What Should a Pastor Say to a Group of Boys?

What Should a Pastor Say to a Group of Boys?

A friend who is youth pastor at a “mainline” Protestant church has invited me to speak with the boys of his youth group. Fortunately, the youth pastor sees the precarious situation of boys in our contemporary American society as it really is—precarious and pernicious. He wants me, as an academic theologian with strong interest in helping boys in our society gain a sure footing, to, what I would call, “conscienticize” and encourage them.

I read a lot of books and articles about “the boy crisis” in American society. (I don’t know if it’s as true in other societies.) Every few months another book appears by a sociologist or psychologist or pastor or religion scholar attempting to shed light on “what’s wrong with boys and young men.” Some of these are written by women; some of those are helpful and some not so helpful. I personally do not find “man up!” advice very helpful—especially from women.

In my view, much of the trouble with young men in our society stems from our society’s general lack of interest in boys and young men except as candidates for being changed—into girls and women (except for their physiology). Television and movies are constantly portraying masculine men as sinister or stupid. The only “acceptable” men are those who are feminized in their consciousness and actions. But even they are subjects of humor for that (e.g., Phil Dunfey on “Modern Family”).

There’s a memorable line in a song in the musical “My Fair Lady”: “Oh, why can’t women be more like men?” Professor Higgins sings it much to the amusement and agreement of his sidekick Colonel Pickering. For the past two to three decades the question bombarded at us is the other way around: “Oh, why can’t men be more like women?” And those men who resist, even gently but firmly, are treated as objects of scorn in the media and in the academy.

I recommend you stop here and read a post by another Patheos blogger—David Murrow. The blog post is “Why men aren’t stepping up” and I find it very insightful. (Go to www.patheos.com/blogs/afewgrownmen/author/dmurrow/ .) The industrial revolution and now the technological revolution have both contributed to dispensability of men and the feminist revolution has (perhaps unintentionally) contributed to boys and men being viewed as simply a problem. (I’m not saying that was feminists’ intention; it’s perhaps an unintended consequence of the “women’s movement.”)

So what ought I to say to a group of Christian seventh through eleventh grade boys?

First, I plan to tell them it’s good to be a boy—and a man. They should be proud of it. Not proud as in “better” than girls or women. Not at all. Just as girls and women should be proud of being that, so boys and men should be proud of being what God made them to be and make the most of it—as God intends it to be. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with being male in spite of many of the not-very-subtle messages bombarded at us by advertisers, entertainers, journalists, educators and public attitudes in general.

Second, I plan to tell them that being a boy or man does not automatically mean being “masculine” in the stereotypical sense. They don’t have to prove that being a boy is good by going with all their testosterone-driven impulses. In fact, they should rein them in. Both genders have tendencies, whether from nature or nurture, that, if driven too far lead to trouble. One testosterone-driven impulse is to be aggressive and dominate others. Not all boys or men feel that impulse to the same degree, but studies have shown that testosterone does tend to make even women (when increased in them) more aggressive and less compassionate.

Third, I plan to tell them that they need to ignore the stereotypes of “manhood”—whether those come at them from their male peers or from the media or anywhere. What are those stereotypes? Well, of course, “boys don’t cry” is one. I will give them permission to cry and even encourage them to cry. Everyone needs to cry sometimes just as everyone needs to laugh sometimes. It’s human. But the “boy code” teaches young men to suppress feelings of weakness, vulnerability, need, and to act strong, invulnerable, self-sufficient. The boy code is one of the worst problems boys and young men face. And women understand very little about it. It’s kept secret among males. But it’s the source of much of what girls and women find troubling about boys and men. And it starts and becomes very strong and controlling in middle school if not earlier.

Fourth, I plan to tell them to choose their heroes carefully. Just because someone is a monster on the football field or basketball court doesn’t make him a worthy hero. Read a lot and find a worthy hero—based on his character—among fictional heroes or in biographies. Or choose someone closer to home—a youth pastor, coach, teacher, social worker, whatever. Your heroes do not have to be the “macho men” of sports or war.

Fifth, I will tell them to put down the video games and read. Studies have shown that reading wires the brain for success. Reading makes readers smarter, more critical thinkers. It cannot be replaced by video gaming, watching television or movies, etc. “If you wish to succeed and make something of yourself—read, read, read.” It’s not a “girl thing.”

