Manning Up: Men, Masculinity and the Church

4 February 2010

Christopher J Wiles

writer | speaker | servant

“I see in fight club the strongest and smartest men who’ve ever lived. I see all this potential, and I see it squandered….. an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables; slaves with white collars.

Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy [junk] we don’t need. We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war… our Great Depression is our lives.

We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very [ticked] off.”

Men are an endangered species.

This is the theme of the movie Fight Club, where Norton’s character confides to Tyler Durden that he is “a 30-year-old boy.” The fighting ring of Lou’s basement becomes the proving ground for an untold number of young men looking for more than what their white collars can afford.

And now this same attitude has reached Christianity.

According to a recent article in the New York Times, more and more churches are using fighting events (mixed martial arts to be exact – something along the lines of what you’d see with Ultimate Fighting Championship and the like) to reach men.

The Times reports:

Recruitment efforts at the churches, which are predominantly white, involve fight night television viewing parties and lecture series that use ultimate fighting to explain how Christ fought for what he believed in. Other ministers go further, hosting or participating in live events.

The goal, these pastors say, is to inject some machismo into their ministries — and into the image of Jesus — in the hope of making Christianity more appealing. “Compassion and love — we agree with all that stuff, too,” said Brandon Beals, 37, the lead pastor at Canyon Creek Church outside of Seattle. “But what led me to find Christ was that Jesus was a fighter.”

I don’t know. Maybe it’s the church’s uneasy history with gladiatorial combat, maybe it’s the unbalanced perspective represented in the above article, but something doesn’t quite sit right with me (both Justin Taylor and Mike Mckinley have excellent posts on the above article).

But I suspect that it has a lot to do with the fact that the church is rapidly awakening to the fact that men are on the endangered species list.

The church is suffering from a lack of men, who tend to view church as something for children and old ladies. Why be caught dead in church on Sunday when you’ve got the game on TV and a cold beer waiting in the fridge?

MEN INSIDE THE CHURCH

“The next face of American Christianity? Probably not.”

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that what our churches need is a whole legion of hairy, red-meat-eating, jock-tacular dudes similar to the brawny towel man or the guy who sells those sham-wows. This may surprise you, but I’m not what one’s typical picture of a man’s man. Despite my years as a power tool salesman, I’ve been unsuccessful at every other “manly” job I’ve attempted (including warehouse packer, truck driver and carpenter), I’ve never shot a gun and I can’t throw a football without looking like a third grader heaving a cantaloupe. But the truth is that there is a very real absence of men from our churches. Consider this data compiled from churchformen.com:

Women make up 60% of the average church congregation

Midweek services are 70-80% female

25% of married women attend church without their husbands

70% of boys leave youth group never to return

< 10% of churches have an active men’s ministry

Churches are dominated by women. Sure, the staff is usually male, but the church is often run by female-dominated committees. David Murrow, author of Why Men Hate Church, observes that while “Male pastors come and go…faithful women provide a matriarchal continuity in our congregations. Women are the devoted ones who build their lives around their commitments to Christ and His church. Women are more likely to teach and volunteer in church and are the greatest participants in Christian culture. The sad reality in many churches today is this: the only man who actually practices his faith is the pastor.”

Let’s be clear: it is good that women are so eager to be involved in ministry, and these women are often the unsung heroes of church ministry. But is this unbalanced environment good for men? “We’re a generation of men raised by women,” Tyler Durden says. “I’m wondering if another woman is really what we need.”

WHAT’S HAPPENED?

Ironically, this whole mess is largely an unintended by-product of the seeker-sensitive movement. Strands of that movement sought to emphasize authenticity and spiritual growth in contrast to the previous generation’s emphasis on doctrine and knowledge.

The end result? Small group materials that many perceive as cliched attempts to “get in touch with our feelings.” Worship music that articulates God’s immanence in the context of a romantic relationship (“your love is intimate” “heaven meets earth like a sloppy wet kiss”). We used to say “amen” after singing hymns; now we have to bite our tongues to keep from shouting “that’s what she said!”

