Thursday, September 5, 2013

Finding Our Lost Boys: Up to 90 percent of boys will leave the church. What can a congregation do?

The church today faces one of the greatest challenges in Christian history: the mass exodus of boys (and men) from the church. Seventy to ninety percent of all boys will leave the church. Most won't come back. That exit is part of a larger cultural story about our boys.

Back in the 1960s and 1970s, many parents and educators grew increasingly frustrated with the gap between boys and girls in school. Boys excelled in almost every area over girls. Because more boys attended college than girls, it gave them an advantage over women in the workplace.

In response to that crisis, the U.S. Government invested over 100 million dollars to give girls equal
opportunities and extra attention in schools. In the span of a generation, concerned parents, educators, and the government collectively changed the storyline of girls (and women) in our culture. Though there's still work to be done, a tremendous amount has been accomplished. Girls and women have excelled in areas of life once seen as the exclusive domain of men. As the father of a focused, career-minded, want-to-change-the-world daughter who has a master's degree from London and a law degree from the University of Minnesota, I'm grateful for that change!

But now we face a different challenge. Our boys have been left in the dust. They now lag significantly behind girls in many areas of education, economics, and career. Many boys have no clear idea of what it means to be a man in this new world of equality. While we are able to tell girls a better story about themselves, now it's the guys who are confused about their place in the world. The result is that we're raising a generation of "lost boys," many of whom have no idea what it means to be a man in the church or in culture.

The quest for boys

I have two children: my firstborn, a daughter, and my second, a son. I am also a grandfather of a granddaughter and two grandsons (so far). I have some experience raising both boys and girls. In raising my two children, I recognized their differences not only as a female and a male but also as two unique personalities. It wasn't until recently, however, that I began to understand and appreciate the inherent differences between the sexes. Looking beyond the egalitarian/complementarian conversation (so loaded these days), there are real differences apparent in childrearing—of hormones, interests, and views of the world. Boys and girls are different.

I've been a pastor since 1984. Like the overwhelming majority of church leaders, I used the discipleship tools available through Christian publishing companies for our youth. Most of them did not cater specifically to boys or to girls but offered mixed-gender programs. I didn't think twice about it. I did subconsciously recognize the differences in the ways boys and girls learned when I taught confirmation to seventh graders for the first time as a student pastor. But other than that, I never gave any thought to the differences between boys and girls and what that might mean for their discipleship.

In 2005, I read David Murrow's book Why Men Hate Going to Church. It was a no-holds-barred look at how the church has skewed ministry to the way many women learn and respond, but that as a result, men are staying away en masse. David argues correctly that while men still fill most pulpits, women overwhelmingly fill the pews. Subtly and not so subtly, we have positioned the gospel to speak to the learning and worship styles of women, but we've lost our men.

David's book forced me to look at my own ministry. And I saw a lot of things, obvious and not so obvious, that favored the stereotypical woman over the stereotypical man. For example, the vision statement I had written for our congregation used lots of relationship and community language versus action language/images, which often appeals more to women in our culture. So I rewrote our mission statement, making it action centered: "The mission of Community of Grace is to follow Jesus on the bold, daring, reckless adventure of bringing grace to the world."

We reviewed the worship choruses we were using and nixed those that sounded like Top 40 love songs to Jesus. (I actually liked many of these songs because I understood what they were saying. But when I looked at the lyrics from the perspective of a man who perhaps had little or no Christian background, the words made me cringe: "Hold me close, let your arms surround me," "I am so in love with you," "Beauty that made my heart adore you," and "You're altogether lovely." Men don't generally speak, let alone sing, like this to other men. As David writes, imagine the mental gymnastics men have to go through while singing those songs to Jesus.) I rethought the way I talked about Jesus and moved away from a "Jesus wants a relationship with us" type message to include "Jesus calls us to follow him" language.

David spoke at a worship service early in our congregation's history. In eight minutes—because testosterone-charged men aren't wired to sit for long sermons—he talked about how Sunday school tends to be stacked against boys. Sunday school usually demands sitting still for long periods of time, which boys are not usually inclined to do. It involves reading out loud, which boy brains don't do as well as girl brains at young ages. Boys have difficulty reading in front of the class and therefore find themselves embarrassed if the girls laugh at them. Girls excel in that environment, and boys know it. Before long, boys see Sunday school as girly. It's little wonder that they end up leaving the church as soon as they can.

