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Why Young Men Need Initiation

Life is hard. We enter the world screaming, live 80 years and then spend our last years in some nursing home. To live is to cope with a series of losses that are an inevitable part of living. As we transition, we need to see clearly that part of ourselves that we are losing. We need to …
By Seth Barnes
By Seth Barnes

Life is hard. We enter the world screaming, live 80 years and then spend our last years in some nursing home. To live is to cope with a series of losses that are an inevitable part of living. As we transition, we need to see clearly that part of ourselves that we are losing. We need to learn how to say goodbye and to honor it.

But in a comfort-addicted world, many of us need to be taught how to cope with loss. We need training in humility. This is what initiation experiences are for. An initiation is an introduction to loss and powerlessness. 

This is especially important for young men. As a young man, it’s normal to see yourself acquiring power and being granted responsibility. But failure is inevitable and we need to learn how to process it as well. We need to learn our limits as well as our potentialities. 

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.
 
What do other faiths or secular society offer? We ship our sons and daughters 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. 
 
Our failure to initiate our young people leaves them mired in their narcissistic/hedonistic state. Young people spend their free time playing video games when the world desperately needs their courage. 
 
Without initiation, young people may look like adults, but don’t actually grown up. You’ve probably known an older person with a narcissistic personality. They are a pain to be around, always seeing the world from a self-referential perspective. They needed more help growing up. 

 

4 changes produced by initiation

Initiation introduces young people to pain to help them begin 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. In contrast, young men, need help in learning to put the needs of others first. 

So, what specific changes can we expect when our young people are initiated?  I see four:  

From                                         To

My needs                                  Needs of others 
Independence/low trust           Community/high trust 
My cultural fishbowl                  Kingdom world view 
Comfort-motivated                   Ministry-motivated 

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 people 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 especially poignant is that as our men have abdicated their responsibility, a generation of mothers has bravely 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. The World Race is a great initiation experience. It challenges young people to abandon their comforts to discover that life is not all about them. 
 
We need to rediscover the practice of initiation and give our young people the gift they may resist, but 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?

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Seth Barnes

I'm motivated to join God in his global reclamation project. He's on the move, setting his sons and daughters free from their places of captivity. And he's partnering with those of us who have been freed to go and free others.



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