When Boy Scouts of America (BSA) announced their decision to welcome and validate openly homosexual boys six years ago, Cub Scout mom Theresa Waning saw the writing on the wall. Shortly after BSA’s announcement, the church chartering her son’s troop, like many other churches across the country, revoked their BSA charter, leaving Waning’s son and other scouts without a troop.
But not for long. “I was following a Facebook group called ‘On MY Honor’ and another called ‘Faith Based Boys,’” Waning said. “They were both grassroots organizations—Boy Scout leaders and parents that had joined together to encourage the organization not to change its policy.” After BSA changed the policy anyway, the two Facebook groups swiftly turned to forming a new youth organization for boys, one that upheld the values the Boy Scouts have historically stood for, but which also would be focused on Biblical principles. In 2014, a group of former Boy Scout leaders launched Trail Life USA with nearly 500 troops across 48 states.
“On the surface, Trail Life is a lot like Boy Scouts,” said the organization’s chief executive, Mark Hancock. He explained:
We have uniforms, a robust awards program, outdoor adventure, an emphasis on character and leadership. Two things, however, make us different. First, we are unapologetically Christian, and Boy Scouts is not. It is very difficult to move in a culture if you don’t have a compass with a true north. Second is our boy focus. Of course, Boy Scouts was that for well over a century, and they gave us presidents and astronauts and generals and great citizens and leaders, but they decided recently there is nothing magic about the sauce they were producing that churned out amazing young men—that that same thing can be applied to girls, too—and we just don’t believe that that’s true. If you believe that boys are different from girls, and that they need a male-focused environment to help them develop into good and godly men, then Trail Life is a better program than Boy Scouts.
Hancock says that while both Trail Life and the Scouts involve the outdoor experience, Trail Life directs boys through that experience with religion. “We are a specifically Christ-focused Christian mission at our core, and we use the outdoors in order to accomplish that mission,” he said.
George Ghesquire, troopmaster of Troop OK-0316 in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, explained how Trail Life’s mission works in practice. “The adventure draws the boys in, and then we show them there is more to growing up than swinging a hatchet, shooting a gun, or throwing a fishing pole,” he said. “It is really about letting God work in your heart to make you the man He has created you to be.”
Trail Life’s structure will be very familiar to those with experience in the Scouts. The troops are separated into several “patrol” ranks of Trailmen based on school age. A Woodlands Trail Unit, made up of kindergarten through fifth grade students, can earn awards by performing in seven different categories: heritage, hobbies, life skills, outdoor activities, pioneering skills, science and technology, and values. Trailmen advance to the Navigator rank in sixth to eighth grades, followed by the Adventurer rank from ninth to 12th grade. Their achievements reach their culmination in the Freedom Award—similar to the Eagle Scout rank in the Boy Scouts. Students can also transfer the credits they have earned in the Boy Scouts to get the Trail Life equivalent.
Ghesquire said he was happy to see a young Trailman learn to fish, and then go on to catch three fish at a fishing derby. It was “an experience he probably wouldn’t have gotten had it not been connected with Trail Life,” Ghesquire said. He is even happier when he can find a way to organize physical activities with a basis in faith:
I’m a drywall contractor, and I went to our warehouse guy, and I asked him to take some of the lumber he had and asked him to make some four-foot tall crosses with a two-foot set of arms on them. I asked the Mountain Lions (a patrol of fourth- and fifth-graders) to help assist while the Foxes (kindergartners and first-graders) did a cross relay. We had the Foxes carry or drag the crosses across the field and hand them off to other Foxes who ran them back. In a small way, we showed them one of the things Jesus did for us. He dragged that heavy cross so He could be hung on it for our sake. [It’s] a way to show them how what we read in the Bible applies to our lives.
One badge you won’t find in the Boy Scouts is Trail Life’s Worthy Life Award for religious participation, including Scripture memorization, church volunteering, and doing things in the community to honor God. “It focuses on the spiritual aspects of raising young men,” Ghesquire said.
Former Cub Scout mom Theresa Waning is now the charter organization representative for Trail Life Troop CA-3723 in San Diego. She admires Trail Life’s emphasis on developing godly men. “The outdoor adventure and making friends is definitely an added bonus, and we probably wouldn’t do Trail Life if those elements weren’t there,” Waning said. “But, for me, it was knowing that my son was with a group where he was learning the definition of manhood, how to be responsible, how to be a leader, how to have courage, but all under the definition of what God calls a man and asks men to be.”