I immediately met with our Sunday school leaders. We separated the third through sixth grade boys from the girls of the same age, and I began writing the lessons for the boys, which included lots of activity and action-based learning. We saw an almost immediate impact in three areas:

1. Men, who are often reluctant to get involved in children's ministry, volunteered to teach the Sunday school boys—and enjoyed it.

2. Boys started attending Sunday school again (at one point we had more boys than girls). And they enjoyed it.

3. Boys and girls benefitted as they felt freer to talk about their "stuff" without the other sex present to bug or embarrass them.

Inspired by the results, I kept learning. I began to read books about how boys and girls learn, which led me to Michael Gurian, the New York Times best-selling author of books like The Wonder of Boys; The Minds of Boys; The Purpose of Boys; and Boys and Girls Learn Differently. Michael uses brain science research to enable us to better understand how boys and girls learn. His Gurian Institute has helped teachers and school districts around the country transform the way they teach boys and girls. I sent him an e-mail one day to see if he might be willing to do for our congregation what he had been doing for schools. He responded almost immediately, and we formed a friendship and partnership.

Michael comes from a Jewish background and knows from personal experience the power of rites of passage, like the Jewish bar mitzvah. At that point, our congregation had no confirmation-type program. In over 28 years of ministry, I had never found a confirmation program that I felt really discipled the students. Confirmation tends to pour theology, church history, and church polity into the students. But calling students to follow Jesus into noble manhood or dynamic womanhood and equipping them with the practical skills to do so didn't exist in any of the programs.

So Michael and I did something bold. We created a Christian rite of passage for junior high boys based on brain science research, rites of passage insights, mentoring (done primarily by the dads, and using the program to disciple dads as well), and the call of Jesus to follow him. Again, we saw an immediate impact.

It caught on in a big way. The boys were engaged. Each week the dads told me their sons loved coming. How often do we hear boys excited about church? The dads were learning along with their sons about what it means to be a man who follows Jesus (because many of these dads were never strategically called into Christian manhood), and dads were given the tools and opportunities to mentor their sons. So far, I've lead four groups of dads and sons through the rite of passage program, and each time I've been amazed at the impact. Boys and dads long to be heroic men.

A new movement led by the church

At the end of our rite of passage, we honor each boy in front of the congregation. We only honor one boy per service to make it memorable for him. As a part of the ceremony, we pray for him, bless him, and give him a Bible. As a symbol of manhood and faith being passed from one generation to the next, I hand the Bible to dad who then hands it to his son.

One Sunday, I had the privilege of presenting a set of twins to the congregation. Near the end of their ceremony I handed a Bible to their great grandfather, who passed it to his son (their grandfather), who passed it to his son (their dad), who passed it to his sons. I then said to the congregation: "I present to you Danny and Nate, men of God!"

That's a picture of what it looks like when parents, families, and congregations partner together to stop the exodus of boys from church and forge them into men. Imagine congregations across the country equipping their boys to follow Jesus into heroic manhood. We can change the storyline of our boys. We can change the world. Let's do it.

Reclaiming Boys: 5 Things Your Congregation Can Do

What might it look like for your congregation to stop the exodus of boys?

1. Learn all you can about boys. Commit to becoming boy experts—experts in how God has created them in the male side of his image, experts in how their brains work, experts in how they speak and learn.

2. Call out the hero in your boys. Boys in puberty surge with testosterone, find it difficult to stay put, but are excited to tackle challenges. Create a challenging, but secure environment where your boys can learn that they are God's beloved sons, and that he is fully pleased with them.

3. Give your boys a compelling vision for manhood. Jesus sets the stage for this vision by calling boys to follow him.

4. Strategically raise your boys into men. Since the beginning of time, cultures have understood the need for the men of the tribe to lead the boys through a rite-of-passage experience. We need to reclaim that strategic experience for our boys, and mark when they pass from boyhood to manhood.

5. Call and equip your men to mentor boys. Men make boys into men.

From Leadership Journal by Tim Wright, pastor of Community of Grace in Peoria, Arizona. He is the author of Searching for Tom Sawyer: How Parents and Congregations Can Stop the Exodus of Boys from Church (WestBow Press) and is the co-author, along with Michael Gurian, of two rites of passage programs: Following Jesus: A Heroic Quest for Boys and Following Jesus: A Journey of Wisdom for Girls.,,

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