The Church and Boys: Making the connection
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THERE is an undeniable urgency in the concern raised by Nick Harding’s study, the lack of men in our churches. And if those boys who do now attend church are not retained, an already serious situation will become dire.
Harding argues that men are essential in helping boys to reach their full potential. He identifies two problems as far as church is concerned. First, many boys do not have fathers at home, and, even if they do, their fathers are unlikely to attend church with their sons. Second, he points to the lack of male role-models with whom boys come in contact at church. This situation has not been helped by the unreasonable fear that those who interest themselves in boys’ activities might be paedophiles.
While in no way ruling out joint activities for both boys and girls, Harding recognises that there are times when boys need to be segregated. He examines all aspects of church life, including prayer, worship, the Bible, church activities, and mentoring.
The book is written with four- to 11-year-olds in mind, as it is at that stage that boys give up on church under social and peer pressures. It is full of good common sense and provides plenty of alternative approaches recognising that one size does not fit all. Importantly, it emphasises the need to listen to what boys have to say: it is not all a one-way process. Harding is not afraid of being radical, as in suggesting the forming of a boys’ church football team to play in Sunday-morning league football.
Rightly, Harding criticises the model of Jesus which boys can glean from children’s Bibles and hymns. He is not “gentle Jesus”, but a strong man of action. Nor should the requirements for following a Christian life be watered down. Boys like a challenge. But, given his somewhat macho approach, boys will need to recognise, too, powerlessness as seen on the cross and in Pauline writing.
While Harding argues for “a rounded and more masculine view of scripture”, he says little about its content and how that is to be taught. It is the lack of such teaching suitable to man come of age which, in my view, has emptied churches of men. While I believe that faith is caught rather than taught, it will not be considered if theology is not taken seriously — even for boys.
For instance, when do we tell children brought up on nativity plays that conflate Matthew and Luke’s Gospels that there are two distinct narratives with their own individual agenda? Unless children are treated seriously, they will discard the Bible as they do fairy tales and Father Christmas.
Harding concludes that there remains a need to continue to work with boys as they become men. Doing “adult things” such as getting drunk and sexual activity certainly does not make boys men. That Harding has highlighted the important place that boys have in the future of the Church is much to be welcomed.
Canon Anthony Phillips is a former headmaster of The King’s School, Canterbury.