Thu. Mar 4th, 2021

What Do Men Want
By Mark Galli

Granted, it was an unusual morning, but it suggests the magnitude of the problem: during one Sunday service in my last church, I led worship for fifty-some people, but only five of them were men.

Normally our service gathered twenty-five to thirty men out of seventy total. That’s about average. A recent LEADERSHIP survey conducted by the research department of CHRISTIANITY TODAY, INC. (see “The Church’s Sexual Demographics,” page 16) shows that men usually make up about 40 percent of a Sunday morning adult congregation, although Lyle Schaller reports that this figure drops to 35 percent in many churches. So 10 percent may have been a low Sunday, but even normal men’s attendance is nothing to write the denominational board about.

It hasn’t always been this way. In the fifties the ratio of males to females in worship was much closer, 47:53, according to Schaller. Since the general population at the time was similarly balanced, that ratio in church was appropriate. By 1986, however, although the population ratio had remained the same, male worship attendance had dropped significantly.

It’s more than a matter of statistics, however. Pastors feel the effects of the gender gap week in and week out. They empathize with women who faith-fully attend worship and Bible studies and who daily pray and hope their husbands will, someday, join them. They wonder how to bring more balance to the singles ministry, which tends to attract more women than men.

They also feel frustrated in their efforts to minister to men, because men are reluctant to talk about things spiritual. And, as they plan programs and outreach for men, they find themselves slamming into a preconception that won’t budge: religion is a woman’s thing.

Combine statistics, pastoral experience, and the Great Commission, and most pastors find themselves discouraged: men account for only three or four of every ten of Christ’s disciples.

This problem, however, is not insoluble; many pastors have found effective ways of reaching men and building their commitment to Christ. These pastors are unanimous in affirming that what works in one situation may not work in another. They also agree that all men are not created equal, that men have differing temperaments and interests that no one model of ministry will fit.

Yet as I talked with these pastors, I noticed the following principles cropping up time and again. That’s not to say some of these principles may not also work well in women’s ministries, but they seem to be especially helpful in reaching men.

Men First

The fact that since the fifties men show increasingly less interest in the church has led a few pastors to a logical conclusion: men’s ministry needs bolstering. But when the LEADERSHIP survey asked where churches should place their ministry emphasis on reaching men, on reaching women, or on reaching both men and women, 80 percent of the respondents suggested putting equal emphasis on reaching both men and women.

In an egalitarian culture that aims to treat everyone impartially, in a church that remembers that “neither Jew nor Greek, slave not free, male nor female” is superior, ministering to men and women is a noble goal. And to emphasize men’s ministry logically means to put less emphasis on women’s ministry, and that just doesn’t sit well with people, for good reason.

“The problem, however,” says one former pastor, “is that the church is men-impaired, and emphasizing ministry to men and women equally means that things will likely remain as they are, and perhaps get worse.” Fred Smith, a Dallas businessman, put it positively and pragmatically: “All the successful pastors I know spend time with men. Not just at the church, but they spend time with them at their businesses. They make men a priority of ministry.”

Ralph Clark, pastor of Community Bible Church in Dallas, openly admits that he spends 95 percent of his time with men. Bufe Karraker, pastor of North-west Church of Fresno, California, has a similar focus. “If I want to have a ministry with men, I have to spend lots of time with them,” he says. “So I’ve joined Rotary and the local country club, and I go to lunch with men often.”

Do the women in such churches feel slighted? “No,” says Ralph Clark. “They also want more men in church, and they know men today need that type of attention.”

Men With Men

Over the last thirty years, churches have implemented a salutary goal: desegregate church functions. To keep families together at church, we’ve seen more intergenerational events and more programs, like small groups, aimed at married couples. While women have been at the forefront of the church’s attention (and properly so in light of their rapidly changing roles in our culture), men have taken a back seat. The unintended result: men’s ministries have languished.

Add to these trends men’s busy schedules, and you soon discover some reasons these pastors feel there are fewer church groups designed for men than for women. The LEADERSHIP survey discovered that whereas 90 percent of churches have ministries designed especially for women, only 74 percent have them for men. In churches of one hundred attendance or fewer, 81 percent have women’s ministry and only 59 percent have men’s.

Yet those who effectively minister to men don’t hesitate to insist that men must have opportunities to be with other men, and only men.
“To some degree, a man wants to be seen as unique, as separate from his wife, his children, and of LEADERSHIP, even the family in which he was raised,” says John Huffman, pastor of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, California. “When he’s with other men, his identity is affirmed in some way.”

“Men lack social relationships with other men,” adds Wendell Ligon, pastor of Carmel Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. “They usually have only working relationships with men, but they yearn for something more.”

Ligon then related an insight of C. S. Lewis, who felt English men visit pubs regularly not because they long to drink, but simply because they want to be with other men as men.

That corresponds to the experience I’ve had hunting. I’m not a hunter, so I’ve only been a couple of times, the last occasion simply to spend time with a parishioner. Officially we were hunting pheasants; actually we were walking around rice fields north of Sacramento and talking. In six hours, Ray, my friend, fired three shots. The rest of the time we walked and talked about farming, about birds, about the weather, about sports, about politics. He said it was not an unusual hunt. My amateur sociologist conclusion: hunting is like Lewis’s pubs, a means for men to get together.

So men like being together with men. Why is that important to them?

