Our theme for the month of June is “Sex and the Church.”
At the church in which I grew up, Sunday school was very much a “Boys’ Club.” I was lucky, certainly because I was a boy, but also because thirteen out of my fifteen classmates were also boys. Most of the kids in the grades above and below me were boys too. I know the human sex ratio is supposed to churn out an approximate fifty-fifty male to female ratio, but somehow it didn’t pan out that way at our little Christian Reformed church in Wyoming, Michigan. For many years, our Sunday School halls were positively overrun with manic little hellions.
I never thought about the implications of that as a kid; I was too busy having fun and doing guy stuff. We were a swarm of budding testosterone goading each other on, not completely unlike the jackasses from Pinocchio‘s Pleasure Island. After church, while the adults sipped coffee and talked about work, we’d be throwing dodgeballs around the gym, crawling through cobwebbed tunnels from the boiler room to the sanctuary, and egging on the poor old Rottweiler that lived next to the church.
When we were finally rounded up for Sunday school—and later, youth group—it usually consisted of ten to fifteen minutes of sports recap, followed by a sprinkling of Jesus talk, interrupted by farts and shoulder punches, until we were released, ten minutes ahead of schedule. Danny Jenkins from a few grades up had heroically moved all the clocks forward in every single classroom, and that was the kind of prank we revered back in the day.
Tragically, I never paid any attention to how marginalized the girls were through all of this. They were literally a peripheral afterthought as we boys bulldozed through grade school. We had two girls in our grade, and as I recall they were not the type to cling together out of solidarity. So they suffered through Sunday school as two separate islands while we jackasses laughed and shouted our way through the loosely-followed lesson plans.
Obviously, it isn’t a church’s fault when its congregation’s youngest demographic happens to be one-sided. But our effort to integrate the girls, or at least accommodate them better, could’ve been a lot more courteous. A few years later, our youth leaders organized a backpacking/whitewater rafting trip to Colorado in place of a mission trip. The girls were never explicitly disinvited, but it was pretty obvious for whom the trip was intended. Granted, our numbers had dwindled and there were only three or four girls left to exclude by then, but I’m sure it didn’t sting any less for the few that remained, hoping to do mission work (or backpack) that week. As consolation, they were invited to a “girls’ game night” in the youth room the week of spring break. Woopee.
I don’t think our leaders intended to exclude the girls from that backpacking trip for the usual co-ed concerns—there was never any sexual tension at all; the girls resented us and we certainly ignored them. What unnerves me today is the realization that the girls were probably left out because it was assumed they wouldn’t want to go, and thus the trip might be more fun without them.
For another example, consider Cadets vs. GEMS.
With strength in numbers, Cadets was wildly successful at my church. It was an incredibly well-run organization; we had passionate leaders who taught us valuable life lessons, practical skills, and how to have fun in the outdoors. This led to neighbors, school friends, and even rival church members joining our gang. The budget swelled considerably, and we were able to afford canoe-camping trips, weekend cabin stays, sled derbies, “chuck-wagon” derbies, and so much more. We had a massive outbuilding fully furnished with power tools, camping supplies, and automotive parts where we built bottle rockets, derby cars, birdhouses, and skateboards. We played basketball and football. We went to the fire station and got to put out a practice fire with the fire hose. We cooked bacon, egg, and cheese sandwiches on an overturned coffee can. Earnable badges included axemanship, surfing, car care, rock climbing, wild game processing, money management, and off-road vehicles. Cadets was essentially a combination of practical skills and random fun things to try. Looking back, it was maybe the most useful and formative aspect of growing up in the church.
And then there was our paltry GEMS organization, whose membership paled by comparison. No disrespect to the dedicated women who volunteer and the girls who have been part of the club, but almost every CRC-raised woman I know has expressed that GEMS was lackluster at best. Even today, if you compare websites, the differences are stark. On the Cadets’ main page, you’ll see kids handling skill saws and rocking out at concerts. The GEMS website looks like a Gap Kids ad, complete with a big “Shop” icon at the top. The Cadets have in their very mission statement a paragraph dedicated to how “God is revealed in Nature,” and how that calls young boys to be stewards of His creation. While I applaud the global emphasis of GEMS, the website exhibits very little tangible evidence of what they actually do. Seriously, scour their page and try to figure out how they spend their meetings.
But if you peer into the narthex windows on a Wednesday night or ask your sister, you’ll probably just see crafts and cookies. Not to say that a craft won’t save your life and a well-proffered cookie won’t foster diplomacy, but let’s not kid ourselves and say the two programs are equally useful.