Sixth, I will advise them to find a trustworthy adult outside their family to confide in. The natural candidate for a Christian boy is his pastor or youth pastor. Or it could be an uncle or other relative. But it must be “someone you can trust to listen and not get all bent out of shape about what you tell him. Secrets corrode the soul. You need a mature confidante and counselor.”

Seventh, I will tell them to turn a deaf ear to peers and others who attempt to tell them how they should act and just be themselves in the best sense—of what God calls them to be. If they’re more attracted to libraries than athletic fields, they should go for it. If they’re more drawn to drawing than to video games, they should do it. If they’re more fulfilled by volunteering with Red Cross or Civil Air Patrol than partying, they should volunteer. There is no one path for all boys and young men to being “masculine” and “a real guy.” If they enjoy shopping; they should ignore those who deride boys shopping (except for trainers, of course!).

Eighth, I will suggest that they avoid spending time on the internet in private. Even if they’re parents allow it, they should move their computer out into the public spaces of the house where others are around and browse there. The internet is a wonderful tool for learning and expanding the mind, but it’s also a dangerous playground for adolescents—just as an urban playground can be for children without adult supervision. The “candy man” is now in cyberspace more than stalking children in parks.

Ninth, I will say that they should talk openly with their parents and even insist that their parents sit down with them and listen. A gulf begins to open up between teens and parents and it’s encouraged by our culture—especially the media that portrays parents as stupid, intrusive, out of touch and spoil-sports (unless they are portrayed as enablers of bad behavior). “Tell your parents what you want from them in terms of guidelines, space, understanding, communication, etc.” Often parents of adolescents are afraid of them; sometimes it takes the adolescents simply opening up and telling parents what they want. For example “Dad, I need more time with you. Will you please come to my game Saturday?” Or “Mom, I wish you would not open my bedroom door without knocking first.”

Tenth, finally, I will tell them to pray and read their Bible every day especially when they don’t feel like it!

Far, far too much positive attention is given to girls in our society—compared to boys. The general attitude is that boys are either to be contained, curtailed, limited, or socially engineered to be like girls. If the latter isn’t working, just do the former. Boys are far more likely to be given drugs for ADHD than girls—often just because they have trouble sitting still as long as girls. Churches should be places where being a boy or young man is affirmed even as that condition is trained and carefully managed. Yes, true, boys and young men need to be civilized and it should be by responsible, caring, male adults. Too often, though, they are left to their own devices (except for being criticized) as the girls, so much more easy to manage (in most cases), are given all the positive attention.

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  • Tim Reisdorf

    I would add: Become a master of doing something that is useful or productive. Have something to offer that is really, really good. Then you will be able to see beyond the fake self-esteem that adults try to convince you of – you will know it in your bones without pretending or falsity. Being good with a hammer or a hammer dulcimer, writing a funny story or shearing a sheep, carving a wooden spoon or felling a tree – such trophies are infinitely better than ribbons for participation.

    • Roger Olson

      Thanks! That’s good advice. I’ll use it.

  • danaames

    Sounds good to this female. Mutatis mutandis, basically the same things could be said to a group of girls as well.

    This is another reason to get PE and morning, lunch and afternoon recess back into the elementary schools (not to mention art and music). A person is a whole, not just a brain being taught to a test. Let them run around outdoors (supervised), for pity’s sake!

    The prescription epidemic is scandalous. For those kids whose brain chemistry really does need help, coffee should be tried first of all – much less expensive, and effective for many.


  • Jakeithus

    These are all good points. It’s certainly a lot to cover in whatever time frame you are allowed, so I wish you well in your attempt.

    I personally really resonate with the idea that it is especially important as men to form relationships with trustworthy adults and to pick good heroes/role models. I don’t think it was apparent to me when I was younger, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve been able to see the blessing and value that can be gained from relationships with other men, especially when they are at a different point in their lives.

    It’s tough to ask teenage boys to initiate those sorts of relationships, as I’d say the responsibility falls primarily with the older men present in the church, but it should be something teenage boys can start to think about.

    • Roger Olson

      I can’t imagine very many, if any older men reaching out to teenage boys even in a church youth group–to mentor them. Unless the church sets up a structure for such. We have been conditioned by the legal profession and by social workers to avoid contacts between older men and boys unless they are related or the older man is a pastor and even then it’s risky (because of popular perceptions).

