Almost every ancient culture understood that boys, especially, needed help if they were ever to become warriors capable of protecting and leading the tribe into an uncertain future. They needed to be initiated.
The growth of the Mormon faith is a direct result of their emphasis on initiation. When their boys come of age, Mormon families send them out into the world for two years. They leave as boys and come back as men.
By way of contrast, we have nothing. We ship them off to college still callow and self-absorbed, with little or no world view, ill-prepared to lay down their lives for a cause or to be a champion for the weak. I don’t think I’m overstating it to say that our failure in evangelical America to initiate our young men is a tragic result of a flaw in our culture (and parenting) that leaves our young men mired in their narcissistic/hedonistic state. They spend their free time playing Nintendo and Wii when the world desperately needs their courage.
The bottom line is that without initiation, they may have the vernacular and even have the right answers, but they are ill-equipped to navigate as a life source toward the kingdom of God in a world which relentlessly announces more bad news through the media every day.
Initiation is about absorbing pain in order to move from the self-focus of adolescence to the responsibility of adulthood. Because women go through the discomfort and pain of their monthly cycle, pregnancy, and childbirth, they are naturally initiated. Young men, however, need the help of others to get to a place where they naturally put the needs of others first. What’s more, as Jesus-followers, we need to see for ourselves the reality of our faith. A good initiation process will expose us to a world much bigger than ourselves.
So, what specific changes can we expect when our young people are initiated? I’ve isolated five changes that occur through the initiation process:
My needs Needs of others
Independence/low trust Community/high trust
My cultural fishbowl Kingdom world view
At present, only a small percentage of our young men get the kind of initiation experience that helps them make these five changes. As they transitioned to adulthood, those in authority over them never gave them the gift of initiation. You probably know young men who really need this kind of experience.
As adults, these uninitiated people sail through life with a huge gap in their past. It’s natural without the help of others for young men to become self-referential comfort seekers. Their world view stays narrow and they don’t really learn how to live a life of faith and risk in a culture that places a premium on safety. Instead of building the kingdom, their focus becomes building their 401K.
What is sad or maybe just poignant is that as our men have abdicated their responsibility, a generation of mothers has stepped into the breach with an overprotective response to the pain life inflicts on their children. You can’t blame them for this response, but the result is a feminization of our churches and the creation of a group of men who feel like strangers to themselves.
In many parts of the world, young people take a year to travel the world. That’s not a bad place to start, especially if they engage in ministry along the way. One reason the World Race
has become so popular is that it is a fantastic initiation experience, focusing on challenging young people to abandon their ego props and comforts to discover that life is not all about them.
At present, this is a broken piece of our culture. We need to rediscover the practice of initiation and give our young people the gift they may resist, but which they inwardly crave. Do you know someone who could use an initiation experience? Ask yourself, what is it in them that needs to die? How can they get the life experience they need before they get on the on-ramp of a world that hurls them along without ever telling them where they’re going?