Boys Will Be Boys: Rites of Passage and Male Teens
By David Olshin Posted on October 03 2009
For reasons too many to name, I chose to make a statement as a rebellious 13 year old that this rite of passage was stupid. Besides, I never planned to come back to Temple as an adult. I said to myself, "So what? I'll get some praise and a couple of presents." I observed my friends going full steam ahead, embracing the long hours of memorizing the Hebrew portion of Exodus or Leviticus, and complaining all the way. I was fully aware that this ceremony, for some, would also be their exit, not entrance, into the synagogue.
Around the time of Jesus' birth, Jewish males were reading and memorizing the Torah at an early age. At ten, Jewish males were learning the Mishnah. At 13, they were "bound" to the commandments, and at 15, they studied the Talmud. It was an honor to study Torah and teach it. Becoming a rabbi was one of the greatest privileges, callings, and honors to receive.
Luke 2:42-52 records Jesus going to Jerusalem with his parents. Every adult male living within 15 miles of Jerusalem was expected to attend the Passover festival. A Jewish boy became a man at 12 years old, so you can imagine the excitement Jesus must have been feeling while journeying to Jerusalem. This was certainly a rite of passage for him, or at least a taste of great things to come. When the Passover was over, Mary and Joseph headed home, each thinking that Jesus was with the other parent, since they traveled separately in caravans.
When Mary and Joseph realized he wasn't with them and they returned to Jerusalem, they found Jesus where one would expect a 12 year old male of his day to be—in the temple. What was Jesus doing? Sitting "among the teachers [rabbis], listening to them, and asking questions." What were the rabbis thinking? They were "all quite taken with him, impressed with the sharpness of his answers."
At 13, a Jewish boy became a bar mitzvah, "son of the law," in which he entered into full adulthood. After I became a follower of Jesus, I was struck by the lack of rites of passages, traditions, and rituals in the church I attended. It dawned on me that there was a lack of symbols for me to connect with as a young believer. As a youth pastor, I observed that church was one of the last places a 12 year-old male wanted to be!
Rather than constructing markers and models for teens to enter the life of the Body, we are stuck, lost in the maze, and bumbling around trying to prevent a mass adolescent exit from the church. What seems to be missing is a rite of passage for teens, especially boys.
It's not that we're leaving girls out. More girls seem to be naturally attracted to youth group and church than boys. Boys don't even seem to like church. William Pollack from Harvard says in his bestseller, Real Boys, that boys today are in deep trouble and have a "hidden yearning for relationship." 1 Youth ministries need to find creative and innovative ways to reach boys. Adults (parents included) and adolescent boys have a huge gulf, relationally speaking. There's an intergenerational disconnection between adults and teen boys.
Michael Gurian writes that adolescent boys are "significantly more likely to die at the hands of their caregivers...males are four times more likely than adolescent females to commit suicide...boys are twice as likely as adolescent girls to be diagnosed as learning disabled...males drop out of high school at four times the rate of adolescent females...90 percent of adolescents who get in trouble at school are male...the majority of juvenile mental patients nationwide are male...the majority of adolescent alcoholics and drug addicts are male." 2
When I started my teaching sabbatical this semester, I looked back at my "missed" bar mitzvah. I have pondered why my male peers and I resisted this inauguration. This struck a familiar chord in my youth ministry today, so I started researching rites of passage and boys. I interviewed people and sent out letters, voice mails, and e-mails, asking youth pastors and church leaders the question, "Do you offer any rites of passage for teenage boys?" The response was overwhelmingly "no." What was positive in these responses was the excitement of youth workers who wanted new rites of passage for male teens in the church. Yet the sad commentary came from a youth pastor in Illinois, "We don't do anything special for boys in the church, and we are losing them before they move on to high school. I have no idea what to do."
What is a Rite?
