What Kind of Psycho Takes Teens Hiking in the Woods at Night?

Day 11/30

When I was in student ministry I got pretty involved in the psychological development of teenagers and young adults. Aside from our earliest years, our brains are most pliable in our teens. But where babies’ brains grow in the back, learning motor function, how to walk, use the potty, etc, teen brains grow in the front, learning (among other things) identity, values, and place in the world.

To help adolescents form this identity, nearly every culture throughout the history of the world has developed rites of passage. Every culture, that is, except the modern western Church.

It’s not that we don’t have them. We’re just not aware that we do so we don’t give them the full intentionality they deserve. Things like confirmation (we actually do a pretty good job with that), learning to fix a flat tire, getting married – all of these usher us into adulthood. The problem is we never call it that. Our rites of passage are all accidental.

So, for a season, my church set out to make it intentional.

Our first realization was that as a group, adults in church don’t offer kids anything they want to join. Sure boys want to be seen as men. Thus all the peacocking you’ll see anytime you get teenage boys together. But no boy wants to wake up at 5AM on Sunday morning to eat eggs and bacon with a bunch of 70somethings and hear a presentation from the trustees.

Girls offer different challenges. Our society unfairly favors female youth. Grown women spend a lot of money to look younger. Teenage girls don’t want to be seen as women the same way teenage boys want to be viewed as men.

So the first job was to create a community and culture that students wanted to join. For the men it meant moving Sunday breakfast to dinner after youth group, serving steak and inviting folks like the head football coach to speak. It also meant setting up some fun and meaningful events like fishing trips and mission projects. Similarly the women hosted dinners and went on beach retreats, probably with less live bait.

The next job was to create an experience that invited students into the adult groups of the church. For brevity’s sake I’ll only describe the boys’ rite of passage. The one for girls was quite different.

It started by contacting the parents of boys who were 16 and older, and who were active in the church, to explain the retreat and how important their role was. This was not something we advertised and it was by invitation only. On Thursday of Spring Break the parents would drop the boys off at church with a bag full of the items we’d requested and we hopped in the church van. After an hour or two in the car I told them that we were going camping, had a long hike ahead of us and asked them to find their bags and make sure they had everything they needed. At the trailhead we already had a trailer full of packs, sleeping bags, and anything else they might need.

The hike to camp was about three hours. When we arrived there were already several men of the church there waiting. The boys were given a tarp to make a shelter, told to dig a latrine and assigned to keep the fire going that night. Without fail, the fire went out. That’s when Mark, our church worship leader who in a previous life had been an bull-rider turned Army Ranger, and who to this day is the greatest story-teller I’ve ever shared a campfire with, would wake up them up and scold them for letting their whole platoon freeze to death.

That’s when I took them on the night hike. (See Day 8/30)

When we returned the coffee was hot and breakfast was cooking. We sat down and talked about humility and responsibility. That was the first of several talks – all taken from the sermon on the mount and all following an experience that illustrated what we were trying to teach.

Male rites of passage, regardless of culture or creed, all follow a similar pattern that begins with liminality, a separation from the community and loss of identity, followed by a challenge or series of challenges that ends in the reinstatement into the community as a new person. Think of boot camp or rush or our baptism liturgy.

From that point we began slowly inviting the boys into group. They were invited into our tent – we had a borrowed tent from the local Armory. They were invited to share more. They took part in challenges like crossing the river with only a rope and only one person allowed to get wet. We went rappelling. And the fire never went out on the second night. Saturday I took them on a long hike and when we returned their dads were at camp along with a bunch of men from church. We ate steaks and gave each dad an opportunity to tell how proud they were of their son. Then they gave them a cross that the rest of the men in church already had.

From that point on the church treated them like men. They were still in the youth group, but on the nights the men would have suppers, after youth I’d pull out my cross and say whoever has one of these is welcome to stay for steak. The rest of you have to go. Inevitably someone would ask how to get one and I’d say something vague like: it has to be given.

I realize how archaic and stereotypical this all comes off. Since those days my theology and understanding of gender and sexuality has grown and there are some changes I’d make. But for all of the farts and red meat, it wasn’t macho. It was turn the other cheek, love your enemy, and give without recognition. It challenged boys to be men but not in a “Jesus and John Wayne” or Mars Hill kind of way.

It was transformative for our church. And for me. And, I hope, for the boys who still have that cross.

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