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Boys’ guide to manhood

11 March 2022

Christianity lacks a rite-of-passage ceremony to help boys transition into adulthood  but there is plenty that churches can do to fill this gap, says Darren Quinnell

A youth worker, who uses ManMade, mentors teenage lads

A youth worker, who uses ManMade, mentors teenage lads

OVER the centuries, rites-of-passage ceremonies have been a key method used throughout many cultures and societies to transition lads from boyhood into manhood.

In some cultures, over time, these rites of passage have become a tradition celebrated by the whole community: we see this with the rumspringa [a Pennsylvania German word for “running around”] in Amish communities; with bar mitzvah, in Jewish culture; with the walkabout in Australian Aboriginal communities; and the Vision Quest in Native American culture.

All of these rites of passage (and many others) have two things in common: first, boys go through this in their early teens; second, they are all characterised by three distinct processes: “separation” (leaving behind the familiar); “transition” (a time of growth/learning); and “reintegration” (incorporation and return).

It was the anthropologist Arnold Van Gennep who first coined the term “rites of passage” and identified those three clear stages as being key to an effective rite-of-passage moment.

In the West, however, rites of passage for boys sadly have been reduced simply to peer-to-peer acts such having sex, getting wasted, or growing facial hair.


IN 2010, I wrote and published a resource, ManMade: A rites of passage course for teenage guys, which aimed to provide the Church with a course that supported teenage boys to think about how they move towards manhood — in particular, in becoming godly men.

When ManMade was published, we knew then that the issues surrounding boys’ transition into adulthood was worrying. But, more than ten years on, even the word “transition” takes on new meaning. Teenage boys are being challenged more than ever to discover what manhood really is, and, in many cases, even trying to have the conversation is near impossible without getting attacked for being transphobic.

Surely that makes it even more important to help conversations take place. Never has there been a more needed time for effective boys’/lads’ ministry to be formed within the Church.

Since the pandemic, youth groups have been hit hard, and boys have been hit even harder. We are living in a world where the stats for mental heath, suicide, and depression in young lads is at an all time high.

Warren Farrell, the author of The Boy Crisis, says “Many bright boys are experiencing a ‘purpose void,’ feeling alienated, withdrawn, and addicted to immediate gratification.”

A key reason for this is because we do not provide them the right forums, with their peers, to start intentional conversations with each other. We are letting them drown in a sea of uncertainty and pressure, and are not helping them find purpose in life.


THERE has always been an opportunity for the Church to be a catalyst in providing space where boys can find meaning and purpose, whether that is in God himself, or in fighting for his Kingdom of justice and peace; boys long to be part of something bigger than themselves.

At the turn of the 20th century, the Revd Albert Kestin (the founder of Crusaders and Urban Saints) started his ministry because he found a group of boys that weren’t in church on a Sunday. Instead of trying to force them into something that they found boring, he set up a group that related to them. It was not that they weren’t interested in faith, they just couldn’t interact with the status quo.

istockIn Western societies, coming of age is now marked by trivial activities such as drinking

Yet again, the Church has the chance to fill the gap and give young lads real “purpose” through who Jesus is and what he offers. Yet we seem to be avoiding it, perhaps because of lack of resources, lack of time, or not understanding its importance.

Incidentally, we are not saying that girls should not be a focus; the simple fact is, however, that boys learn differently to girls. For example, they progress, on average, about two years behind girls their age, and yet we teach them at the same level. This is one reason why it is important to create space, in our groups, for young lads to meet together, and to create an environment suited for them to be open, learn at their pace, and be honest with their peers.


SO, THE question is, how do we address the growing problem of boys not finding church of interest? What are we missing for boys in church? And how do we attempt to turn the tide?

Over the years of exploring what effective lads’ ministry could look like through ManMade, receiving feedback, undertaking more research, and understanding that we live in changing times, there are three key intentional “narratives” that we have discovered — and are seen to be effective — in supporting boys throughout their teenage years and into manhood.

These narratives are not a replacement to the rites of passage experience (a separation, transition, and reintegration event), but these three “narratives” seek to complement that one-off experience; strengthening the years leading up to it, and the years after it.



HAVING a rites-of-passage moment is of huge importance to any boy’s growth. ManMade has attempted to provide churches with material to create an intentional rites-of-passage experience. This has been through weekends (or days) away, where boys are challenged through different trials — creating shelters, changing a car tyre, learning to iron — which seek to symbolise and recreate a separation, transition, and reintegration experience.

