A Great Challenge: Reaching Young Men

There is a place in Seattle called the Museum of Pop Art (MoPop), and it is fantastic. It’s a monument to all things pop culture, especially those things with Seattle roots. On my last visit, I walked through an exhibit that paid homage to the grunge music scene of Seattle in the 90s and stopped in front of a large picture.

It was a concert venue filled with young men, mostly teenagers, totally engaged. They looked excited, energized, and alive, surrounded by their peers. While I can’t be sure from just a photograph, I wonder if they all felt accepted, connected, and loved in that space? I bet for many, that is exactly how they felt, and I can say that with 97% confidence because as a young man, I spent my time in the same kind of venues, with the same kind of people, listening to the same kind of music.

But as I stared at that picture, another thought crossed my mind. I thought about what a youth night or small group looks like in many parishes. I recalled conversations with youth ministers about how hard it was to recruit male core members and encourage male teenagers to participate in youth ministry. Most of our youth groups don’t look like that picture of the 90s grunge scene in Seattle, but they could. We just need to adjust our thinking about how we reach young men.

Before we embark on the practical “how do I do this, please tell me so I can reach teenage men,” we need to understand that there is a more significant crisis surrounding young men in the United States. Over the past several decades, we have done important and critical work in equity for young women, honoring the feminine genius and the powerful ways God reveals himself through women. Unfortunately, while there is still work to be done, we are also facing a new crisis with young men.

The gap between young men with a bachelor’s degree and young women is widening; a significant amount of women ages 24-35 hold a bachelor’s degree over men. This can be attributed to the ever-increasing gap between women vs. men who attend college; young men are simply not attending school anymore. This goes even deeper than enrollment. High school boys do worse in school than girls do, which may be a reason why they are choosing not to attend college. Follow that thread even further down the line, and you will find that young boys are more likely to experience negative learning environments rather than girls, and it starts to make sense why boys are struggling. They are an underserved population regarding mental illness and the challenges associated with it, perhaps in part because the systems we’ve set up for them aren’t working.

While it may be unfair, much of this experience of negative learning environments has likely been duplicated within church environments. Imagine the fidgety second-grade boy preparing for his first communion only to be repeatedly scolded by a well-meaning, Jesus-loving catechist who is exhausted by his constant questions and insistence that he draw Fortnite characters on his assignments. Much like a young man says, “You know what, school isn’t for me,” he will also say, “You know what, religion isn’t for me.” This doesn’t mean that he isn’t spiritual or even religious; according to research done by Springtide Research Institute, many young people consider themselves spiritual and religious. If we want to reach young men, though, we need to recognize that we may be up against some negative history and experiences. While challenging, it isn’t insurmountable. These are three things your parish and youth ministry can do to start reaching young men.

Make Room for Boys

Boys learn and behave differently than girls; this isn’t a flaw but a gift. Unfortunately, it often makes it easier to minister to young women rather than young men. (Young girls likely aren’t replicating bodily noises during your Edge small group). The result is that we craft experiences, prayers, and activities that are suited to young women rather than young men.

What if you took the opposite approach and started asking, “This activity sounds great; how are the boys going to respond to this? Will this reach them? What can we do to help them engage?” This might mean activities that are louder, more active, and even a bit scattered. You may need to lean into more experiential learning and find ways to connect imagery and examples to the lived experience of boys.

You may also need to reevaluate your discipline and expectations. Every young person needs boundaries, especially middle school youth. Still, we also need to recognize that the disruptive boy in your confirmation class is likely the disruptive boy in school – so by the time he sits down in your small group, he has already had an earful of discipline from his teachers. What does hospitality look like for that boy? Who can mentor him and listen? How can you respond with patience when he has been met with impatience all day? Making room for boys is really about hospitality and recognizing their experience and needs alongside that of the girls in your youth group – it also means pushing your boundaries a bit, as well.

Recruit Male Core Members

This is the “chicken or the egg” dilemma. It’s already tough to recruit young men to be youth group participants. How do we recruit adults, as well? Young adults and adult men can be challenging to recruit. There may exist a stigma that religious educators are primarily women, as Catholic women tend to exhibit greater religious behaviors and involvement compared to Catholic men. It is possible that many religious educators are primarily women; a similar situation exists in teachers. Fewer men are teachers than women, with 76% of school teachers being female.

Teenage men need adult men as role models. Unfortunately, an increasing number of young men are growing up without fathers in their homes. While women are necessary mentors for young men, they also need both perspectives. This becomes increasingly vital for passing along the faith. If we want men to perceive the faith as something that welcomes and involves them in ways that go beyond “become a priest,” then we need to model what male, lay involvement looks like for young men.

Give Them a Mission

Inviting young men into something bigger than themselves is essential to a thriving ministry. That is what struck me about the concert picture; the young men were a part of a movement. They weren’t alone, and they weren’t spectators. These young men played an active part in the “thing” that was happening. They were connected.

For young men, the experience of a team creates an important bonding dynamic. This can be replicated in your youth group by fostering a common goal and engagement of young men. Whether it is a mission trip or the call toward sainthood, challenge young men to something great and invite them into this mission in a meaningful way.

There is a crisis for young men, and in the world of education, this conversation has increased, but we’ve seen the effects of this crisis in our ministries, as well. There is no better time to engage young men than today, and the steps are simple but require intentionality, effort, and pushing our comfort zone. The reward of such effort goes beyond increasing numbers and toward the image of young men engaged, connected, and loved who don’t simply attend but are sent forward to transform their world.