The term "Rite of Passage" is not new; Arnold Van Gennep wrote a book in 1902 entitled The Rites of Passage (University of Chicago Press). Mircea Eliade defines rites of passage as "a category of rituals that mark the passage of a person through the life cycle, from one stage to another over time, from one role or social position to another, integrating the human and cultural experiences with biological destiny: birth, reproduction, and death. These ceremonies make the basic distinctions, observed in all groups, between young and old, male and female, living and dead." 3
One must ask, "do we have any rites of passage for American adolescence?" Some mention puberty; others say a teen's first sexual encounter. How about a driver's license and/or the first car? It seems that in our culture, there are few, if any, rites of passage for teenagers. As Wayne Rice says, "Most children never know when they become adults." 4
What would a 21st century rite of passage look like for boys? How do we produce a model of entrance rather than an exit ramp? Why not create a chapter in a male teenager's life in which he, like Jesus, listens, asks questions, and offers sharp answers?
Realistic or Not?
Rites, in essence, are goals in motion. Columnist and humorist Dave Barry writes of unrealistic and realistic goals:
Unrealistic: In the next month, I will lose 25 pounds.
Realistic: Over the next year, taking it an ounce or two at a time, I will gain 25 pounds, and my face will bloat like a military life raft. Unrealistic: I will learn to speak Chinese.
Realistic: I will order some Chinese food.
Unrealistic: I will read a good book.
Realistic: I will examine the outsides of some good books, then waddle over to the part of the bookstore where they sell pastries. 5
I was watching a sports program on TV recently in which the analysts were describing an NBA player as being "soft." They said in essence, "He comes to play some of the time, but not all of the time. He's not aggressive enough. In playoff games, he disappears." I'm wondering if this commentary is not also an indictment on the church and adolescent boys? Are we not too soft? Have we lowered our expectations for kids' spiritual lives? Rites of passage can be a realistic goal, but what does that look like? And what are the implications?
Why Rites are Meaningful
Rites are often bigger than ourselves. They can be heroic, a cause to be celebrated. Many would say that marriage is a rite because it has the element of celebrating not one but two lives coming together, becoming "one flesh." In other words, marriage is bigger than one person. It affects not just individuals, but the couple, the parents, in-laws, friends, family, and neighbors. It's larger than life.
A rite brings the "star" into a community experience. This passageway is not to be done solo, but is celebrated together with loved ones, family, and friends. It becomes a community event and involves a number of spectators and participants.
A rite is the beginning and ending. It marks the closure of an important time while signifying the beginning of another. With a contemporary bar/bat mitzvah, the community celebrates the individual. What are they dancing and clapping about? The leaving of childhood and the entering of adulthood.
It's a spiritual experience. At the heart of Jewish bar/bat mitzvahs is the presence of God, and the center of the experience is Scripture. If we are to establish these kinds of rites in the church, we should emphasize the Word of God as the central theme for young men to honor and love.
The R.I.T.E. Approach Before launching new rites of passage in your ministries, consider first the R.I.T.E. approach.
Start reading about rites of passage. It's too easy for us to hear a concept, and rather than search it out, to start planning a meeting or an event. Resist doing anything until you start reading about ministry to teenage boys. Read before doing anything else, let it slowly simmer, then allow it to boil. Here are some of the top ten resources I've read this year (in no particular order) that might be of help to you.
- Passed Thru the Fire by Rick Bundschuh (Tyndale, summer 2003), suggests that we get boys connected and integrated with godly men in the church. This is a fun, fast, and excellent book. He has created a outdoor event for males to be published by Standard Publishing calledThe Passed Thru Fire Experience.
- Raising a Modern Day Knight by Robert Lewis (Tyndale, 1997), has been an extremely popular book that focuses on the relationship between father and son. Lewis suggests a public ceremony for the teenage male before friends, family, and a community of men.
- Professor Richard Ross pleas for a Christian Bar Mitzvah. He has created an experience for a parent and a youth that flows across 30 evenings as a prelude to a Christian bar mitzvah. Check out his Web site at www.josiahpress.com.
- A Tribe Apart by Patricia Hersh (Ballantine, 1998) suggests that American teens today are "more isolated and more unsupervised than other generations," and need mentors. A provocative and shocking book.
- Richard Dunn's Shaping the Spiritual Life of Students (Intervarsity, 2001) identifies teenagers' alienation and disconnection with significant adults and calls for adults to "pace" and then help shape teens' lives spiritually.
- Wild at Heart (Nelson, 2001) is John Eldredge's challenge to give up making young men "good boys" and recognize that boys were created with a "desperate desire for a battle to fight, an adventure to live, and a beauty to rescue." Eldredge states that boys are meant to be "warriors."
