By Brian Jennings
What is a rite of passage ceremony and how can we use it to shape boys and girls into godly men and women?
When my oldest child, Cole, entered the teenage years, the idea of a rite of passage grabbed my attention. I needed to help him know what it meant to be a godly man. This process demands intentionality, teaching, the consistent example of a godly man, and a memorable ceremony. (Particularly if you have a son, I highly recommend the Robert Lewis book, Raising a Modern-Day Knight.)
In November of 2015, I began reading and forming the plan, which included settling on a definition of biblical manhood. Here’s my definition, modified from Lewis: A godly man will RALLY: Reject passivity, Accept responsibility, Lead courageously, Love gargantuanly, Yearn for the greater reward.
I began pointing out any positive or negative manhood traits I saw (from my life, my son’s life, or someone else’s). This set the stage for what was to come. I also told Cole that we would be taking a trip in the future with Beth (my wife), for the purpose of talking about what it means to be a man. We gave him several options, but he got to choose the location, as well as a few fun things along the way.
In March I began planning his rite of passage event. I asked a dozen men who’d all made intentional investments in Cole’s life to assist me in considering essential traits of a godly man. They agreed to study and pray about one trait (one I’d observed to be evident in their life) and then teach Cole about it during a special, surprise ceremony for him.
I set a lofty goal: Create an experience that shapes Cole’s thinking about manhood for the rest of his life. Lots of teaching and reinforcement would be needed, but the event needed to be big, meaningful, and surprising. I wanted him never to forget it.
Cole thought we were just going out for coffee on the evening of May 19. As we drove through a dark neighborhood, I told him to get out of the car in the light rain. He played along, thinking I was teasing and would not drive off. He was wrong. I sped off and turned at the corner.
Unnerved, he began walking, wondering what to do. Soon he heard a familiar voice from behind a large rock, “Cole, I’m here to help you on your journey to manhood.” And so began a night in which he walked and listened to 12 godly men, one at a time. Each walked and taught Cole a godly trait and then handed Cole off to the next man, strategically positioned along Cole’s mile walk. We ended the long night all together, hands on Cole for a time of blessing.
The power of that evening still stirs us. Cole can recite every trait he learned and who taught each to him. I ask him at least once a month. More importantly, we talk about when we are living out those traits (or when we are not). It’s such a joy to applaud the growth in his character.
The trip that followed the ceremony allowed Beth and me to further discuss the traits of a godly man. Cole usually has to share his parents with three siblings. Our undivided attention helped us talk deeply. It’s been fun that his siblings don’t really know much about that night. That’s purposeful. They’ll experience it on their own one day.
The men who helped me that night thanked me profusely for inviting them. I hope that their involvement spurs them on in their parenting, grandparenting, and mentoring. And I hope I can return the favor to them one day.
Some people plan rite of passage events for children at several key moments of their lives (becoming a teen, turning 16, graduating and/or getting married). I think churches and parents can choose a path best for them. There’s no right or wrong way to do it. But do not neglect the role you can play in the life of a young man without a father or a young woman without a mother. God has placed a couple of boys in my life, and I hope to be able to walk with them on their journey to godly manhood too. A rite of passage might be a perfect way to accomplish this.
Brian and his wife, Beth, and their four children live in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he preaches at Highland Park Christian Church and writes (brianjenningsblog.com).