While traditional scouting programs for children and teens have seen a nationwide drop in membership in recent years for reasons such as policy changes, alternative Christian groups say they are rapidly gaining participants.
Trail Life USA for boys ages 5 to 17 has become so popular that there is a waiting list in Colorado Springs and other cities, the organization’s CEO Mark Hancock said in a recent interview.
“It makes a difference for parents to be centered in Christianity,” he said. “The local troops are packed. Some had to restrict membership because there was not enough room.
Hancock came to Colorado Springs last month to record a radio show with Jim Daly, president of Christian media conglomerate Focus on the Family. American Heritage Girls founder and executive director Patti Garibay also recorded a segment.
About 30 local members of Trail Life and American Heritage Girls, a Christian variant of Girl Scouts of the United States, attended the session. Called “A safe place for girls to grow as women,” the latter program is set to air on July 25, according to a spokesperson for Focus on the Family.
The Trail Life USA show, “A Strong Place for Boys to Grow Up as Men,” airs July 26.
Trail Life began meeting formally in 2014 after informally organizing in 2013, when the National Executive Committee of the Boy Scouts of America announced that it would openly admit gay youth as members. The organization lifted its ban on gay and bisexual adult officers and employees in 2015. It now has 40,000 members in 50 states, Hancock said.
Garibay started American Heritage Girls in 1995 with 100 Girls, also in response to changing values within mainstream Scouting.
The organization now has 55,000 members of girls aged 5 to 18, with national growth of 37% this year, she said in an interview.
“Christian families are looking for a high-impact program,” she said. “They see great value not only in learning life skills and leadership, but also in growing their faith and identity.”
Trail Life’s structure resembles the Boy Scouts of America’s 112-year-old flagship, complete with troops, patrols, manual, uniforms, motto, oath, and stages of advancement.
One big difference is that Trail Life and American Heritage Girls troupes must be licensed by a church in the community, where they hold meetings and receive ministry support.
“We’re not just an organization that meets in a church basement, we’re active church evangelism,” Hancock said, “and we’re seeing churches grow because of it.”
More than 900 churches charter Trail Life troops nationwide, Hancock said. American Heritage Girls troupes are active in 1,250 Catholic and Protestant churches of various denominations nationwide, Garibay said.
With great interest, Trail Life can’t find churches fast enough, Hancock said.
“Parents realize that the culture does not provide a welcoming environment for boys,” he said. “We constantly remind girls that they can be strong and do anything; that’s not the message for boys.
In Trail Life, the boys learn to “restore biblical masculinity,” Hancock said, which “is not toxic masculinity,” but a “useful view for men and women.”
He defines biblical masculinity as “the pursuit of Christlikeness” and “walking as Christ walked,” which is part of the Trail Life mission.
“Duty to God” has been a central theme of the Boy Scouts of America since the organization’s inception in 1910, said Jim Machamer, director of scouting and CEO of the Colorado Springs-based Pathway to the Rockies Council.
That phrase continues to be part of the Scout oath that members recite at most meetings, Machamer said.
However, there is no requirement for a Scout to identify a religious faith as part of their “duty to God”, he said, as “Scouting is non-sectarian and does not promote any specific religion”.
Conversely, Christianity is central to Trail Life, Hancock said.
“We are not an outdoor organization that is outside of the Christian experience,” he said. “We are at the heart of a Christian organization that uses the outdoors to grow Christian men.”
That’s why Colorado Springs mom Jessica Morgan and her husband, who’s in the military, transitioned their sons from traditional scouting to Trail Life.
“I love the Christ-centered focus it brings and that their values align with our family values,” she said after watching the recording to Focus on the Family.
“It was a big family event, and the men in the troupe stayed away when my husband wasn’t around,” she told Hancock. “The skills helped give our two boys courage, leadership strength and to deal with the tough things that happen to us.”
As with traditional scouting, members of Trail Life say they enjoy leadership opportunities, hiking and camping, facing other challenges to the mind and body, and developing character, said Hancock.
There is also an element of risk and challenge, he said.
“They get engaged, they don’t participate to win a trophy; they participate to know that if they receive something, they have earned it,” he said.
