When the French nobleman Alexis de Tocqueville visited America in the 1830s, he could see even from Europe that the new American nation was unique, and he wanted to discover why. The book he wrote about that trip, Democracy in America, has become an enduring classic. It offers many reasons for America’s greatness, but chief among them are religion – specifically Christianity – and the genius Americans had to form associations to solve social problems. In a now famous passage from that book, he wrote:
“When you allow them to associate freely in everything, they end up seeing in association the universal and, so to speak, unique means that men can use to attain the various ends that they propose. Each new need immediately awakens the idea of association. The art of association then becomes, as I said above, the mother science; everyone studies it and applies it.”
Associations, Tocqueville noted, not only get things done, but they become laboratories and training grounds for civic engagement. The president of a local Kiwanis Club learns to lead, and learns the skills she needs if, for example, she then wants to run for city council.
Historically, this genius for association – and its ability to train leaders — has extended even to youth organizations such as the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Camp Fire Girls, Demolay, and others. However, in recent years, these youth organizations have increasingly abandoned that other pillar of American exceptionalism: religion. The Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts now allow homosexual leaders and have other policies that undermine historic Christian teachings.
So, are there youth organizations standing in that breach, who combine the best qualities of America’s formerly great youth organizations with a strong commitment to Christian distinctives?
The answer to that question is a resounding “yes.” In 2013, more than 1,200 people from 44 states gathered in Nashville for the inaugural meeting of Trail Life USA (TLUSA), a group formed as a Christian alternative for the Boy Scouts of America. Trail Life USA is an outdoor-oriented, scouting-like program for boys ages 5-17 that focuses on adventure, character, and leadership.
When John Stonestreet and I wrote Restoring All Things, we posed four questions that Christians could ask and answer if they wanted to be a blessing to their neighbors and to the world. One of those questions is: “What is missing in our culture that we can creatively contribute?” With the decline of the Scouting movement, the organizers of Trail Life USA have tried to answer that question.
“We’re here to honor the legacy of the Boy Scouts of America,” said radio personality Bill Bunkley, master of ceremonies for the Nashville event. “But now, quite frankly, we are called in a new direction.”
Since that day in 2013, Trail Life USA has grown dramatically. The group’s president, Mark Hancock, told me recently that TLUSA now has nearly 30,000 members it calls “Trailmen.” They are organized into more than 750 Troops in nearly all 50 states.
And these young men are doing things that Alexis de Tocqueville could easily put in a 21st century edition of Democracy in America.
For example, in New Hampshire, a Trailman worked with a local police department to create what the local newspaper called a “star-spangled cruiser.” As part of TLUSA’s Servant Leadership Project, 17-year-old Elijah Obrey helped design a police cruiser covered in symbols of American patriotism. When the police department approved the design, he raised more than a thousand dollars to complete the project. Obrey said he picked this project because he “had a passion to serve the police and I wanted to do a good thing for them.” To read about the “Star-Spangled Cruiser,” click here.
In Kingsport, Tenn., a five-year-old Woodlands Sam Teague became upset when vandals stole a doll representing the baby Jesus from a local manger scene. With the help of his family, he replaced it, also leaving in the manger a hand-written note: “Please no one steal this very special Baby Jesus. We love him and the real Jesus loves us. Happy New Year to everyone.”
One final example: An Oklahoma Trailman and home-schooled teenager, John Benson, worked 14-hour days to raise funds and build a 192-square-foot storage building for a local Christian ministry that works with at-risk teens. The project also included a 50-foot rock paved walkway. Benson got local businesses to donate much of the nearly $3,000 in materials needed for the project.
Though these projects are individually small, they are powerful moments in the lives of these young men, and multiplied by the thousands of similar projects that will happen in the years ahead, the cumulative impact will no doubt be great.
John Stemberger, TLUSA’s first board chair, said it is important to remember that such projects are not just do-good projects so these boys will have something to add to their resumes. They are also are a powerful witness for Christ. He said Trail Life is an “explicitly Christian” organization. Its motto, “Walk Worthy,” is a reference to Colossians 1:10, which exhorts Christian to “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.”
One final note: Trail Life USA has a sister organization for girls called American Heritage Girls. To read more about that organization, click here.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Do you know a story of Christians involved in the work of “restoring all things”? Email Warren Cole Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org