In two previous posts (here and here) we examined the many ways we unwittingly screen boys and young men out of the church. If we want more men in church 20 years from now we must start today – by rethinking how we raise boys in the faith.
Let’s start with children’s ministry.
Our 150-year-old model of Sunday school ensures that boys will lose. Here are the rules: sit in a classroom, look up passages in books, read aloud, memorize, and listen to a female teacher.
How many seven-year-old boys do you know who will thrive in an environment like that?
Fortunately, a new model of children’s ministry is emerging, particularly in contemporary churches and “megachurches.” Here’s what it looks like at my church in Alaska: kids of all ages assemble in a large room full of fun things to do. It’s 15 minutes of barely-controlled chaos. After the kids get their wiggles out, they gather in rows to sing a few fun praise songs (complete with body motions). Next the lights dim and a professionally produced video appears on a large screen (we buy these videos from a curriculum producer). The video employs a modern metaphor to introduce a spiritual truth. Finally, the boys and girls separate into same-gender small groups; boys with male teachers, girls with female teachers. The lesson time is brief and usually built around an object lesson (related to the video they just saw). Once the instructional time is done, the teacher may ask students to share prayer needs. The teacher prays for each request, or has the students do it. Then it’s on to more free play until the parents arrive.
Churches around the country are experimenting with this new model. The bottom line: boys love it. It plays to their strengths: activity, body movement, visuals and objects. Whereas girls usually “win” in the old classroom-based Sunday school, the new model advantages neither gender. Boys tend to respond better to male teachers. Although there’s not a lot of heavy Bible study in the new model, young men may actually absorb more of the teaching because they find it more interesting.
Even traditional Sunday school curriculum is changing. A company called Next Righteous Generation (NRG) has created custom curricula for boys and girls. Lessons, activities and illustrations are customized for each gender. And Group Publishing offers the Hands On Bible Curriculum, which presents each week’s topic upon an object lesson the kids participate in themselves.
So children’s ministry is definitely headed in the right direction. I believe we will see more adult men in church in about twenty years…that is, if they survive youth group.
Children’s ministry may be getting friendlier to boys, but youth ministry seems to be going the opposite direction. As I noted in my last blog post, youth group is quickly evolving into a music-centric experience. Group singing is consuming more and more time in youth group.
Why is this happening? Youth group is becoming a farm team for the “big” service – a training ground for future pastors and worship leaders. Youth leaders have also learned that if the band plays for half an hour, that’s 30 minutes less material they have to prepare.
Youth praise bands are great for musicians – but for the rest of the boys, lengthy praise sets can be a drag.
Here’s the problem with young men and praise singing: the average 16-year-old boy is not grateful to God yet. Praise music means nothing to him. Trying to make the typical teenage boy sing praise songs is like trying to make a pig knit. Asking him to stand in a darkened room for twenty-five minutes, singing songs of appreciation he doesn’t feel is pointless at best. At worst, he feels somewhat defective. He secretly wonders, Is there something wrong with me? Why don’t I feel they way I’m supposed to?
As an example of how to do youth group right, I’d point to Young Life Club. Their weekly meetings consist of a couple games, a handful of simple songs, a brief Christ-centered talk, and a chance to respond. The formal content is usually wrapped up in less than an hour. This is by design – Young Life has learned the most effective ministry time is not the formal programming, but the personal interaction between students and leaders before and after meetings. Young Life is still very effective at reaching boys – particularly the ones who didn’t grow up in church.
Now for some good news. There are plenty of churches across America that have quietly begun targeting men in Sunday worship. It seems like every week I hear about another one (and many have read my book Why Men Hate Going to Church). There’s a strong statistical correlation between church growth and male participation. The secret of the megachurches has been their ability to draw previously irreligious males back into the fold.
We don’t have to pander to men and boys – but would it be asking too much to accommodate them? Examine everything you do through the eyes of a young man – particularly your youth group – and ask yourself, “Is this how Jesus would disciple them?”