Stop your snickering. This is a serious subject.
In a young woman’s room it’s not uncommon to find various keepsakes of her childhood, including stuffed animals, baby pictures and dolls. Go to a boy’s room and a different portrait emerges: it’s as if his childhood never existed. There’s nary a Lego, Tonka truck or Mutant Ninja Turtle to be seen. Instead the walls are plastered with the images of sports heroes, curvaceous models and alcoholic beverages.
Why the difference?
Psychologically speaking, young men have an intense need to separate themselves from childhood. Women, on the other hand, celebrate their childhoods for a lifetime. No shame accrues to a woman who revels in her youth, but in our society men are supposed to strain toward manhood. I’m not saying this is a good thing, but it’s the way things are and have been for centuries. Remember the words of the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:11: “but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” Young men are still eager to do this.
So we have another reason men avoid Christianity: there is a strong psychological link between church and childhood. Women, who are free to enjoy the delights of their youth, attend church without shame. But men are wary of an institution that has strong ties to their formative years.
And those ties are strengthening. In the past century the church has become more and more child-focused. On one level, this is a good thing. Kids need to come to Jesus. But this shift may also be contributing to young men’s disinterest in religion as they approach manhood.
Church outreach used to focus on adults. But today children are the primary target of our evangelistic efforts. In many a church the nursery, Sunday school, and the youth group are the three largest ministries (after the worship service) in terms of volunteers deployed. What’s the biggest outreach of the year in nearly every evangelical church? Vacation Bible School.
In addition, today’s Sunday school images of Jesus almost always show him hanging out with kids. Our songs also reflect this: Jesus loves the little children, etc. The gospels record only a few brief encounters with children, but modern curriculum makes it seem as if Christ spent the bulk of his time with the under-10 set.
As a young man enters his adolescent years, what’s his image of Jesus? You’ve got it: Jesus is for kids. Why does he think this? Because we’ve told him so. Every Sunday morning at 9:30.
What’s the result? As boys strain toward manhood, they toss Christianity into the same dumpster as their Legos. Boys look for manly archetypes to mimic; gentle Jesus meek and mild is not on their list. Anecdotal evidence suggests that anywhere from 70 to 90 percent of the boys who are raised in church abandon it by their 20th birthdays, and many never return.
If we are to turn this around, we must break boys’ psychological tie between church and childhood. Boys must see Jesus as a manly role model and church as something that real men do. This is not impossible. Young men in the Middle East see their manhood rise when they enter a mosque. There is a strong association between manliness and Islam (an association that existed long before Islamic extremism came to the fore).
We don’t need to do anything artificial, just show boys the entire range of Jesus’ personality. Stop soft-pedaling the harsh, prickly and commanding side of Christ. Stress his courage, power and risk-taking. Most of all, if you’re going to show pictures and sing songs about Jesus, draw them from all parts of the gospels, not just his encounters with tots.