I saw an old photo taken in 1904. The image captured my attention. The picture is of a boy being thrown high up into the air and then caught by a group of elders standing close together beneath him. There’s something for me that evokes a sense of hope, a sign of belonging and the empowering of the community. The initiation process continued over time with the young men being taught the ancient stories and dances and laws that governed community life and concluded with physical challenges that signalled their strength in the face of pain.
Arne Rubenstein an Australian GP who has studied rites of passage and now works alongside schools and community groups helping boys become men says that traditional communities that had rites of passage:
“used stories as a way of passing on wisdom and knowledge, created appropriate physical challenges for their young men and recognised each of them for their individual gifts and talents, their genius and spirit”.1.
Unfortunately, these rites of passage that brought empowerment and stability to the community are all but lost in many indigenous communities. Yet the need for a rite of passage remains. In fact, tragically it has been suggested that in some indigenous communities drug and alcohol use and even incarceration are now seen as a rite of passage, creating a sense of belonging for young men.2.
My own culture’s embrace of rites of passage seems almost non-existent – unless you count getting drunk or perhaps (on the more positive side) obtaining your provisional driver’s licence. Yet we have all heard the commentary about prolonged childhood and adolescence in Australian culture. Phrases like “failure to launch” and “KIPPERS” (Kids In Parents’ Pockets Eroding Retirement Savings) suggest that it is not seen as a positive thing. There is much value in marking transitions and real benefit for our young people in terms of creating a sense of belonging to their community, passing on knowledge and wisdom and identifying their unique contribution to society.
Other religions and Christian denominations have age-specific markers such as confirmation, first communion, the Jewish Bar/Bat Mitzvah or specific Hindhu samskaras. Baptists place a high value on personal declarations of faith so we rightly reserve baptism for those who have professed faith in Jesus for themselves. However the question then becomes: What are the markers along the journey to adulthood in our tribe?
As a parent and in my ministry with children I have wondered how as families and churches we can create life stage markers and pass on wisdom to the generation of young people amongst us.
Here’s what we’ve tried at our church. We mark the transition from child focussed programs to youth group with the family and whole faith community. The children stand with their parents acknowledging that they have been on this journey of helping their child follow Jesus usually from birth. The kids and leaders of the children’s ministry team then stand, noting the role of peers and mentors. The parents and children then move toward the youth leaders and teenagers who are asked to stand as those who will also come alongside. Finally, the remaining members of the church are invited to stand symbolising that all of us have a responsibility to encourage one another in following Jesus. The whole church lifts up the children in prayer, marking this move from being a child to being a young teen. As a faith community we want to create a marker that is not dependent on the child being ready for Baptism. We want them to sense their place of belonging in this community whether they have made that public declaration yet or not. We want them to stay connected in what is often a potential point of stepping away from the faith community. Keeping them close as they continue to figure out and own their faith.
As a family we have also tried to create some rituals or traditions. It begins just before heading to high school with a weekend away with one parent. Time is spent in physical challenges, sharing stories and passing on knowledge and wisdom around puberty, relationships and the importance of taking responsibility for nurturing their own faith and giving them an “adult” bible.
When our oldest son turned 16 we invited “elders” from our family and church to speak wisdom and encouragement into his life. We aren’t sure what the next step of this transition from childhood to adulthood will look like, but we know that being intentional is important.
It’s important across our churches to think about how we can empower parents and together raise children that sense their belonging to a faith community, who know the story of their family and faith, who know that God has gifted and shaped them for his good purposes in the world and can choose to love and serve him their whole life long.
1. Dr Arne Rubenstien, Understanding Boys. July 12, 2016 http://www.understandingboys.com.au/why-rites-of-passage-are-vital_to_boys/
2. Ogilvie, E. and A. Van Zyl, Young Indigenous males, custody and the rites of passage. 2001: Australian Institute of Criminology.