Discipling Young Men

Dear Church Family,

When I was a young boy, I remember receiving a birthday card from an older woman in our church. What struck me as peculiar was the way she addressed it. She was old-school. She wrote, “Dear Master Peter Dietsch…” I didn’t know what that meant, so I asked my mother and she explained how it was a formal way of addressing a young man. When a young boy becomes a man, “Master” becomes “Mr.” I remember thinking that I liked being addressed as “Master,” but longed to receive the honorific title of “Mr.”

I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen anyone else use “Master” in addressing a young man in writing. It seems to be a practice that has gone by the wayside. As far as I can tell, the loss of “Master” as a formal way of addressing a young man was paralleled by the introduction and use of the word “teenager.” I’m pretty sure that the decline of the use of “Master” and increase of “teenager” are not connected, except as they reflect a 20th century trend in our culture. The word “teenager” seems to have been coined around the time of World War II, and increased in use since then – about the time that “Master” started to decline in usage.

A change in the way we think about adolescence occurred in the early part of the 20th century. There’s probably no single cause, but rather a combination of many things (the industrial revolution, two world wars, the baby boom, etc.). The contrast between these two words (Master and teenager) helps to illustrate that change. No longer are youth encouraged to grow up, but rather are encouraged to cling to their youthfulness. The virtues of experience and wisdom have become displaced by innovation and hubris. So, where a “Master” used to strive and long to be a man, a “teenager” clings to adolescence. Whatever the root cause, our culture has increasingly become youth-centric. What was an ominous curse in Isaiah’s day (Isaiah 3:5, 12) is a reality in ours.

For this reason, in our home, we don’t use the word “teenager.” It’s not a law by any means, but we refer to our children who are transitioning to adulthood as “men in training” or “woman in training.” In this way, we try to teach and encourage our children to desire maturity. We try to help them understand that their peers – or the youth-centric culture – is not the norm toward which they ought to be striving. Instead, they should aspire to grow in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men – even as Jesus did (Luke 2:52).

Rebel Without a Cause

Before I viewed the James Dean film Rebel Without a Cause, based solely on the title I assumed that it was a movie intended to promote and celebrate the rebelliousness of youth. Boy, was I wrong! Actually, I should probably say, “Man, was I wrong!” The film is actually about a young man, Jim (played by James Dean), who longs to be a man, but doesn’t know how. His father is absent and unsure of his role. The descriptions of Jim’s family from the screenplay of the film is fascinating – especially when you consider that this film was released in 1955. [The title of the film was adopted from a book written in 1944 by psychiatrist Robert Lindner called Rebel Without a Cause: The Hypnoanalysis of a Criminal Psychopath, but the movie became something very different.]

Instead of a celebration of the rebelliousness of youth (as I originally thought) or an analysis of the psychopathic mind, the movie is a critique of a culture that caters to the indulgences of youth – a culture that worships at the shrine of adolescence. About half-way through the movie, Jim needs to make an important decision and looks to his father for answers. He asks his father, “What can you do when you have to be a man?” Jim’s father doesn’t know what to say, he hems and haws. Jim yells, “Just give me an answer! You going to stop me from going, Dad?” And, in a very revealing statement, Jim’s father responds, “You know I never stop you from anything. Believe me--you’re at a wonderful age. In ten years you’ll look back on this and wish you were a kid again.”

At the end of the film (spoiler alert!), Jim’s friend Plato is shot and killed by the police. As Jim weeps over his dead friend, Jim’s father comes to him and raises Jim up saying, “Stand up, Jim. I’ll stand up with you. Let me try to be as strong as you want me to be.” Speaking of Plato, Jim says, “He depended on me.” And finally, Jim’s father steps up, “And you can depend on me, son. Trust me. Whatever comes we’ll face it together, I swear.”

These are words that every young man longs to hear. At the beginning of the story, Jim’s father is a hapless observer of his young son, and even envies his son’s irresponsible youthfulness. By the end of the story, Jim’s father becomes the man of strength that Jim needs, and has always longed for.

Battalion

This is one of the things that we emphasize in the Battalion ministry at our church. In our dealings with the youth, we deliberately try not to refer to them as “boys” or “teenagers,” preferring the nomenclature of “young men.” This also has particular significance in our culture as it relates to the development of boys to men. In his book The Church Impotent: The Feminization of Christianity, Leon Podles writes about the common threefold structure which anthropologists have found among various cultures: “Initiation entails a sharp break, and has a threefold structure: a departure from a previous way of life, a ‘liminal’ period in which the one being initiated is suspended between two worlds, and the entry into a new way of life.” (p 46)

Unfortunately, concurrent with the advent of the word “teenager” in the 20th century, the ‘liminal’ period has been extended to encompass several years (from about 13 to 21), as in Rebel Without a Cause. Instead of encouraging our young men to pursue and embrace maturity, we leave them in an in-between phase (where they are not accountable or responsible for their actions) for many years. And, unfortunately, many church youth programs don’t counter this trend, but rather encourage peer-identification in their youth, rather than adult-identification.

In our Battalion program, we have a different mindset. As I said, that’s reflected in our terminology, but it’s also reflected in the general philosophy of what we do. Instead of encouraging the young men to look to their peers and remain immature (think, Lord of the Flies), the adult leaders of the group take an active role, intentionally seeking to develop relationships with the young men and encourage them to pursue the virtues of adulthood and masculinity – to learn what it means to be a Christian man, not a Christian boy (think, Master and Commander).

Of course, each adult Christian man reflects the virtues of masculinity in different ways. That’s why it’s important that we have several adult men in the ministry who serve as examples and role models. Our hope is that our young men learn that maturity, strength, and wisdom are not to be sought out for the purpose of self-promotion and self-aggrandizement, but rather in self-sacrifice and abnegation for the benefit of others.

If you know of any young men in the community who would be interested in participating in Battalion, please point them our way. At present, we offer only the Battalion program which is for 12-18 year olds; however, if there is interest and committed adult leadership, there are opportunities for younger ages through Christian Service Brigade, as well. If you’re an adult Christian man at PPC who is interested in investing and discipling young men in this way, please let me know!

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch