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TRAIL HEAD: Commemorative patch for kickoff event.
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TRAIL HEAD: Commemorative patch for kickoff event.

Rapid response

Boy Scouts | Trail Life USA acts quickly to fill the void left by a changed Boy Scouts of America

Issue: "Bright or rotten idea?," Oct. 5, 2013

NASHVILLE, Tenn.—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, a new group that hopes to be a Christian alternative to the Boy Scouts of America (BSA).

Organizers of the event intentionally chose that “modern hymn,” written by contemporary Christian artists Keith Getty and Stuart Townend, but reflecting ancient Christian theology, to symbolize 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.”  

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The crowd at the Music City Sheraton came from 44 states to form what organizers say will be an outdoor scouting-like program designed for boys ages 5-17. The group will focus on “adventure, character and leadership.” The Boy Scout Motto of “Be Prepared” is replaced with the biblical admonition to “Walk Worthy.” Boys of all faiths are welcome, but adults must sign a statement of faith.

This meeting was a rapid response to what founder John Stemberger called the “rapid deterioration” of the Boy Scouts of America from one of America’s most trusted institutions to one to which “we no longer feel safe sending our boys and young men.”

That deterioration in trust reached a tipping point in May, when about 1,400 delegates to the BSA’s annual meeting near Dallas voted to allow openly homosexual boys as members. More than 60 percent of the delegates voted for the proposal. In fact, it was the overwhelming majority that contributed to Stemberger’s sense that the Boy Scouts could no longer be trusted. Just months earlier, a survey of BSA’s membership found that nearly 60 percent believed the current policy, which prohibited homosexual members, was the best policy for the Boy Scouts.  

“It’s stunning to me that in less than six months they would completely reverse their position on what’s in the best interest of boys,” Stemberger said. Stemberger said the change would not have happened if the Boy Scouts had not intentionally withheld information about the negative consequences of the policy change.  

However it happened, the policy changed, and Stemberger and others swung immediately into action. Even before leaving Dallas, Stemberger announced he would convene a group on June 29 in Louisville, Ky., to “discuss the creation of a new character development organization for boys.” Stemberger said the meeting would be a “national coalition meeting of former BSA parents and other youth leaders who wish to return to truly timeless values that once made the BSA great.”

Between that meeting in Louisville and the inaugural meeting of Trail Life USA in Nashville, barely two months elapsed. In that time, the group created a constitution and bylaws, logo, and other organizing documents and procedures. According to Mark Hancock, vice chairman of the board and the convention host, “For this to happen in 68 days, that doesn’t happen by the power of men.”

While Trail Life USA was a-birthing, the Boy Scouts of America continued to show signs of deterioration. Immediately following the May vote, conservative Scout leaders and the churches that sponsor, or “charter,” Scout units, started to defect. The Scouts won’t say how many, and it likely won’t know until units recharter for the new year, but before the May vote, its own estimates were that around 300,000 members would leave because of the decision.

In June, delegates to the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution expressing “opposition to and disappointment in” the Boy Scouts, though the resolution stopped short of encouraging churches to withdraw. It did say, though, that the actions of the BSA could be a “first step in a process that will fundamentally change the BSA,” putting “the Scouts at odds with a consistent biblical worldview on matters of human sexuality.” 

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. 

Staff members for BSA also are defecting. A notable example: Richard Mathews, former general counsel for the Boy Scouts, is now a legal consultant for Trail Life USA.

Another sign of Scouting’s decline came in July when the Scouts held their National Jamboree at the new 10,000-acre Summit Bechtel Reserve in West Virginia. Attendance (including staff) was about 36,600, down nearly 15 percent from the last Jamboree in 2010.

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