While there’s certainly a disparity between the practicalities of Cadets vs. GEMS, I must shyly confess that this hasn’t exactly been a hot button issue for me. That’s what happens when you’re raised on the winning side of a biased system, unfortunately. But when “Sex and the Church” is the topic of the month, I’m nudged to admit that yeah, it’s a dumb model that ought to be changed. The main point I’m getting at here—and I think this pervades most churches—is that the boys are getting better opportunities than the girls, and that only serves to tip an already-tilted stage.
I had this conversation with a coworker of mine. Tim and his wife are very active in Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts respectively, and I was curious if this was true outside of the CRC model. Unfortunately it is, though steps are being taken in the right direction. Boy Scouts is basically a CRC-free version of Cadets, but with a strong emphasis toward teaching independence. “The adults are basically just there to nudge things in the right direction,” Tim explained. “If the boys forget to set up camp before they make dinner or do activities, they might have to do it in the dark—but then it becomes something they’ll have to figure out. It’s designed to be mostly hands off; everything is a learning opportunity.”
That’s great; it’s just unfortunate the Girl Scouts model doesn’t appear to work the same way. When I asked if there was an outdoor focus in Girl Scouts, Tim shook his head. “A lot of it is generic leadership training, but the activities are much more reflective of what type of counselor they have. If you get a counselor who loves to backpack, you’ll probably be spending a lot of time in the woods. If you have a counselor who loves to bake, then you’ll probably be spending more time in the kitchen.” Not that a simple indoor/outdoor comparison should be the measuring stick for program worth, but it seemed evident that the Boy Scouts were getting a more valuable education than their female counterparts. When I pressed Tim about the merits of both programs, he lauded the leadership training that Girl Scouts provided, but he ultimately admitted that the Boy Scout model was far more useful. “There isn’t a whole lot of knowledge you can gain from Girl Scouts that you don’t already learn in Boy Scouts.”
I thought it ironic that the Girl Scouts’ “leadership training” model was more dependent on counselor whims, unlike the Boy Scouts’ focus on independence. Tim’s statement also leads me to believe that there isn’t a whole lot of knowledge you can gain from Boy Scouts that a Girl Scout shouldn’t also learn.
If you haven’t heard, the Boy Scouts of America recently made the controversial decision to allow girls into its ranks. This differs from other countries, which have merged the Scouts into one group, or added a third co-ed group option. The Girl Scouts (and certain factions of Boy Scouts) still exist very separately and proudly, as there are voices on many sides in this debate. Some fight rationally for the merits and preservation of an all-male and all-female educational perspective, while others irrationally mourn the emasculation of the classic American man, as if he’ll somehow lose his balls if he learns to build a fire alongside a woman.
Whether you condone or condemn the Boy Scouts for this decision, you should know that it might not have been simply ideological. Tim suspects that “the real reason they’re accepting girls is because membership keeps going down.” The Boy Scouts are not religiously affiliated, but they do have some sizable membership contributions coming from denominations like the Latter-Day Saints and Southern Baptists. In recent years, due to developments such as the inclusion of gay Scouts and leaders, many churches have cut ties with the organization. Even if allowing girls was just a last-ditch effort to boost membership, I think it’s a step in the right direction. At the end of the day, there’s very little practical knowledge that only one gender could benefit from.
As an individual, the more you know the better, and it truly cannot be stated more simply.
For those who lament our disappearing opportunities to teach youth about life in same-sex settings, I would argue that we get plenty of opportunities already. Odds are, your sons will likely hang out with other boys, and your daughters will probably hang out with other girls. And if they don’t, it still isn’t a bad thing. The more time we spend with the opposite sex as kids, the more natural, comfortable, and mature we will feel around them as adults. As men, we might be less inclined toward lust and disrespect if we spend more time around our sisters in Christ in our younger days. As women, the worry you feel about lingering glances and fake friendships might be less frequent if your brothers in Christ gave you the attention and respect you deserved as a girl.
What better place to learn proper etiquette than the church?
Nick Meekhof (’15) graduated with a major in writing and a minor in geography. A farmer for the first twenty-three years of his life, Nick currently works for the Michigan Department of Agriculture. When he’s not traversing the state conducting orchard inspections, he can be found exploring the rivers, forests, and small towns all throughout the Great Lakes State. His current goals include kayaking one hundred Michigan rivers, swimming in Lake Michigan during every month of the year, and visiting as many Michigan breweries as possible.