      • Mark Kennedy

        That’s very true. I’m old enough to be the grandfather of the teen boys I work with, but after my first few years of teaching (1989 and following), began to pretty much ignore the risk and invest in the kids. You know, shrewd as serpents and risk-taking as Jesus. An effective counter to the risk is to spend a little time getting acquainted with the parents up front. They’ll usually go off the vibe they get from us–and likewise, I’ve gently refused to take a risk with some kids because of the vibe I got from their parents.

  • labreuer

    I’m a fan of John Eldredge’s Wild at Heart. It isn’t perfect, but it makes room for the fighting instinct that many boys feel. Eldredge believes that this fighting instinct is put in us by God because there is something to fight: evil. Now, just like it takes practice and training and discipline to be good at a sport or video game, it takes the same to learn how to fight evil well.

    Oftentimes, we must understand to identify who is friend and who is foe—the battle against evil is guerrilla warfare, not nice lines of infantry like the British were expecting in the American Revolutionary War.

    Another topic is the release of pent-up energy. The energy within uranium can be released all at once in the form of a nuclear explosion, or it can be slowly released and generate massive amounts of useful power. One of the harder things for many boys to learn is how to deal with that pent-up energy in constructive ways, instead of blowing up in various ways. But the more self-controlled and greater capacity for tolerating pent-up energy (or ‘wrongness’ that impacts us), the more we can do to fight evil in a Godly way which results in less total evil in the world (vs. a Romeo & Juliet-type spiraling out of control).

  • David Rogers

    I’ve thought that the range of masculinity differently portrayed by the Nine Walkers in the Fellowship of the Ring in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings gives a compact illustration of how masculinity can be varied and yet retain a maleness that acts with integrity.

  • Jim

    All good stuff, of course… but if those boys are anything like mine, 10 things is about nine things too many.

    Tell them to love. To love life, and learning, and the small gifts that fill most every moment. To love their friends and their families. To love the meek, and the geek, and the lonely, and the mean. To love themselves for who they are, and to love the God who made them that way.

    • Roger Olson

      I have to fill up more time than that! And I’m driving a long way for this. They’re going to get the whole message–maybe with three breaks in between points. 🙂

  • Hello Roger, while speaking with feminists, I emphasize the fact that all sorts of injustices should be equally combated. And I point out that while historically men have had power and oppressed women, females themselves can oppress men and act in an unjust way.

    As soon as they heard the second part of the sentence, feminists shout at me: “Victim blaming!?”

    They further say that female misbehaviors against males are negligible and that this is just a rhetoric trick of men like me feeling “threatened” by the fact that women are obtaining equal rights.

    To your mind, how should I react as a Christian in such situations?

    Many thanks for your answer!

    • Roger Olson

      I don’t talk about men being oppressed by women. I talk about boys being neglected by a society that has been saturated with feminist messages and have misinterpreted them as giving permission to neglect boys’ needs. Many feminists are mothers or sisters of boys and need to wake up to the fact that boys are struggling in our society. Do they really want a future society full of resentful, angry young males?

  • J.E. Edwards

    Possibly mention the value of working hard?? You’re pretty thorough, looks like a great message to me, Roger. If you can post the audio, I’ve got a son that would benefit from hearing it (as well as myself). God be with you.

  • TerryJames

    I like everything you said here, but the fifth suggestion, “read,” stands out for me.

    When I was a boy, back in the late 50’s, I was put in the “slow group” for reading–we would sit in front of the class with the nun and get additional help while the smart kids were doing other things. It didn’t help. I was still a non-reader as I entered high school. Then my 10th grade English teacher, Mr. E. –a person I will never forget–had us read a story about a man who brought his family to northern Canada to live off the land. I devoured the story–several times. I learned then that I could read! I just needed something that captured my imagination and interests.

    I would tell those in your audience to read what they like–sports, adventure, fishing– whatever it is they like. It will whet their appetite for more and their vocabulary will grow–and no matter what your IQ is, if you have a good vocabulary, you can fool the world!

    • Roger Olson

      Good suggestion. Thanks. Could it also have had anything to do with your early experience being from a nun and your later one, that worked, being from a male teacher? Studies have shown that boys learn better from men.

    • Mark Kennedy

      Reading for interest instead of as an assignment or even information (unless that’s in your field of interest) is hugely missing from our schools today–and so from most boys’ lives. And it’s not because teachers don’t want it in the curriculum, but because of the standardization and corollary assessment which has taken control of education in America the past dozen years. I believe this has been an especially pernicious development for our boys and young men (I’ve taught adolescents in alt ed for 25 years).

