BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (BP) -- As the Boy Scouts of America seriously considers lifting its ban on gay and lesbian troop leaders, churches across the Southern Baptist Convention may turn to the Royal Ambassador program, which for decades has shaped boys into responsible followers of Christ.
Below: Baptist journalist Todd Deaton recounts Royal Ambassadors' influence on his call to ministry.
"Royal Ambassadors (RA) espouses many of the same virtues and character-building activities that are found in Boy Scouts but with the added benefit for Southern Baptists that our primary goal is developing boys into men who understand the mission of God and carry the Gospel with them into the world," Richard Bodenhamer, a marketing specialist at Woman's Missionary Union, said Jan. 29.
Royal Ambassadors is the Southern Baptist missions organization for boys in grades 1-6. Challengers engages young men in grades 7-12 in missions education.
The RA program was established by WMU in 1908. Years later, responsibilities for the program were transferred to the North American Mission Board, and in 2011, WMU again assumed those responsibilities.
The RA pledge is this: "As a Royal Ambassador I will do my best to become a well-informed, responsible follower of Christ; to have a Christlike concern for all people; to learn how to carry the message of Christ around the world; to work with others in sharing Christ; and to keep myself clean and healthy in mind and body."
Based on 2 Corinthians 5:20, the Royal Ambassadors motto is "We are Ambassadors for Christ," providing boys with a lifestyle goal.
Wanda Lee, executive director of national WMU, described Royal Ambassadors as "unique and significant in that it instills godly characteristics in boys while helping them understand the mission of God and their responsibility for living out and sharing the Gospel."
Boys in RAs participate in fun activities that are appropriate for their age and gender, Lee said, and the curriculum helps nurture their mental, social, physical and spiritual development.
"At a young age, boys learn that life isn't all about them as they develop a biblical worldview by actively serving others and learning how God is at work through missions efforts around the world," Lee said.
The importance of godly leaders in RAs cannot be overstated, Lee added.
"WMU believes in a man's calling to influence and lead boys in missions education. More than ever, boys desperately need male Christian role models who live out the Gospel," Lee said. "Boys grow into godly young men and tomorrow's leaders as they model the example of their leaders."
About 3,000 churches across the country have RA programs, and many churches have more than one RA group, WMU said. Based on subscriptions to RA Leader magazine, WMU estimates there are 6,300 RA leaders, and 31,000 subscriptions to RA World, the magazine for RA members, indicate there are at least that many boys involved in Royal Ambassadors.
RA leaders help boys learn about God's mission, participate in missions experiences, pray for and give to missions, develop and use mission skills, and learn about and support the missions work of their church and denomination, according to the RA website, wmu.com/ra.
Horace Maddox, a member of Blackshear Place Baptist Church in Flowery Branch, Ga., told Baptist Press he has been involved in RAs for many years, first as a student and then as a leader.
"I still get visits from men who are dads themselves now that stop by my house to talk about some of the camping trips we went on, some of the activities that we've been involved in like the Royal Ambassador Racers and the sports teams that we've had down through the years and the impact that it's had on their lives -- getting involved in RAs in their churches," Maddox said.
"Some have gone on to be pastors and one in particular is a North American missionary in Colorado. There have been a lot of good things that came out of the program over the years. I'm sold on it," Maddox, a state adviser for RAs, said. "I feel like it's made a big impact on the boys that I've been involved with over the years."
Don Hinkle, editor of The Pathway, the Missouri Baptist Convention's newspaper, was a Royal Ambassador.
"At age 6 I began to learn the inestimable value of Southern Baptists cooperating to carry the Gospel to the world by my involvement in Royal Ambassadors," Hinkle told Baptist Press. "I did not understand the theological implications of it all and certainly not all of the academic terminology now used to describe it, but I began to learn how to be a Great Commission disciple and to think from a biblical worldview perspective."
Hinkle is grateful for the RA leaders who "placed my feet on a path that encouraged me to be an informed follower of Christ, with concern for my fellow man, sharing Christ with others while keeping myself clean and healthy in mind and body."
"Perhaps in these sad, self-destructing days for the Boy Scouts of America, God will use RAs in a new and powerful way to bring honor and glory to Him," Hinkle said.
Bob Terry, president and editor of The Alabama Baptist newspaper, was both a Boy Scout and a Royal Ambassador growing up and still has an appreciation for both.
"The Bible verses we learned [in RAs] I still remember, but the most lasting benefit was the introduction to what Baptists do together in the cause of Christ," Terry, also a former RA leader, told Baptist Press.
"Like most church members, my view of the Kingdom of God was fairly limited to my church and a few other churches [nearby]," Terry said. "Through RAs, I was introduced to Baptists working together to share the Gospel with people around the world. In RAs is where I first learned to love missions and to realize that I was a part of that effort even though I was only a teenager and had never been to those places."
Todd Deaton, editor of the Western Recorder in Kentucky, credits Royal Ambassadors with shaping his call to the ministry.
"Attending a state Royal Ambassador camp as a boy and then working at that camp while I was a college student was a life-impacting experience, which led me to respond to God's call into ministry," Deaton told Baptist Press. "Answering God's call directed me toward making a commitment to use my talents to serve Christ as a denominational journalist.
"Although the boys may come home talking about all the fun activities they did, the best part of any Royal Ambassador camp is seeing decisions made for Christ during the week," Deaton said.
Lee, at the SBC annual meeting in New Orleans last year, noted, "We recognize there is such a short window of opportunity for shaping young minds to be missions-focused, and we are fully committed to effectively discipling children and students in Southern Baptist missions."
For churches considering Royal Ambassadors, extensive resources are available on the RA website, wmu.com/ra. A 30-page PDF document called the Royal Ambassadors Quick Start Guide offers information on how to start an RA chapter, including a sample first meeting.