While I don’t often agree with the guy, I think John Eldredge said it best:

“The problem with men, we are told, is that they don’t know how to keep their promises, be spiritual leaders, talk to their wives, or raise their children. But, if they will try real hard they can reach the lofty summit of becoming … a nice guy. That’s what we hold up as models of Christian maturity: Really Nice Guys.”

The image of the ideal church guy is one who you might find sipping his caramel macchiato latte and mincing through the hallways in a sweater vest and flip flops. Mark Driscoll says that “latte-sipping Cabriolet drivers do not represent biblical masculinity, because ‘real men’—like Jesus, Paul, and John the Baptist— are “dudes: heterosexual, win-a-fight, punch-you-in-the-nose dudes.”

And despite this cultural metrosexualization, men still find themselves checking out of their marriage and focusing on anesthetizing distractions – whether it be career, pornography, or the deceptive allure of another woman. Single men are never asked to grow up and find it far simpler to shack up with their girlfriends, sharing a bed without ever being asked to share their souls. Such conditions are bad for men, they are bad for women, and they are bad for the church.

WHERE HAVE ALL THE COWBOYS GONE?

As I read the Hebrew Testament, I frequently find that when men remain passive, it is the women in their lives who suffer most immediately. Regardless of how you read Genesis, you have to consider the way that it speaks to the way men and women have historically related to one another: the Bible’s first recorded words of human speech are a love poem from man to woman. Yet when a serpent slithers between them, the man can only stand there and watch rather than intercede, a pattern that repeats itself throughout the Old Testament by men whose iniquity spreads to their wives and daughters. Adam reveals to us that men can be both physically present but emotionally distant.

And it’s reflected in the modern-day song, “Where have all the cowboys gone?” Women want men to act like men. It was the feminist author Anais Nin who said that she desires “a man who compels my strength, who makes enormous demands on me, who does not doubt my courage or my toughness, who does not believe me naive or innocent, who has the courage to treat me like a woman.”

Women are tired of suffering the neglect and abuse at the hands and mouths of dispassionate men who take their marriage for granted. And the church can go a long way to helping men man up.

HELPING MEN MAN UP

Barna research has shown that “churches must provide a male-friendly environment, including opportunities to interact with other men, practical Bible teaching, and real-world solutions to personal problems” (from the Northwest Christian Journal, 1997).

To that end I suggest two major things:

  1. Men’s ministry. “As iron sharpens iron,” Solomon says, “so one man sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17). Men need to be in proximity with other men. Churches can foster this through targeted programs designed to reach the men of both their congregations and communities.
  2. Don’t let men get away with it. The church must deal realistically with the dangers of pornography, domestic abuse, and premarital sex. Don’t let the single men of your church get away with thinking that shacking up with their girlfriends without making a commitment is a good idea. Set the bar high. Salvation is unconditional, but that doesn’t mean that God doesn’t expect something of us.

CONCLUSION

I have been intentionally, uncharacteristically(?) abrasive. And that’s a good thing. This is a good conversation to be a part of. Films like Fight Club resonate with a male audience because we recognize, rightly, that there is something deep within us left unsatisfied by cultural expectation and norms.

RECOMMENDED RESOURCES

To help further the conversation, I will recommend the following resources:

Adolescence” by Mark Driscoll. This is a clip on Youtube – an excerpt from one of Driscoll’s sermon on Luke – that addresses the issue of masculinity and adolescence. It’s funny, entertaining, yet hard-hitting.

Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men, Michael Kimmel. This book explores the sociological issues surrounding emerging adults and their inability to make commitments, find their paths in life or form meaningful relationships.

Why Men Hate Going to Church, David Murrow. Murrow’s book explores the reasons men give for hating church, how it affects their wives and how the church can seek to rectify this growing problem.

Surviving a Spiritual Mismatch in Marriage, Lee and Leslie Strobel. This book specifically deals with the practical concern of interfaith couples, and how to survive a marriage where one partner is Christian and the other is not. Deeply honest and rooted in experience, this is the best (and from what I’ve seen, only) tool for couples where one spouse is a non-Christian or even a nominal Christian.

4 February 2010

Christopher J Wiles

writer | speaker | servant

Chris is a writer and speaker. He currently serves as teaching pastor at Tri-State Fellowship and as a research writer for Docent Research Group.

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