Most people would stop short of buying their kids a Jesus action figure, but Pastor Tim Wright says Jesus was above all things a man of action.
Wright of Phoenix, Ariz., believes it's that kind of thinking that will stop what he sees as the drain of boys and young men from today's churches. He describes a crisis for churches not only in the United States but worldwide in his new book, "Searching for Tom Sawyer: How Parents and Congregations Can Stop the Exodus of Boys from the Church.''
He titled the book after Tom Sawyer because he said the character is not like the literature figure of Harry Potter, who has mythical powers. Tom Sawyer "finds church boring'' but "out of the blue, he does something noble."
"Tom represents the boys in our congregations,'' said Wright, pastor of Community of Grace Church in Peoria, Ariz., in his book. "He puts a face to the call we have as parents and congregations to find our lost boys and call them to follow Jesus.''
And whether they know it or not, several Altoona area pastors are already following tips from Wright's book. His ideas include creating groups for just boys in their churches and scheduling action-oriented activities to appeal to their energy-activated natures.
Wright points out in his book that boys are full of energy, primarily because of their hormones, and they need different motivations than girls. They need to get up frequently during instruction and stretch, move around and release some of their energy, he said.
"Jesus said, 'Follow me,'" Wright said. "He was constantly on the move. He constantly taught his disciples on the fly.''
Several churches in the Altoona area have groups that fit Wright's model. Among them are Pleasant Valley Assembly of God that has a Royal Rangers' program and Altoona Bible Church and Grace Family Bible churches that have Christian Service Brigade programs.
The international Royal Rangers program is similar to the Boy Scouts, where boys earn badges and go on expeditions such as canoe and camping trips.
The Christian Service Brigade is a national program that holds weekly meetings and camping experiences. Boys fulfill requirements to advance in rank.
Wright said in his book he believes the root of the problem with boys and young men leaving the church started with the feminist movement in the 1960s.
While he praised the movement for trying to correct some ills in society, such as inequality in the workforce, he said it caused other problems because it prompted people to think that men and women were the same, which he said they're clearly not.
"While well-intentioned, these attempts at making boys and girls the same ended up robbing boys of who they are and of who they were created to be,'' Wright said in his book.
As a result, many schools and churches began tailoring their curriculums, sermons and even songs in a more feminine way, he said.
Church songs talk about feelings, emotion, things that boys can't relate to, Wright said. Schools, both public and private, and even Sunday school lessons are often longer sessions of instruction without a break, which girls can handle, but boys find hard to take, he said.
"No wonder they end up leaving the church as soon as they can,'' said Wright, who added that about 79 percent of all boys leave the church in their teens and 20s and never return.
But groups such as Christian Service Brigade help keep boys in church, said area pastors.
"Christian Service Brigade has been a really important part of their lives for a lot of kids,'' said Stewart McClelland, pastor of Altoona Bible Church.
He said many boys belong to the brigade, which has been at the church for more than 50 years. Many of the them are not members of the church, he said.
They attend brigade events, but not Sunday school or church services. But that's OK with McClelland. Part of the brigade program includes religious studies, and it's couched by activities, such as a four-day canoe trip on Memorial Day weekend.
"There's a lot of pull on kids these days, and we just try to do the best we can for them by showing them God's love,'' McClelland said.
Dave Cerully, captain of the battalion for the Christian Service Brigade at Altoona Bible Church, said the boys attend a fall camp at Black Moshannon State Park, a winter camp at the Boy Scout camp at Pinecroft as well as the canoe trip. He said the outdoor events provide opportunities for the leaders to have one-on-one time with the boys.
Cerully said many of the boys come from single-parent homes, and the leaders try to instill them with Christian values and morals. During the weekly meetings, the boys take part in a game, a Bible study and a council ring where leaders review points with them.
Pastor Jim Zaebst of Grace Family Bible Church in Duncansville said the weekly meetings are religious in nature, but the boys also take fishing and camping trips.
"I think the world has become so secular that it's almost biased against anything religious in nature,'' he said. "We're focused on leading the children into a Christian way of life.
At Pleasant Valley Assembly of God in Altoona, the Royal Rangers meet weekly. Classes begin with a Bible study then break for an activity that varies every week, said John Bender, leader of the group.
In addition to helping boys see their masculine side, he believes the group helps in other ways.
"We're a mentoring organization,'' Bender said. "Some of the kids don't have a father to interact with and we end up becoming that father figure for them.