In September 2013, more than 1,200 mostly male voices sang the rousing hymn “In Christ Alone” to kick off the first meeting on Sept. 7 of Trail Life USA (TLUSA). This new group wanted to be a Christian alternative to the Boy Scouts of America (BSA).
At that time, Trail Life USA was little more than a hope and a dream, but its leaders had a vision. They sought a youth organization that took those qualities that made the BSA one of the most influential organizations of the 20th century, before it lost its way by relaxing its standards for leaders. Trail Life wanted to include the outdoor adventure aspects of Scouting with a distinctively Christian foundation.
Organizers of the event intentionally chose “In Christ Alone,” written by “modern” hymn writers Keith Getty and Stuart Townend, as it was both ancient and modern – contemporary music faithful to ancient Christian theology. The hymn symbolized the differences between Trail Life USA and the Boy Scouts.
“We’re here to honor the legacy of the Boy Scouts of America,” radio personality Bill Bunkley, master of ceremonies for the event, told the crowd after the singing was done. “But now, quite frankly, we are called in a new direction.”
And today, six years later, that dream has become a reality.
Last week, more than 600 Trailmen gathered at a conference center in north Georgia for the first Summer Adventure and Family Convention. Like the first meeting, the week began with the Trailmen and their families singing “In Christ Alone.” TLUSA CEO Mark Hancock said, “That hymn has become something of a tradition for us.”
Unlike that first Nashville meeting, which outlined a dream and a vision for an organization that existed mostly on paper, last week’s event featured practical, boots-on-the-ground workshops. It also celebrated six years of rapid growth. Trail Life USA has grown from just an idea to nearly 30,000 members who gather weekly in 800 troops scattered in nearly all 50 states.
So where have those families come from, and why are they still coming?
In the early months of Trail Life USA, many new members had been Boy Scouts. On January 1, 2014, the first official day of TLUSA, about 200 troops were chartered almost immediately. Many of those early-adopters were former Boy Scout troops. Among the high-profile Southern Baptist churches who have quit Scouting is Roswell Street Baptist Church, a megachurch in Marietta, Ga. Birmingham’s Briarwood Presbyterian Church, considered by some the “mother church” of the Presbyterian Church in America, has also severed ties with the BSA.
In recent years, though, many new troops have come from churches that had no involvement with the Boy Scouts. And that brings us to the “why?” Trailmen and their families say they want a quality, Christ-centered program for boys, and they’ve found it in Trail Life. The motto of Trailmen is “Walk Worthy,” an admonition that comes from Colossians 1:10, which reads, “Walk worthy of the Lord.” While the Boy Scouts – historically, at least – have talked about “duty to God,” they have left the definition of God open to interpretation. Trail Life USA is open to boys of all faiths, but adult leaders must sign an explicitly Christian statement of faith.
Speakers at last week’s conference reflected the group’s emphasis on family-centered spiritual growth. They included popular Christian radio host and author Dennis Rainey and Focus on the Family’s Danny Huerta. (Full disclosure: I was the master of ceremonies for the week.) And the workshops also provided signs that Trail Life was no longer a dream, but a vital, growing organization. They included such topics as “Trail Life Connect Data Management System,” “Trailmen with Special Needs,” and “The Role of the TLUSA Board.”
A special guest for the week was American Heritage Girls founder Patti Garibay. Garibay founded American Heritage Girls in 1995 in response to pro-gay developments in the Girl Scouts. Today, American Heritage Girls has nearly 50,000 members and is planning a 25th anniversary celebration next year on the campus of Cedarville University, near AHG’s Ohio headquarters. Though they have remained separate organizations, American Heritage Girls and Trail Life USA often work closely together. Trail Life Chairman of the Board John Stemberger calls Garibay and American Heritage Girls their “big sister” in this work. Many churches now sponsor both AHG and TLUSA troop meetings on the same night.
Trail Life USA CEO Mark Hancock told the group on the closing night that the first six years of TLUSA were merely a prologue to even greater things ahead. “I’ve been encouraged by this gathering. I’m encouraged by the strength of the leaders here. We’ve got a very deep bench. It’s going to be a good year for us.”
Warren Cole Smith is the Vice-President of Mission Advancement for the Colson Center for Christian Worldview.