      • Roger Olson

        Amen to that. When I was an adolescent boy my teachers, both male and female, strongly encouraged boys and girls to read and even required it. Some of my best memories of junior high school are the books I read for English classes that propelled me to read non-required books as well. Even then, however, many boys had the opinion that reading was a “girl thing.” Somehow we must overcome that; it ought to be a matter of strong social emphasis–getting boys to read. Just as it is a strong social emphasis to get girls to go into math, for example.

        • Mark Kennedy

          Good point. This idea of boy subjects and girl subjects is lethal to the hope of many kids–any who don’t fit the stereotype. As a partial antidote, I teach martial marts as an after school program, and always wear my glasses and encourage students to do the same. I jokingly tell the kids that real fighters wear glasses, and somehow they buy it. Guess God did know what he was doing when he made me kind of a tough guy in my youth. 🙂

  • John

    So much wisdom in this post. The “boy problem” is serious problem percolating under the surface of our American culture.

  • Van

    May I suggest a re-arrangement of the numbered items. In my opinion, Number One should be: Tell ’em how unique and special they are and that God loves them just the way they are; he even loves them when they foul-up (and who doesn’t?). Here’s a little article I wrote that you may use if you think it appropriate:


    “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly” (John 10:10)

    Perhaps you’ve never accepted the fact that you deserve the very best. Many
    people have been conditioned to think it presumptuous to see themselves as
    deserving anything good in this life. In some cases, they’ve been told that even God considers them to be unworthy of any favors. Thus if one never expects
    the best, then, predictably, one may well end up with less than the best. What a tragedy!

    But here’s the good news! You –yes, even you – really do deserve the best. Nothing is too good for you. At this point you may be asking, “But, why me?” Well, the answer may surprise you. It’s not because of anything you’ve done to merit the best. It’s not because you’ve earned the right to the best. It’s not because you’re owed the best. Oh, no! It’s simply because you are YOU! And there’s not another “YOU” in the entire universe.

    You deserve the best because you are so unique in all of God’s great creation.
    God has never made anything or anyone exactly the same. Not even identical twins are “identical.” That’s right; you’re ‘special-made.’ He accepts you just the way you are. And as someone has said, “God doesn’t make junk.” In his sight you’re like a ‘one-and-only’ rare work of timely creation; intended to bring him glory by your very existence.

    You deserve the best because God loves you. He can’t help loving you because
    “God is love.” Real love never thinks of giving the object of its affection something ‘second best.’ Besides, “the best” is the only thing that God has to give. And for you, only the very best will do. You are so valuable in God’s eyes, he would
    search heaven and earth to find a gift worthy of you. For you no cost to himself would ever be considered too much to pay. And so he did! He gave to you the best he had – his one and only Son, Jesus. And, why should he not? After all, you do deserve the best. And God’s best is a continuum. In other words, “The best is
    yet to come!” ~
    (By: Ivan A. Rogers)

  • Mark Kennedy

    I’m way late to this party–having been too drained from working with 7th-12th grade boys to keep up with my reading. 🙂 I do still want to say, though, that your 10 points, Prof. Olson, seem to me very well thought out–and I’ve done this work professionally for several decades. I would have been hard pressed to come up with that list. By the way, have you given the talk yet? If so, how did it go?

    • Roger Olson

      Not yet. Very soon. Pray for me, please.

      • Mark Kennedy

        Will do. Those boys need you.

  • Mark Kennedy

    Were my comments somehow offensive? Wondering why they didn’t make it?

    • Roger Olson

      Sorry, don’t know. Too many to remember.

  • Stephen Alexander

    I really think that point six is critical. I also like that you posed it as a positive. Do this! Find a trustworthy adult. You are absolutely right secrets corrode the soul. They also encourage us to live dual lives. Giving the boys some active advice (fid a mentor) will go so much further in combating the secret keeping which is so pervasive in teens.

  • Jamie McCallum

    Dr. Olson, thank you for these great words! As a female youth minister, I often pray that the male students will have mentors to invest in and walk alongside them- men who will encourage and challenge them in a way I am not always able to do. I will encourage the men who help in our ministry to read this article and share the insight with our guys. Even better, maybe you could come share the truths in person!

    • Roger Olson

      I am at your service.