Discussions of “Christian manhood” these days bring to mind controversial comments from church leaders, like Mark Driscoll’s descriptions of Jesus as an Ultimate Fighting Champion and John Piper’s assertions that Christianity has an “inherently masculine feel.”
Perspectives like these are just the newest wave of a century-long backlash against what many have been calling a “feminized Christianity.”
Pastor Tim Wright, of Community of Grace Lutheran Church in Peoria, Ariz., also recognized the problem with church practices that appeal more to women, but his solution is less inflammatory and arguably more proactive, with its roots in the gospels and cognitive research.
“Manhood has to be shaped by Jesus,” Wright says. “He had the classic traits of manhood, fighting with the Pharisees, clearing out the moneychangers, and also a passion for justice, equality, and compassion that leads to action. You also see him weeping at the tomb of his friend; you see a man of deep emotion.
“We need to reconnect men to Jesus. Some people seem to be [emphasizing] manhood for its own sake, rather than connecting men to Jesus.”
Wright hopes to start this reconnection young, with boys on the cusp of manhood. The rite of passage experience he developed, “Following Jesus: A Heroic Quest for Boys,” aims to help middle school boys form “a vision of what kind of man they want to be . . . what it means to be men who follow Jesus.”
The vision for Heroic Quest began when Wright read David Murrow’s 2005 book Why Men Hate Going to Church. Murrow explains how churches are often better-suited to women’s learning styles. Wright saw evidence of Murrow’s points in his own church—how verbal most worship services were, with emotional “love songs to Jesus,” and Sunday school classes that require a lot of reading and sitting still.
School-aged boys, especially, tend to have difficulty sitting still for long periods and (since they often lag behind girls in verbal skills) are uncomfortable reading aloud or answering questions on the fly.
Community of Grace decided to separate the boys and girls for Sunday school, and put the children in class with adults of the same gender. At first, the church, which was still small at the time, had only one boy in Sunday school, alongside five or six girls, but after separating genders, boys started to outnumber girls. Having separate-sex classrooms also required that men step up to lead the boys’ Sunday school, when women had more often led all classes in the past. The boys’ classes are more high activity, and more about “relational bonding,” not so curriculum-centered as the girls’ classes.
As part of his deepening curiosity on the issue, Wright read gender psychologist Michael Gurian’s books about gender and learning differences. Gurian, who is Jewish, had focused mainly on schools, but easily applied his research to the church when Wright brought him in as a consultant at Community of Grace.
Gurian’s insights are based on science, not stereotypes, Wright says, exploring “how God made men’s and women’s brains, and asking ‘how do we pull the best out of that?’”
It’s a view that values males and females as equal, but celebrates their differences too.
“Just because something is stereotypical doesn’t mean it’s not true,” Wright says.
And the truth about boys today, in Wright’s view, is that males are experiencing an extended adolescence without integrity or responsibility. As it says on the Heroic Quest website:
“Our boys are growing up without the tools they need to be productive, healthy men. . . The result—a generation of man-boys: boys in men’s bodies, with little drive, ambition, or vision for their lives. . . . These boys are counting on us to change the current storyline in their lives and replace it with one that empowers, equips, and ennobles them for honorable, good, productive manhood.”
Together, Gurian and Wright recognized the need for a boys’ rite of passage in the Protestant tradition and began to create the Heroic Quest program.
Like bar mitzvahs and other adolescent rites of passage from various cultures, Heroic Quest requires preparation, challenges, and public presentation of what has been learned, with the goal of initiating the boys into a new stage of life as Christian men of character and integrity.
Heroic Action for Boys and Men
Keeping in mind both the science of boys’ brains and the end goal of maturity and character-building, Gurian and Wright designed Heroic Quest as a fourteen-session adventure with both large and small group sessions, a retreat, and a service project. Big group sessions are highly interactive, with activity, movement, and competition interspersed between five- or six-minute teaching sessions, so that the boys don't sit more than five or six minutes at a time.
Over the course of the program, which can be done weekly for a three-month intensive or more leisurely over a whole school year, the boys read the complete Gospel of Mark, answering questions about it and writing their own "Heroic Action Plan" for how they will apply certain character traits.
Each boy does a “Jesus Project” on a chosen story from Mark. They read the story publicly and do a creative presentation of the story at a special ceremony for their family and friends. Some boys have presented their stories in the form of a comic book, game, or video. At the completion of the Heroic Quest experience, the boys are recognized in a ceremony before the entire congregation, alongside their fathers and mentors who go through the program with them.
The involvement of dads and mentors is an essential part of the experience for the boys, but also serves as a discipleship tool for the men.
“A lot of the men aren’t sure what they believe—aren’t able to talk about it,” Wright says. Heroic Quest provides resources for men to disciple their sons.
Dads get a journal with a prompt for each week, helping them to write their story and the story of their son up to that point. They also get each week’s questions in advance, so they can write down their response and be more prepared to discuss the gospel passage and other life issues with their sons. Tips and tools for the fathers and mentors show them how to phrase questions in a way that draws boys out.
“We’re training boys, training dads, and training dads to lead boys,” Wright says.
Community of Manhood
Heroic Quest—and soon, “Journey of Wisdom,” a similar experience for girls that Wright and Gurian are developing with co-author Kathy Stevens—can be used in conjunction with churches’ traditional confirmation programs. The experiences could be used in place of confirmation, but Wright is clear that they do not serve the same purpose.
“Confirmation is more about making people good church members, not good men or women,” Wright says. “Confirmation roots participants in the community of faith; rites of passage root participants in the community of manhood or womanhood.”
While Heroic Quest is steeped in scripture and the example of Jesus, it is focused on personal and relational issues, not on questions of theology, church history, or tradition. Confirmation doesn’t deal with a lot of the real-life issues middle schoolers face, a sin of omission that can make the church seem boring and irrelevant, Wright says.
“If confirmation isn’t done right, it becomes boys’ ‘graduation’ from church."
Heroic Quest and the forthcoming girls’ rite of passage are not simply life skills or health class in religious clothing, however. To Wright, these gender-based experiences are part of the church’s mission to develop men and women who follow Jesus.
“The church provides the best place to discover what it means to be a man or woman,” Wright says. “It’s there you have the example of Jesus and all the men and women of the community, all the men and women of the Bible.”
Learn more about Heroic Quest and its program materials at www.heroicquestforboys.com.