little bit of laughter; and then people go, “Oh, okay; I get it.”


Bob: The subtitle is in real tiny—

Shelby: It’s in very small print.

Bob: —on the book.


Ann: Yes; I could barely read that.


Bob: Shelby is on staff with Cru®. You've been on staff almost two decades?


Shelby: This summer will be 20 years; yes.


Bob: Can you relate to what we shared about dating experience? Would you say: “I'd do it the same way, again, if I could”?


Shelby: I would make a lot of different choices; so I'd say, “No,”—that I wouldn't want that for my kids—but there were some areas, where I did make some good decisions. I'm short—I'm five foot/six inches—so, when you're short in high school, girls don't care about you at all. It is one of those things, where I didn't date anyone in high school; because no girl really thought I was manly enough.


Bob: Tell listeners—there was one time when girls needed a walk back to their dorm or something?


Shelby: Yes; that's a hard story; thanks for bringing that up. [Laughter] I'll leave it at this—girls used to say I was cute—which, on the surface, sounds like a good thing—

Ann: That is a good thing.

Shelby: —but it's actually not when they're talking about me specifically. It wasn't like, “Cute—oh my gosh, he's so cute.” It was [speaking with high voice], “You're like a little puppy; you're just so cute.”


Ann: —like a little kid brother.


Shelby: Yes; and I wouldn’t like that very much. This, one time, this girl came up to me; and she was like, “Shelby, you are so cute.” I'd had enough, so I smacked her hand away from my face; and I pointed right at her head. I was like: “Listen, I don't want to be cute anymore. I want to be—desirable.” [Laughter] She, literally, laughed at me; turned around and walked away. I never spoke to that girl again.


Bob: Wow.


Shelby: With being short—it was one of those things that I felt like was difficult; but God protected me in those times, where I probably would have been making a lot of the same poor decisions that my friends were in high school. I didn't become a Christian until college. I think it was one of those things that God ordained in my life; because when I got to college, I became a Christian; and then I started dating quite a bit in college.

I was very insecure because of my height. In fact, the story you were referring to, Bob, earlier—there was this girl named Katie, [whom] I liked. I was a sophomore; she was a freshman. We were hanging out one night at the beginning of the semester. She was just getting involved with Cru. I was interested in her, so I was trying to do as much as I could to pair off with her, and talk, and that kind of stuff. We were over at this apartment for the evening, playing games—hanging out—eating snacks and stuff like that. I was hanging close to Katie, sitting next to her on a couch.


One of my other friends was sitting on the other side of Katie—her name was Ann. I was waiting, lingering to see when she would want to go home so I could walk her back and get some more time with her on her way back to her dorm. Sure enough, the time came and Ann said: “Hey, Katie and I are going to walk back. Is there any man that would want to walk us back to the dorms?” I quickly volunteered; I said, “I’ll do it.” Then Ann looked at Katie, the girl I liked, and said, “Does he count?” 


Bob: Oooh.


Ann: Ohhh!


Shelby: I know that she wasn't trying to be malicious or mean; she wasn't trying to be evil or even try to make a jab at me. I would make a lot of jokes about myself about being short, because I would try to beat people to the punch and prove to them that I could be smarter than them or more funny than they could in their attempt to cut me down. No doubt, she was thinking that, “He makes fun of himself about this a lot; I could probably say this.”


What she didn't know is that, “Does he count?” line would stick with me for years—years, and years, and years—not only, as a guy, [whom] girls would want to date—but as a friend, as a child of God, in ministry, as a spouse: “Does he count?”—that question kind of echoes in you head over, and over, and over again.


Bob: “Do I have worth or value? Do I matter?”


Shelby: Exactly; yes. I think that's one of those things that college students, in general, where you’re living—whether you're single or with someone—you ask yourself that question, “Do I count?”


Ann: Yes; and we have an enemy of our souls, Satan, who replays those offenses and lies over and over in our heads to make us feel insecure.


Shelby: Yes; and you start to believe that.


Ann: Exactly.


Shelby: And then, you live with that insecurity in a way that—not only affects your brain—but it affects your decision making; it affects how you communicate with people; it affects what you choose to do in ministry; it affects how you are as a student—all that kind of stuff.


Dave: So, when did you deal with the lie? How did you get through it?


