Christian scout group grows as BSA declines
Boy Scouts saw an unprecedented drop in membership during the pandemic
Trail Life USA, a Christian outdoor adventure program for boys, hosted its first national backyard campout in April 2020 when many families were isolated due to the pandemic. More than 20,000 families participated, prompting the Christian scouting group to plan two more backyard events that summer. Many troops continued to meet in church parking lots or parks and held outdoor adventures such as canoeing and backpacking trips.
Despite nationwide lockdowns, Trail Life experienced its largest increase in new membership, growing to more than 33,000 members and 900 troops in 50 states. In the past four months, the group has had more than 300 inquiries of individuals wanting to start a troop and 3,500 new members.
On Wednesday, the Christian Service Brigade, a discipleship program for boys founded in 1937, announced it would begin steering its outdoor divisions and boys to join Trail Life.
Meanwhile, Boy Scouts of America (BSA) faced mounting financial woes and saw an unprecedented one-year decline in membership in 2020. Cub Scouts and BSA participation fell from 1.97 million members in 2019 to 1.12 million in 2020, a 43 percent decline, and membership has dropped further since then to about 762,000, according to figures obtained by the Associated Press.
BSA said the pandemic and social trends pushed more American families away from the 111-year-old youth organization.
“We’re simply not seeing that,” Trail Life CEO Mark Hancock said. “Parents are interested in getting involved in … an organization that shares their values.”
BSA welcomed openly homosexual Scouts into its program in 2013. In subsequent years, the group allowed homosexual scout leaders, girls, and transgender individuals to participate. Families and key partners, such as the Latter-day Saints, pulled out. Trail Life started in 2014 as demand grew for a scouting alternative.
BSA also faces lawsuits alleging sexual abuse by scout leaders that prompted it to seek bankruptcy protection in February 2020. On July 1, BSA and its 252 local councils reached a $850 million agreement to compensate tens of thousands of alleged sexual abuse victims with claims dating back decades. Some councils are already selling off camp properties, and the BSA is raising its membership fees to account for the financial setback.
Chicago attorney Christopher Hurley represents 4,500 former Boy Scouts who claim they were sexually abused by leaders. Hurley said the agreement is just the first step in compensation for victims and does not account for settlement contributions being negotiated with other groups and insurance companies associated with BSA.
“Not a single one of my clients would trade money for what happened to him,” Hurley said. “This was more about getting closure and an acknowledgement of fault … and to make sure it is not going to happen to other boys.”
Trail Life was “forged in the fires of the Boy Scouts’ mess,” Hancock said.
From its start, Trail Life has taken steps to try to prevent abuse. All adult members must undergo regular background checks, agree to a statement of faith, and be vouched for by a charter organization representative. Approved adults wear lanyards to show they are vetted, checked, and trained. They are prohibited from being one-on-one with boys. The group also conducts child protection safety training every two years and requires abuse allegations to be reported to local authorities.
Hancock said those protective measures and Trail Life’s commitment to Christian principles are essential to helping boys grow into godly men: “If we give in to societal pressures, there is no sense in existing.”
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