UPDATED – February 24, 2014
As a homeschooling family, we’ve been to a lot of homeschool conferences and done our share of networking on the internet at forums, through web sites and blogs. One conversation that continually wrinkles my forehead and causes me to squint my eyes in puzzlement begins like this;
“My wife and I are looking for an activity program for our (fill in age) year old to get them outside, interested in exploring nature and keeping them physically fit…Something like boy scouts, but with a Christian focus”
In short, is there a “Christian Alternative” to Boy Scouts of America? Absolutely!
- Prior to January 2013, I would have responded that the ideal “Christian Alternative to Boy Scouts” was simply Boy Scouts of America…when chartered to either a Christian homeschool association or a church that actively partners with the scouts instead of merely loaning them a basement meeting room once a week.
- After January 2013, I would suggest finding a home at one of many other programs like: Trail Life USA, Christian Service Brigade, AWANA, Royal Rangers, Calvinist Cadet Corps, Federation of North-American Explorers, Troops of St. George, et.al. These are fine organizations with as much to offer (or more than) scouting.
I’ve spent most of the past year investigating alternative programs by talking with local unit leaders, sharing meals with regional directors, and chatting at internet forums dedicated to these types of programs.
In fact, my own sons were “cubbies” at AWANA with their vests, and we tried out Royal Rangers (going outside of our accustomed denominational comfort zone), but couldn’t locate a CCC unit or CSB unit near where we lived before our stint with BSA from 2008 thru 2013.
Why had we chosen Boy Scouts for youth development back in 2008? Here are several of the compelling reasons:
- We discovered that most of the churches in our area promoted these “other” programs (like Christian Service Brigade, et.al.) only through the sixth grade and then expected boys to join their co-ed “youth group” which appropriately focuses on bible study, but typically offers little in the way of developing personal responsibility, outdoor activities or practical leadership opportunities.
- Boy Scouts has been around for 103 years and has an strong foundation of parent/leader training, support facilities, campgrounds, high adventure bases, and despite recent negative publicity a youth protection program that is now state-of-the-art, hailed as best in class, and easy to understand. While this remains true in 2014, there are many changes coming to unwind this foundation, and BSA continues to lose funding while its corporate debt continues to grow beyond $440 Million.
- The Eagle Scout award is (presently) the most widely recognized award for youth, and the work required to achieve this recognition is balanced between mastering practical life skills, service work in the community, and taking on leadership responsibilities while a youth to actually run the program. Interestingly, this is commonly the only youth award featured on a grown man’s resume (recognized by all) and it’s commonly cited in his obituary, too. It’s not a coincidence that we honor Eagle scouts – it’s not simply an award, but a calling/commitment to serve others for the rest of his life. I wanted that others-focused mindset for my sons, and this program is a direct path to that end. Of course, other programs have “pinnacle awards” that require even greater dedication and hard work (“The Herald of Christ Award” @ CSB, “The Freedom Award” at Trail Life, et.al.) — they may not be as well publicized, but are very worthwhile pursuits for boys.
- The youth leadership curriculum isn’t based in games and ropes courses (although they exist and are fun), instead it is based on mutual accountability – if your son forgets to pack the tent, he and his friends may get rained on at camp, but he’ll learn to pay attention in the future. We’re training future husbands and fathers – they can’t afford to be bailed out each time they make a mistake or they’ll forever depend on “dad and mom” to fix things for them (or as an author put it “When a man acts like a child, it forces his wife, to act like his mother.”) Further, the boys plan and run both the meetings and outings — they are responsible for their success, and they respond well to this type of challenge since it requires vision, forethought and a healthy sense of satisfaction for a trip that goes especially well. The plain fact is that while BSA had convinced me that these programs were unique to BSA, they are common to most youth programs out there, including the “Christian Alternatives”!
- Scouting doesn’t pretend to be scouting, it IS scouting. Many youth programs state in their brochures and on their web sites that they offer activities or awards “like boy scouts or girl scouts”. Why not simply use the original curriculum, but offer it in the right context of faith as intended by its original founder, Baden-Powell? […because new changes to scouting are creating divergence from that original vision…] Scout training is excellent for survival, cooking, navigating, computers, robotics, welding, chess and so on (at present there are 132 unit studies/merit badges to chose from). [Trail Life enables youth members to “create their own” trail badges with the supervision of a mentor! Very Cool!] Again, the support facilities are tremendous – whether looking for leader training support, scout reservations (camps) or experts in these unit study (merit badge) areas — most organizations do not have the depth or span of support that scouting offers to its units. [Update, Christian Alternatives have varying degrees of support that need to be investigated as you make a choice, but most have either been around for several decades or have a tremendous volunteer base that offer a program as strong as scouting with no need to offer any apologies — nothing is lacking that ought to be incorporated in such a program]
I will claim bias in that I come from a family who’s tradition has been to participate in the Boy Scouts of America program. My father was a Life Scout prior to shipping off to Germany at the close of the Second World War. His scouting skills and the responsibilities he developed in the program served him well while overseas. Upon returning home and raising his own family, he involved both my brother and me in the cub scout and boy scout programs offered as a youth ministry from our local church.