Shelby: Yes; well, there's this thing in Cru that we talk about a lot called walking in the power of the Holy Spirit. I'd heard that a lot, but it wasn't really until the end of my junior year that I, finally, started to understand what it meant to be filled with the Holy Spirit and walk in the power of the Holy Spirit—to allow Him to work in and through me so that I would not believe the lies that would constantly come at me, not only internally, but also, externally, from the world. Living in an environment with people, who looked at the heart—who didn't always judge by the outward appearance—so getting in a good Christian community of people; namely, in Cru, I really felt known and I felt cared about.

I feel like I have always wrestled with that throughout my whole life. I'd overcompensate by trying to be the center of attention, or funny, or whatever. Eventually, this one person I respected called me out on that kind of stuff and said, “Hey, you realize that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus; do you know what I'm saying?” And I was like, “Yes.” And he's goes: “No; no. Do you actually know what I'm saying?” I had to wrestle with the question and, “No; I don't think I know what Romans 8:1 is saying; I don’t know what that is saying.” I think, honestly—maybe, a few years into being on staff with Cru—and that's kind of sad to say that—that I was a full-time missionary for a few years before I moved past some of the stuff you struggle with, as an adolescent; but I've always been a late bloomer. [Laughter]


Ann: I think so many people struggle with that, not only in adolescence, but we carry it into our adult lives. Just a few weeks ago, I was sharing at church about some of those lies I continually battled, growing up—and then, as an adult, as a young mom, as a young wife—where I would look at myself in the mirror and say things like: “You're dumb,” “You're fat,” “You're ugly,” “You're not worth anything.” It had become such a pattern that I wasn't even aware of the lie that I was continually speaking to myself.


At church, a few weeks ago, I had people write down the lies that they're continually replaying in their heads. They came up—we had crosses on both sides of our stage, and people dumped the lies. When church was done and people had left and gone home, I sat—[emotion in voice]—it makes me cry, thinking about—and read the lies. It was appalling to me of the territory that Satan is taking in our own hearts and our minds—of the things that we believe that aren't true.

God is always cheering for us; He sees the best—He sees that—“Look at you. Look how I've made you.” And yet, the things that I read on those papers, where: “You don't belong,” “You're worthless,” “Your life doesn't count.” One person said, “You should take your life, because you don't matter.” So many people are walking around with those hidden lies, without communicating it; and they believe it. I love that you're bringing this up; because, I think, it's a battle that we all face and that we need victory in.


Shelby: Yes; even going back to what you were asking before, Bob—like: “Is it [dating] harder now?” The layers of digital existence that are out there right now, when it comes to relationships—which are always awkward, and messy, and sweaty, and weird anyway—now, you have more of an opportunity to put distance between you and another person—not only on social media—but texting, in general, becomes a replacement for actual communication.


Bob: Is that the fundamental mega shift that has occurred over the last two decades in how young people engage in relationships?—technology and the digital world—is that what's the biggest difference?


Shelby: Yes; I'd say it’s the biggest difference. I think one of the tendencies of the older generation is to blame technology and say, “This is what the problem is.” I don't think technology is the problem; I think technology—I think what technology has forced to the surface in our lives—fear, apathy, loneliness—all that kind of stuff, which existed in the early dating years anyway; it's just pushing it to the forefront.


Now, you don't have to go through the awkwardness of asking a girl out; and the girl doesn't have to go through the awkwardness of saying, “No”; you can just type it into a text message. While that kind of relieves the initial stages of anxiety and awkwardness, it trades one thing for another. It ends up being a way of communicating that says, “I'm going to deal with stuff in our relationship in the easiest way possible,”—in a way that, now, glosses over the realities of life; because you need friction; you need awkwardness; you need to be able to look someone in the eye and go, “This is the real me.”  


Bob: Because you're going to have a real relationship with somebody.


Shelby: Exactly; hopefully! [Laughter]


Bob: If all you know how to do is, kind of passively/safely, text one another—although, I did text my wife; I was upstairs, and she was downstairs this morning. I texted her, because I heard her shouting at Alexa. [Laughter] She was shouting at Alexaabout something; so I texted her and said, “It sounds like you and Alexa are not in a good place; [Laughter] are you okay?” And she said, “Alexa is a stupid idiot.” [Laughter]


But the point that you're making is a significant one. In fact, I've seen the statistics that
say teen pregnancy is down—that's a good thing. Loneliness and depression are way up—


Shelby: —skyrocketing.


Bob: —and it's because kids aren't spending time together. They're in their bedrooms, living out life on Snapchat®and Instagram®—that's where it's all being lived out.