Making strong friends who challenge their faith and hold them accountable also attracted 18-year-old Peter Ward from the Black Forest. He just graduated from high school as a homeschooler and won the Trail Life’s Freedom Award, a landmark project similar to the Eagle Scout award.
One of his favorite experiences with the organization was riding a 32-mile loop at Maroon Bells in the mountains west of Aspen.
“It will be a special memory for me forever,” he said. “Just being with all my friends was amazing, we were in God’s creation, and the physicality of it was so worth it.”
Another highlight of the trip was taking turns leading evening devotions, Ward said.
“People could hear our thoughts, we could hear theirs, and we were encouraging and pushing each other to Christ,” he said.To win the Freedom Award, Ward and his buddy, Trey Shell, created an event, Airsoft Bible Camp, held in the Black Forest last summer. It is offered again this summer. The pair spearheaded operations, finances, gaming, and other elements of the project.
The goal: “to create a relaxed atmosphere for men to fellowship together and pursue the Lord and have fun and be guys,” Ward said. He said he came away with valuable lessons, including “you can’t just rely on yourself. You have to trust your team and be flexible.
With failure or success heavy on their shoulders, Shell said he relished the responsibility of serving as chief administrative officer. Ward’s role was camp director.
“We wanted to do something unique,” Shell said. “We knew next to nothing and jumped into the dark,” Shell said. “There were a lot of mistakes. But we learned and grew from this experience.
The Freedom Project, Shell said, provided the same spiritual support system, peer encouragement and unparalleled fellowship as Trail Life as a whole.
“If someone is in trouble, we have a network of people ready to coach, guide and empower people,” he said.
Boy Scouts see a rebound
The decision to allow openly gay leaders, members and staff, coupled with legal action stemming from sexual abuse claims, a bankruptcy filing with national headquarters in February 2020, and competing teenage activities such as the sport, is awarded for Cub and Scout membership. from 1.97 million in 2019 to 1.12 million in 2020.
National headquarters provided those numbers to The Associated Press last year, with COVID also cited as a factor in declining attendance in 2020.
Pikes Peak Council served 6,046 young people in 2019, its website said at the time. The Pathway to the Rockies Council served 3,112 young people through four programs in 2021, according to its new annual report.
No lawsuits have been filed against local council Pathway to the Rockies, Machamer said.
This year seems to herald a rebound for the Boy Scouts of America.
Membership as of April 30 — compared to April 30, 2021 — is up 4.8% nationally and shows a slight increase of 0.05% in Colorado, Machamer said. It is the result of a fall 2021 merger of the Rocky Mountain Council in Pueblo and the Pikes Peak Council in Colorado Springs.
“The proximity of the two councils made economic sense for the two to merge,” Machamer said.
He calls it a “positive movement” that has created a strong organization to serve the greater southern Colorado region.
The COVID pandemic has primarily affected members of Cub Scout, said Machamer, which serves boys and girls in kindergarten through fifth grade.
Some packs did not survive, he said.
“The Cubs were primarily expected to meet via Zoom, and after attending school over Zoom, it was difficult to continue after several months of trying,” Machamer said.
But, “Some pack leaders were flexible and creative and made it work really well.”
Middle and high school scouts aged 11 to 18 continued to meet outdoors and participate in socially distanced activities in cooler temperatures to maintain programs, he said.
Encouraging signs of growth include a significant increase in summer camp enrollment this year, he said, and fall school and social media recruiting is fast approaching.
“This is a family program, and our goal is to invite every family to experience what Cub and Boy Scouting is all about,” he said.
Girls make up about 10% of local members, Machamer added. The national organization began accepting younger girls as Cub Scouts in 2018, and older girls were admitted to the flagship Scouting program in 2019.
“We’ve had a lot of energetic parents who are now leaders who got involved because their daughters can experience this great program,” Machamer said.Members of American Heritage Girls also enjoy doing nature activities, making friends, and exploring science and technology, self-care, ancestry, and how their spirituality connects all aspects of their lives, a said Garibay.
“We try to appeal to the whole girl because not all of them have crafty skills,” Garibay said. “Young people want to know what’s right and wrong, and it’s a great place for them to discern that and vocations for their future. They learn skills for a full life.
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