Man looking at steepleThe church loses almost all of its young men after high school. Research indicates that more than 70 percent of the boys who are raised in church abandon it during their teens and twenties.

Dan Schaeffer told me the sad tale of his son’s nine best Christian buddies. All were pillars in the youth group, but within three weeks of high school graduation all nine had turned their back on church.

Why is this happening? We work so hard to train them up in the way they should go. How can a boy simply abandon church after 16 years of Sunday school, 8 years of VBS, and 4 years of youth group?

I believe we can combat this widespread apostasy – if we rediscover young male initiation.

Throughout human history men have had the sacred responsibility of initiating boys into manhood through rites of passage. In primitive cultures the men abduct the boys from their mothers and take them into the wilderness. There the boys learn the ways of men. Religious secrets are revealed. Initiates are subjected to tests and ordeals to prepare them for manhood. These rites of passage are often strenuous or brutal, involving beatings, burnings, tattooings, piercings, tests of physical stamina and endurance. Once a boy passes these tests he’s returned to the village and his manhood is publicly recognized in an elaborate ceremony.

We inherited a rich tradition of male initiation from the Jews. Hebrews had elaborate manhood rituals, culminating with the Bar Mitzvah, a formal recognition of manhood. Have you noticed how many of the heroes of our faith were driven into the wilderness and tested by God? Scripture is full of these tales: the flight of Jacob; the exiles of Moses and David; the temptation of Jesus.

Today’s church (and our larger society) no longer formally recognizes manhood. So our boys obtain manhood-validating experiences wherever they can get them. Why are young men inexorably drawn to dangerous, irresponsible behavior? Why do today’s young men seek out beatings, burnings, tattooings and piercings? We have not laid out the path to true manhood, nor have we bestowed the title of “man” upon those who finish that path. It’s getting so bad the U.S. Justice Department believes some young people now consider jail a rite of passage, and have launched an ad campaign to stop the trend.

Can you see what’s happening here? For centuries, religion has provided boys with rites of passage. Since we no longer do this, our sons have created their own. Leaving church has become a sign of manhood.

It is time for men to take responsibility for initiating boys again. The men of the church must provide the boys with a vision of manhood, and show them how the pursuit of Christ moves them closer to it. It’s time to stop pretending that teaching boys Bible facts will make them into followers of Jesus. They must experience firsthand the power of God, instead of just learning about it in a lesson.

Just dreaming here: what if we abandoned our classroom-style confirmation procedures, in favor of a young male initiation? What if we took our boys into the wilderness and put them through physical ordeals along with their Bible training? What if we taught them about life instead of church polity?

The Mormons have figured this out: they mobilize thousands of volunteers and millions of dollars to send their boys on a two-year rite-of-passage directly from high school. It’s called a mission. It’s difficult, discouraging and exactly the kind of challenge and adventure that captures a young man’s heart. As a result, the Latter-day Saints seem to be doing a better job retaining their young men than evangelicals, mainliners and Catholics.

A few churches are waking up on this issue. There are now some good books on young male initiation, including Robert Lewis’ Raising a Modern Day Knight, and Rich Bunduschu’s Passed Through Fire. A few men’s groups are beginning to offer young male initiations, but the responsibility for these affairs usually falls on the individual fathers. What’s really needed is for the entire community of men to see male initiation as their most sacred collective responsibility. In other words, our confirmation and membership procedures need an extreme makeover, and the men of the church must lead. We must do it for the future of the church, for the boys themselves, and for the good of society.