Shelby: Yes; it is. I read this one teen author, who wrote—her name is Jaquelle Crowe—she wrote about/she said:

If you think about it,”—speaking to adults—“when you had to deal with bullying in school, when you were there, you dealt with it from 8-3. Now, the way that things exist—and how everybody's lives are lived out, socially, online—you can get bullied 24 hours a day. You can get comments made about you/any picture that you post,”—people will post negative things about those things.

Consequently, people are feeling: “I’ve got to put my best foot forward,” “I've got to perform,” “I've got to look certain ways,” “I have to say the right things; because if I don't, I will be mocked and ridiculed.” It will happen, not in the confines of the school; it can happen in the comfort of my bedroom, looking at my phone,”—that's scary!


Ann: It's scary, as a parent, too—to hear that is very scary, as a parent, to know: “How do I help my kids? How do I help them not go through that?”


Bob: I would think that a young person today—who was conscious of this and said: “You know, I'm going to live differently. I'm going to try to have relationships in real life. I'm going to try to have it, face to face, not just digitally,”—I would think their peers would be like, “You’re just weird.”


Shelby: Yes; I mean, there's an element of that. I think you have to move past that by living a life that is authentically committed tothe Lordship of Jesus Christ. When you do, no matter how “weird” you might seem—because you don’t use your phone in a way that other people do—people will, eventually, look at that and go, “There is just something remarkably attractive about that.”

I always like to tell the students I talk to that: “Social media, texting, your phones should never be a substitute for relationships. They should be a springboard, for relationships, into something deeper.” I'm not anti-texting; I'm not anti-social media at all, in any way. But if those things become a substitute for authentic relationships—with friends/ with the opposite sex—whatever—that's when your problem starts to arise. That's what's happening when it comes to Gen Zers and Millennials.

You can use social media/you can use your phone—text messaging and all that kind of stuff—to deepen your relationships. The way it instantly helps you communicate with people is a great thing; it's a really great thing.


Ann: Let me ask this: “Is dating a dinosaur?—is that still a term that we can use?”


Shelby: I would say, “No.” There is—


Bob: You don't call it dating.


Shelby: I don't anymore, because it's such a foreign concept. When they think about dating now, they think: “Oh, that's something my parents did. I don't go out on a date with someone. I ask: ‘Do you want to hang out sometime, casually?—and what do you want to do?’ ‘You can come over to my place, and we can watch a movie; or we can watch Netflix, or we can maybe hangout with a few other people,’”—that kind of a deal.


Now, there's plenty of people that would say that they have a boyfriend or a girlfriend, which in my definition, is semantics—it's dating; that's what it is. They may not be going out on dates that way; but there is just a lack of intentionality in a way that there used to be, even when I was in college, which was in the late ‘90s.


Bob: To that point, I would think a young man, who was hanging out with a young woman, and said to her: “You know, I want to be purposeful, and I want us to use texting as a way to communicate; but I don't want our relationship to be a text relationship. I want it to be a real relationship.” I think you would weed out the wheat from the chaff, pretty quick, in how a young woman responds. A young women of character would go, “I’m attracted to that.”


Shelby: Yes; “That's a diamond right there.”


Bob: Young women, who aren't attracted to that—those are the ones you ought to let go anyway. You flip it around—if a young woman says to a young man, “Look, I want to have real relationships, not just text relationships; so I’m just letting you know.” A guy, who is worth something, will step up to that; and a guy, who's not, will go the passive route and say, “Well, I just wants girls I can text; and you know, we can hang out”; yes.


Shelby: Exactly; you're absolutely right. I always tell girls that: “If a guy texts you and doesn't ask you out, face to face, text him back and say, ‘Have the guts to come to my face and ask me out, to my eyeballs.’”  And then I say: “If he ghosts you and he doesn't respond at all, you dodged a bullet. But if he does respond and, then, he comes and asks you out, face to face, he's teachable. It's a win-win; right?” [Laughter] It really is—like: “Why not raise the bar?” “Why not raise the bar?”


Bob: I just hope the girl, who texts him back and says, “Have the guts to do that,” when the guy comes and says, “Okay; will you go out with me?”—I hope she doesn't go, “No!” [Laughter]

Ann: Yes; really!


Shelby: Yes; you run that risk, too. Being injured like that, as a guy, is something we need to learn to take our licks; it's healthy for us.


Dave: Are you seeing, in the dating culture now—are you seeing women and men responding like Bob was saying?—like that's what they really want, deep down?


