By Rick Bundschuh
Manhood, inaccurately portrayed and difficult to understand by so many today, is especially hard for many preteen males to attain. Here’s how one Christian leader not only worked to make his church man friendly, but also created a program to show boys how to be godly men.
I could sense the longing immediately.
The kid was around 12, had bed head hair, was awkward, somewhat unkempt, and was beginning to exchange baby fat for the sinewy muscles of coming manhood.
All I had done was to make a couple of jokes with the boy, and then showed him the long-lost “Vulcan death grip,” a technique to take virtually any opponent to the ground.
Now he slowly circled me as I went about my business, his eyes begging for more interaction.
He was man hungry, a dead giveaway that he was raised in a home where the father was missing or functionally absent in his life. And now, on the cusp of the transition from childhood to elusive manhood, he found himself without a guide, mentor, or model for what a man should be.
These boys are legion, and in a culture where nearly 45 percent of kids are born outside of wedlock (72 percent in African-American communities), their numbers are increasing exponentially.
I know what it is like to be man hungry. My own father evaporated out of the family and into an alcoholic mist at just the point where I needed his guidance the most. I was in a masculinity vacuum. There was no one to teach me even elementary man skills such as “righty tighty, lefty loosey.” There was no one to show me the real currency of manhood: integrity, righteousness, self-control/discipline, protection and care for the weak and unloved, courage (instead of bravado), and responsibility. There was no one to counsel me on how to treat a woman.
I was a young beach kid, and my natural inclination would have been to gravitate toward the older surfers, most of whom in my era coupled their physical prowess in the ocean with a high appetite for women and drugs.
Most of the boys in such a situation find their models for manhood through gangs or power brokers of money, sexual conquests, violence, or the kind of male facades presented in movies and media. But I was fortunate to discover strong Christian men who scooped me up and challenged me to reach for the high bar of genuine manhood.
Many of my fatherless peers were not so privileged, and they went on to damage a lot of lives, as well as cripple their own, as they thrashed their way into some often twisted form of manhood using the tools and roadmap of secular culture.
Some never found their way at all, becoming only adult males, not real men.
Meanwhile, clueless as ever to the erosion taking place in the male soul, modern culture continues to celebrate turning stallions into geldings and replaces genuine manhood with damaging and ridiculous counterfeits.
Into this crisis (and I use that word very intentionally because I believe the drift away from real manhood is an unheralded but lethal social and spiritual crisis) comes the church.
Of all places, it is the church that should best understand the elements of masculinity to celebrate. The church ought to be straining at the bit to fulfill the mandate to “learn to do good, to be fair, and to help the poor, the fatherless, and widows” (Isaiah 1:17, The Living Bible) and to invest their time and energy in modeling and teaching God’s standard for a man.
But alas, in many churches there is only a faint echo of real masculinity to be heard, and those men who are present either have lost heart or simply don’t know what to do to affect the young men of the future.
So as a pastor, a veteran youth worker, a father to three boys, and a former lost boy myself, I decided to goad the Christian men with whom I have connection to step into the gap and do something.
The first thing my team and I did was to make sure our local church environment resonated with men.
This is an article all in itself, but suffice to say it involved everything from jettisoning flower arrangements, redesigning the campus to feel like a Starbucks, putting songs in a singable key for men, crafting messages that had action points, banning hand-holding with other men at any time or occasion, celebrating masculine values, and creating masculine adventures.
We tinkered with the traditional “men’s retreat,” giving it a new name, Mantown, since “retreating” has lost its original context.
In Mantown we devised a world especially for men. The meetings were short, discussion-filled, provocative, and geared toward action. The food was terrific and the coffee even better. Options abounded from the uber physical to flopping in a hammock. We even brought up a team of masseuses and set up a pup tent for anyone who wanted a free massage.
Needless to say, Mantown is something we don’t have to sell very hard to get men to sign up.
We also decided to create a rite of passage event for boys.
This kind of thing is not particularly novel. After all, many tribal cultures still have a definitive line in the sand a boy must cross in order be accepted as a man. Even the ancient Hebrews made a separation between a boy’s childhood and manhood, not allowing him to sit in the temple with men until he had his bar mitzvah, usually around the age of 12. (Jesus was that age when he suddenly went missing from his family during a Passover trip and was found in the temple courts; see Luke 2:41ff)
So, stealing ideas from various rites of passage events, we created something we call “Passed Thru Fire.”
During a weekend, we take kids from 11 to 14 years old into the wilderness where they are put through a series of “ordeals” designed to teach a lesson about what it means to be a man. (Example: a crack-of-dawn hike to a lookout that must be done in complete silence all the way in. One word and everyone except the perpetrator must drop and do 20 push-ups. The lesson: what we do in life affects others we journey with.)
The first shocker comes at bedtime when we announce the sleeping quarters are for men, and since the boys do not qualify as such, they are on their own to figure out how to stay warm, dry, and comfortable. We then toss them into the dark with some tarps and ropes.
These ordeals are punctuated with “man stories”—the men of the church sharing both their success and failures in living up to godly standards of manhood.
Finally, after a day full of adventure, wise counsel, ordeals, and a dinner “meal” of water, a bit of rice, and a cup of broth (to help them identify with the have-nots of the world), the young candidates are carted off to a secluded spot where one by one they are tapped to begin the process of returning to camp. During that trek, they meet men stationed along the way who ask a challenge drawn from the elements of manhood we have discussed (“Are you willing to be a man of integrity, to be a man whose word is his bond, who is honest and truthful?”)
As the individual boys stumble back into camp, they are met with rousing applause from the rest of the adult men, who usher them into the dining room where the fatted-calf feast has been cooked in their honor, as each is recognized as a young man, and no longer a mere child.
At the end of this event, each boy is assigned a “wingman,” an adult who will pray for him, watch out for him, and be a resource in his life.
Finally, each boy is sworn to secrecy, so that other burgeoning young males will not know what is awaiting them (nor will their moms know what took place, which all things considered, is a good thing).
The Big Picture
Of course, this is just one idea. There are other good resources and ideas in books such as Raising a Modern Knight by Robert Lewis and Wild At Heart by John Eldredge.
The big picture is this: we live in a time when men and boys who want to be men have lost their way. Yet it is a time when the Christian church, who of all places ought to be the environment where godly masculinity oozes effortlessly from every corner, seems to men to be a place only for women or weak and pathetic men.
The challenge is to prayerfully rethink who we are as Christian men, what our responsibility is to the increasing number of fatherless boys in our neighborhood, and even in our churches, and how we can retool our faith communities to be more attractive to men than their go-to options such as the bar, garage, lake, the beach, the club, or the sport team.
It isn’t an easy challenge, but then the stuff we men like to do usually isn’t.
Rick Bundschuh is a teaching pastor at Kauai Christian Fellowship in Hawaii, as well as an author (Soul Surfer and many other titles) and cartoonist.
Passed Thru Fire by Rick Bundschuh is available digitally at Amazon’s Kindle store. The entire curriculum for the Passed Thru Fire event is also available from Rick at firstname.lastname@example.org.