- Michael Gurian's A Fine Young Man (Putnam, 1998) is a compelling resource dealing with developmental issues of adolescent boys. Gurian has done extensive homework on each stage of adolescence and uses terminology like "journey" and "pilgrimage." His view of ages 9-13, called "the age of transformation," is particularly fascinating.
- Young Lions: Christian Rites of Passage for African-American Young Men by Chris McNair (Abingdon, 2001) is an outstanding resource to enable African-American youth to "be the men that God created them to be." This school-year mentoring program is extremely practical.
- Spiritual Milestones by Jim and Janet Weidmann and J. Otis Ledbetter (Cook Com, 2002) deals with celebrating the various spiritual passages with your children and youth.
- Crossroads: The Quest for Contemporary Rites of Passage, edited by Louise Carus Mahdi, Nancy Christopher, and Michael Meade. (Open Court Publishing, 1996) is a detailed work of various rites with a wide range of sociological and theological world views.
Some of the current church models, whether effective or impaired, happen in the forms of church membership or confirmation. In my first youth ministry, I was asked to lead a confirmation class, which was a foreign concept to me. Our church started a seven-week class for 7th graders and then closed with a weekend retreat. It was a good experience for me and for them, with the exception of two boys, Ben and Ted, who told me they were made to do it by their parents. I asked them if they ever intended to come back to youth group and church, and both told me no. I asked why, and they said, "Church is boring."
A youth pastor from British Columbia told me recently, "we have tried to reach boys over the years, but nothing seems to fit quite right." He is not alone. Investigate what has and hasn't worked. Talk with people. Network. Ask what they're doing to connect with boys. Try to discover why something works or doesn't.
Lots of youth workers are working hard with boys. Here are some who have moved to the third step: knowing your audience. This involves being strategic and tactical.
Tim works with middle schoolers. He struggled for years on how to reach and keep boys. He developed a strategy of service projects as a motivational tool to involve and give ownership. Each year, these boys move up the ladder of servanthood. By the end of their middle school years, they will have served locally, state-wide, and nationally. In their high school years, they are able to do more adventurous trips to Mexico and Central America. If they make it all the way through, there's a graduating trip before college.
Eric takes 7th-9th grade boys on a 72-hour backpacking experience with all sorts of experiential learning opportunities, and adult mentors come along to help lead small groups and team initiatives.
Andrea and her husband are doing a type of Bar Mitzvah ceremony in which their son will take a purity vow along with other elements of deepening his life in God.
Promise Keepers has developed a rite of passage for turning teen boys into warriors. Their passage uses Christian rock and hip-hop artists, videos, and stories of changed lives to reach thousand of boys in an outdoor stadium.
Many denominations have curricula for rites of passages. The Episcopal Church uses Journey to Adulthood (see www.leaderresources.com). It has a rite called The Rite 13 Liturgy. Another resource is called A Chosen Generation: Men of Honor. Their Web site is www.achosengeneration.org.
These are examples of people who have read, investigated, and then determined their target accordingly. Without taking the first two steps, the target stage will most likely fail. So don't be impulsive or discouraged! Be patient, because this is a process.
We often skip this last step. Are we hitting or missing the mark? As you venture into new areas with teenage boys, test their fruitfulness. Ask some hard questions like: "Is this program working? Why or why not? What are the strengths and weaknesses of this rite of passage model? Are lives being changed? Do I have a good model? Are mentors involved? Parents? The church? Are teens more connected with the local church? Are students becoming more faithful disciples as a result?
When it is all said and done, ministry to teenage boys is tough, but worth it. There is much work to do in this area. May God lead us to new blueprints and systems with teenage males. And who knows, maybe you will be used by God to build the R.I.T.E. stuff for a new generation of men.
1 William Pollack. Real Boys. 1998. Henry Holt Co. Owl Books, New York, NY.
2 Gurian, Michael, A Fine Young Man. 1998. Putnam Books, New York, NY.
3 Eliade, Mircea. The Encyclopedia of Religion. 1987. MacMillian, New York, NY.
4 Wayne Rice, Cleared for Takeoff. 2002. Thomas Nelson.
5 Dave Barry, Resolve to Be the Best Person You Can in '98—Someone Else. The Sacramento (CA) Bee, Jan 4, 1998.