Shelby: I think, authentically, yes; they really do want it. High school students—college students, for certain; and high school students—I actually talked about this with a group of high school students a month ago, and they were riveted; because it's so foreign for them—for someone to communicate in a way that says: “Why don't we live authentically?” “Why don't we raise the bar in the lives of the people around us?” “Why don't we have the guts to look people, in the eyeballs, and interact with one another?”


If you're going to just text, you're going to avoid the bumps of a relationship friction; but it will come back to bite you in the future, because you will not know how to communicate authentically. You won't be able to argue well. I even tell them: “You won't be able to get a job as much; because the guy or girl, who can look the boss in the eye—listen to what their questions are; answer in an intelligent way—is going to be a way better candidate for getting a job in the future than someone who has no idea how to communicate with someone—because they don't know how to make eye contact; they don't know how to shake a person's hand; they don't know how to answer a question, because they spent their lives looking through a digital window.”


Dave: I would just concur with that and say: “Here's what I'm hearing God say to the men out there”—Ann, you can talk to the women; but I’m can talk to the guys—it’s like: “He's calling you to step into manhood.” There's some guy, listening right now, who needs to drive over to that dorm room/drive over to her house, walk up to the door; ring the door bell. It sounds so elementary, but it is like: “Step into risk-taking manhood and look her in the eye. If you've found a woman you want to pursue, then, step into it.”


Bob: If you need tools to help you with that—

Shelby: Tools?—I’ve got one.

Bob: —we've got the tool to help you; that’s right! [Laughter] We have copies of Shelby's book, which is called I am a Tool (To Help with Your Dating Life). The book is available in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. You can order a copy from us, online, at; or call to order: 1-800-FL-TODAY. Again, our website is The phone number is 1-800-358-6329—1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.” The book we're talking about is by Shelby Abbott; it's called I Am a Tool.


You know, for Dave and Ann and for me, this whole issue of helping our kids navigate the dating years is in the rearview mirror for us; but for the President of FamilyLife®, David Robbins, this is in the windshield for you; right?


David: Yes; it is hope-giving to hear some of your stories; but then, we are in the thick of it. As I have a teenager and a few right behind him, today's conversation just tells me, “There is nothing new under the sun”; you know? All of us, as we process relationships, insecurity comes up. The questions of: “…if I matter” and “Why do I matter?” is the root of what my kids will face in relationships; because it's the root of what I face in relationships, and what my parents faced, and so on.


Bob: We're all asking the question, “Will you validate my worth in a relationship?”; right?


David: Yes; so, as my kids navigate that in today's world, my take-away is that I want to do everything I can to help my kids know that they matter—that they are deeply loved/fully accepted, without question, unique to God; and that will never change. I want their concept of who they are to be rooted in their identity in Jesus and what God says about them.

Here's the thing—each one of our kids will be wounded, just like Shelby talked about today, and Dave and Ann reflected on. The enemy will twist words that others say and make it be marked on our lives; but no matter how old your kids or grandkids are, we can speak words of life into them. Perhaps, today, for me, it means I'm going to go pick my kids up from school and speak words of life over them. Perhaps, for you, it means shooting a text or making a call.


Bob: That's a great reminder. Thank you for that, David.

And by the way, we want to say, “Thank you,” as well, to our listeners. Over the last several weeks, we have been asking listeners to help us take advantage of a matching gift that was made available to us during the month of May. We still don't have all the numbers in—some of you mailed your donations to us—so again, thank you for that. We should know something this week about whether we were able to take full advantage of that matching-gift opportunity.


If you signed on as one of our new Legacy Partners, thank you for joining the team and look for your Weekend to Remember gift card—it will be coming in the mail very soon, if you don't have it already. And again, thank you for supporting this ministry, not only during the month of May, but throughout the year. Without you, FamilyLife Today would not exist. We're grateful to partner together with you.

If you're a longtime listener, and you've never donated to support this ministry, you can do so easily. Go to and donate, online; or call 1-800-FL-TODAY to make your donation. And again, we are so grateful to have you as part of the Family Life team.


We hope you can join us, again, tomorrow when Shelby Abbott will be here, again, to help us think about how we can help assist young people, friends, family members going through the challenges of dealing with rugged terrain of the dating scene in the 21st century. I hope you can be with us for all of that tomorrow.


I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back tomorrow for another edition of FamilyLife Today.

FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas; a Cru® Ministry. Help for today. Hope for tomorrow.


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