Trail Life is not the first Christian youth organization with an outdoor emphasis. The Royal Rangers and Royal Ambassadors have similar aims. Hancock said the difference between those groups and Trail Life is that they are specific to denominations such as the Assemblies of God or Southern Baptists. Trail Life is transdenominational, with affiliations with dozens of different denominations, and sharing a simple Trinitarian statement of faith. “We think that gives boys good exposure to folks who have an interest in Christ and serving him,” Hancock said. For instance, on one regional camp-out, a Catholic priest delivered a devotion to Trailmen from troops chartered by evangelical churches.
The openness to all denominations also provides an increasingly rare opportunity for kids to meet with Christians from other houses of worship. “There aren’t that many opportunities in our culture,” Hancock said. “We are doing these types of activities on a weekly basis.”
The transdenominational mission is one factor that has allowed Trail Life to grow swiftly. Hancock says the membership has grown to roughly 30,000 across the U.S., comprised of 19,000 youth and 11,000 adults, and the youth membership has increased 25 percent over the previous 12 months.
Trail Life is still tiny in comparison to the BSA, but enrollment in the Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts is shrinking rapidly. From 2012 to 2017, the number of Cub Scouts has declined by 18.5 percent, to 1.2 million, and the number of Boy Scouts and Varsity Scouts has declined 8.4 percent to 834,122, according to BSA annual reports.
Over just the fall season, Trail Life has averaged more than one new troop per day and has seen a 20 percent growth in its membership. Hancock said that Trail Life’s success flies in the face of the common wisdom. “A lot of people would say kids aren’t interested in going outdoors any more, they are inside, and they are doing video games,” he said. “You could also look at the culture and say people aren’t that interested in doing Christian things.” Trail Life’s success in spite of swimming against the mainstream culture “speaks to something that is still present in moms and dads in our culture,” he said.
As Trail Life grows, it is also striving to be as safe and secure a place as possible, to avoid the sex abuse scandals that have plagued the Boy Scouts for decades. Hancock said he is working with legal and youth protection organizations to establish gold-standard accreditation guidelines.
One aspect of Trail Life that Hancock is most proud of is its ministry to boys without fathers in the home. “We have a cultural phenomenon now with fatherless boys, and it’s tragic,” he said. “The leaders in Trail Life, we encourage them to connect with those boys who don’t have a father at home, the single moms who have been crying out to God for somebody to help them in raising their son, and Trail Life is filling that space.”
Unlike many other youth organizations, Trail Life emphasizes troop meetings being true father-son activities, not just an activity fathers drop their sons off at. Even though Trail Life is geared toward boys, Waning sees the positive effects this emphasis has had on dads. “I have had moms come up to me and tell me, ‘Thank you so much,’ because their husbands were becoming leaders and doing things they would have never done if it weren’t for Trail Life,” Waning said. “I had one mom say, ‘I would have never in a million years thought my husband would get in front and lead a group, but Trail Life did it.’”
Waning relates that her husband, who is also Troopmaster of her son’s troop, was reluctant to be vocal about his faith before he got involved with Trail Life, because he viewed Christianity as a quiet and humble faith. “He didn’t see a big, strong, burly man being a Christian, until he went to a Trail Life train-the-trainer weekend for adult men,” she said. After her husband met other Christian outdoorsmen, Waning said her husband thought, “‘I can be that guy I want to be and still be on fire for Jesus.’”
Hancock has worked as a mental health counselor and he has written the book Let Boys Be Boys: 3 Winning Strategies for Leaders of Boys. He talked about “boys as the canary in the coal mine of our culture.” He said the current culture in America is not friendly to boys, due to the confusion about gender politics, the breakdown of the family structure, and the #MeToo movement painting all important males in power—those who should be role models to young men—with a broad brush of sexual misconduct. “As it stands right now, we are celebrating women and what it is that women are able to do,” Hancock said. He continued:
In Trail Life, we aim to restore for boys strengths that are seen as specific to them, like risk and competition that boys naturally enjoy and are drawn to. In past generations, that’s why men went to war…that’s why men went to work. They have gone to war and to work to support their families. As that’s changed in our culture, they are finding a difficult time expressing that need to be productive and to have a clear purpose.
Hancock argues it’s essential for boys to learn how to get along with and function within a community, and he sees faith as the key to that. “Trail Life is a program that challenges boys to take on things that they wouldn’t normally encounter,” he said. “That can’t help but improve our future.”