In addition to intentionally trying to create this rite-of-passage experience, ManMade acknowledges the importance of intentionally recognising natural moments in a boy’s life that should also be highlighted and marked, rather than just drift past.

istock A boy celebrates bar mitzvah at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, Israel, in January 2019: a rite of passage in which he becomes morally and ethically responsible for his decisions and actions

I am not talking about obvious moments, such as birthdays or school awards. But there are times in a teenage boy’s life when we need to grab the opportunity to really make “something” of the moment.

One example is the first time they are given their own key for the house. All too often parents present their son with a key, and think nothing more of it; but, if they were to step back, what they are actually saying in that moment is: “You are now free to come and go as you please.” That is a huge moment.

One possible way to “mark” that moment is to arrange a surprise camping trip. On the return home, hand the front door key to your son and say “This is yours,” and let him open the door and walk in first.

When we mark the moment, we place a responsibility on them, and it becomes something more than just receiving a key.

So, rather than a rites-of-passage experience on its own, we should be looking out for moments that move our boys closer towards manhood, celebrating new responsibilities with every step taken, and embraced.

Over the years, marking these moments make approaching manhood exciting, and, it is hoped, help them to embrace their responsibilities as godly men.



THE second intentional narrative is that we need to take the part played by fathers and father-figures in the Church very seriously, supporting them in journeying with their boys; helping them to intentionally highlight moments to mark.

Our boys need role models whom they can watch and look to, and be inspired to stand on the shoulders of men of faith in their church.

Douglas Wilson, the author of Future Men: Raising boys to fight giants, once said: “If our boys don’t learn, our men won’t know.” There is a responsibility here for not just fathers, but also grandfathers, other dads, single men, and men with no children to step up and take boys under their wing; to coach them in becoming a man of God, and be a community of men that will support and help boys thrive.

For those boys living without a father, that there is a community of father figures is even more important. But even a good father needs to be placing other role models and mentors around their son.

In his book Raising Boys, the psychologist Steve Biddulph says: “A mentor is more than a teacher or a coach: a mentor is special to the child, and the child is special to him. A 16-year-old will not always listen to his parents — his inclination is not to. But a mentor is different. This is the time for the youngster to make his ‘glorious mistakes’, and part of the mentor’s job is to make sure the mistakes are not fatal.”

It is important, therefore, that the Church is helping to nurture good generational gatherings for fathers, boys, and other men in the Church.

In the past, we’ve seen churches put on simple camp trips, small hikes in the woods, anything involving fire and food, gaming nights. . . The important thing is to allow fathers, sons, and other men to build community in a way that is going to allow them to banter and chat while also doing something — even if that activity is just a walk in woodland.

The key thing is that conversation takes place, and we have found that the best way for them to do this is not sitting around in a group circle, but beside each other, sharing knowledge and learning through some kind of activity.

We must show boys that there are men of faith to learn from, because, if we don’t, they will go looking for community in other places.



THIS leads me to the third intentional narrative: we need our boys to learn together, and build a support system as a “band of brothers”.

Boys are easily influenced, but the journey into manhood is made easier if they can surround themselves with peers who want to build community, and challenge and dream together to grow God’s Kingdom.

Professor Jordan Peterson says in his book 12 Rules for Life: An antidote to chaos: “Friendship is a reciprocal arrangement. You are not morally obliged to support someone who is making the world a worse place. Quite the opposite. You should choose people who want things to be better, not worse.

“It’s a good thing, not a selfish thing, to choose people who are good for you. It’s appropriate and praiseworthy to associate with people whose lives would be improved if they saw your life improve.”

You have to allow boys the space and the opportunity to build their own community, to push each other to be better people, and in so doing create a better world around them (obviously supported by youth workers, fathers, mentors, and role models).

Boys grow when they are given responsibility and ownership of their faith. So, by releasing your lads to meet and learn together, you actively mentor them to take their lives, faith, and journeys as men seriously, rather than spoon-feeding them.

This is part of reintegration: not only to celebrate them coming back into the community, but the trusting and empowering them to get on with it and dream for themselves, and to be the Church now, not later.


THE intentional narratives of “moments”, “mentors”, and “movements” collectively provide foundations that can work alongside a church’s young lads’ ministry. This is not about adding more work to ongoing youth programmes, but to complement what is already going on.

If done hand-in-hand, all three narratives help to address the current boy crisis, and build confidence and healthy identity in our lads again.

We cannot take these narratives for granted, and must be intentional about creating them. Although they may seem obvious and simple, when missed, they can create massive hurdles that hinder a boy’s journey into manhood, faith, and purpose.

For more information on ideas, resources, and thoughts on how to build an effective lads’ ministry, visit manmadejourney.com.

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