Our normal experience with scouting while growing up included devotionals that came from the Bible at each troop meeting and a chapel service while camping. We learned that we could worship God in the midst of His creation – during chapels and while we hiked to our campsite. While Bible verse memorization wasn’t part of the program, we had opportunities at home and during Sunday School to “hide His word in our hearts”. The point of scouting was to learn how to accept responsibilities for ourselves, for others and to lead groups to complete service tasks which benefit the community. Most importantly, all that was wrapped up in a package that proclaimed “FUN” to the boys, but contained purpose in its design.
You see, Boy Scouts of America got it right when they started. The curriculum of outdoor activities, advancement, skills and leadership training can be tailored (and is expected to be tailored) to each chartering organization (sponsor). A group charted to a fire station isn’t more or less of a scouting unit, but its focus may be more secular than one chartered to, say, a Baptist Church (however, not all units chartered to all churches make it a faith-based program – some are simply co-existing within the building).
Or put another way (as stated by Dr. Luter of the Southern Baptist Convention); “One of the tools I commend to you for helping to accomplish these divine imperatives is a Boy Scouting ministry in your church. When I say a ‘Boy Scouting ministry,’ I mean that the church understands that it owns the Scout units, operates them as an integral ministry, and is responsible for finding committed, godly leaders who will minister to the children, youth, and families affiliated with these units.”
Our present unit, Troop 113, was a ministry of First Baptist Church of Hackensack (a member of the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches fellowship). Our troop number came from Psalm 1:1-3, the verses that we hope will describe our young men as they grow up. We considered our troop to be a “faith-based, Christ-centered” troop. That distinctive came from several facets:
- We prayed (and continue to pray) that our scouting efforts will be subordinate to His will, plan and purposes – that God will be honored by our efforts to mentor these young men. God comes first. [and that’s why all of our unit families abandoned BSA at the end of 2013, because BSA has asserted that their rules and policies take precedent over our spiritual convictions about unequal yoking, etc.]
- We assertively discuss spiritual matters in the course of our activities. If a scout is having difficulty with skills, leading others or completing his responsibilities we can pray with him, discuss verses from scriptures that might guide him or share pertinent scriptures to offer encouragement. [this facet and those listed below continues in the alternative programs listed at the top of this article]
- We actively encourage parents to be involved in their sons’ spiritual growth and development. This could include consistent participation in their own church, pursuit of faith-based awards, or taking on the responsibility of Chaplain’s Aide to lead the unit in opening/closing prayer, etc. This could also include each scout’s own participation in the “God and Church” curriculum where he works with his parents and pastor to better understand what he believes and why. This program is tailored to specific denominations and age levels.
- We provide a devotional message to close each meeting. This is typically delivered by one of the scoutmasters. Topics have ranged from a detailed analysis of how scouting ideals and scriptures parallel each other (i.e. a scout is trustworthy, should Christians be trustworthy based on scriptures?) to understanding the attributes of being a Godly man (as found in scriptures and then compared to our activities in scouting.) Many of these devotionals are posted on this blog site for your review.
- We schedule our activities to enable our young men to be home and worship in their home church with their families as much as possible; however, when we do go on extended trips, we schedule a chapel service and have our scouts plan and execute the program. We’ve even hosted chapel services for other troops at larger functions to provide a service to them, and share the Word with them.
- Scouting ideals begin and end with spiritual “bookends” – the Scout Oath begins “On my honor, I will do my best to do my duty to God….” and the Scout Law summarizes 12 points of ideal behavior ending with “A scout is Reverent”. This is not insignificant unless the unit ignores the meaning and value of these ideals.
- The parents who step up as leaders set the tone and style of the unit in close cooperation with the unit sponsor (chartering partner). If you try out a boy scout unit and don’t like it, the next one down the road may be 180 degrees different. My sons and I initially rejected the unit located a couple blocks from our home and chose to join a faith based unit located 45 minutes drive time away from our home. It was worth the time investment until we started our own unit as a chance to offer the program to more boys who couldn’t make the long drive.
I could go further, but these provide a good summary of principal points. Of course, I’ve lived the program during my youth and I help lead the unit my sons have joined – to us, it’s plainly simple that Boy Scouting is as Christian as we make it. When my son wanted to try Little League in our town, we didn’t ask “is there a ‘Christian Little League’ in town” I simply got involved and attended the practices and games to help supervise even though I never played baseball as a youth. However, since last year, my eyes have been opened to BSA’s hypocritical stance on Christianity, tolerance, and emphasis on religious pluralism (all paths are equally valid paths to one God who is the same for all religions — something that Christians and the Bible do not suggest or claim).
If you’re not able to locate a unit that’s a good fit for your family nearby, you can start a unit and craft it to your concerns with as few as five youth members from your area (there are volunteers waiting to help you and train you).