“Men function differently when they are by themselves,” says Karraker. “When you include women in a group, the atmosphere changes. Then men are not as open, not as vulnerable. Men are more willing to show their emotions when they are with other men.”
“Frankly, when women are in a group, it’s a problem,” says Russ Stevenson, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. “There are some things men simply will not talk about in front of women.”

An example is noted by Don Whitney, pastor of Glenfield Baptist Church in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, who says, “Since many women are more articulate about their faith and more knowledgeable about the Bible, men often hesitate to talk about spiritual things around women.”

Wendell Ligon adds, “Men need a place where they can admit they are weak. They are not going to do that at work, where a promotion is at stake, and they’re not going to do it at home, where they see themselves as the protector. They need to get together with other men.”

One On One

If getting men with men is important, so is going man to man.

That’s certainly one of the strategies of Mike Marcey, pastor of Naperville Presbyterian Church. He organizes one-on-one or one-on-two discipling programs to minister to men. He sets up structured opportunities for man-to-man discipling.

Ralph Clark teaches the men in his church, mostly black, to do the same, but more informally. “I tell my male leaders to ‘get with ’em.’ That’s the phrase we use when we talk about reaching men. We have to ‘get with ’em’ if they’re going to be reached.”

Bufe Karraker’s approach is similar: “We try to reach men one at a time, not in herds,” he says. “It’s less important to send ninety-nine men to the rescue mission once a month than it is for men to reach out to other men each day. It’s more scary to share your faith with a co-worker, but it’s also more effective.”

Less Structure, More Filling

In my last church, the only function designed solely for men was our Wednesday morning breakfast. The planned spiritual content amounted to the opening affirmation, which we recited together: “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” After that we settled into breakfast and discussed home repairs, ball scores, and politics.

Naturally, I, the pastor, was concerned. But I was gladdened when, a few months into my pastorate, one of the men suggested we talk about religious things at the breakfast. Still, the men didn’t want it to be intense, with reading assignments, discussion questions, and a morning agenda.

These men gathered first because they wanted simply to be with other men socially. Second, although they wanted to grow in faith, they didn’t want this occasion to be highly structured. They got enough structure from their jobs and sufficient spiritual input from worship, Bible studies, and daily devotions. They wanted to discuss faith, but only if and when it came up naturally. So, that’s how we worked it.

Frankly, many men in our congregation declined attending that group precisely because it seemed spiritually directionless. But its informality was the reason the core group of six to ten men kept coming and thus stayed committed to the church.

Russ Stevenson utilizes small groups for study, sharing, and prayer to reach men. Although these groups are more structured than was our men’s breakfast, he makes no demands on the participants: “They can listen forever, if they wish,” he says.

“In ministry to men,” says Wendell Ligon, “we emphasize detailed programs less than a comfortable atmosphere in which men can relax and articulate their faith.”

Fitz Neal, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Ouray, Colorado, has found no-agenda retreats an extremely effective means of ministry. He gathers men for a day or two away from the church and plans little. If men want to walk through the woods or play volleyball or read or talk politics or think, they are free to do that. He’s found, however, that every time he’s planned such a retreat, men delve into things spiritual and personal at a rate and depth far beyond a planned program.

Why less structure appeals to many men, we can let psychologists decide. The fact of men’s ministry is that in many instances it works.

Real Men Don’t Say “Baloney”

Wendell Ligon put it this way: “Men want to fellowship with men without being ‘churchy.’ “To many men, being churchy means being artificial, removed from the real world. They want none of it.

Larry Kreider, president of The Gathering, an organization that ministers to men in churches, says a good men’s speaker must be many things, but one of them is authentic: “He must be able to talk about his questions, problems, and shortcomings as well as his strengths. Men are suspicious of people who simply list one success after another or intimate that they have achieved a successful Christian life. It doesn’t accord with men’s experience.”

In addition, these pastors avoid religious jargon when talking with men, trying to use the language men hear daily. “Men are used to being more earthy,” says Karraker. “So when 1 talk to them, I speak about real situations in real language.”

Karraker told one group of men, for instance, about visiting a hardened unbeliever, a man who had spent his life seeing how many women he could seduce. He’d known him for years but had been unable to convince him to trust Christ. Now the man was lying in a hospital bed, dying of emphysema.

When the conversation turned in an appropriate direction, Karraker said, “If you receive Christ even now, Gabby, you can gain eternal life.”

“That’s b— s—!” the man responded. Karraker took another tack, but came back to the same point: “Believe in Christ, and you’ll be forgiven.” “That’s b— s—-!”

“Gabby, you know as well as I, you don’t have much time left. Trust in Christ, it’s your only hope.”

He mumbled something, obviously thinking about it, but then “That’s b— s—!” bounced off the hospital room walls once again. Despite his concern, Karraker had to leave the room with the man’s attitude unchanged. In a few hours, the man, still without faith, died.

Karraker didn’t soften the story when he told it to a group of men, and the room was absolutely still as he told it.

Karraker doesn’t recommend pastors spice up their language to attract men. That would be a cheap trick men would spot immediately. Many speakers simply cannot use such language convincingly. And even in many men-only settings, such language remains inappropriate.

Nonetheless, as John Huffman says, “Many men are alienated from traditional religious expression, from church as we know it. But they are not alienated necessarily from God, from Christ. And if God is spoken of in an environment and in language men are accustomed to, filtered through the Wall Street Journal, for example, they respond.”

Practical Makes Perfect

These pastors have also found that although there always seems to be a handful of men who can debate for hours the finer points of Bible and theology, most churched men are more interested in learning how to live out the Christian life. They insist the content they receive make an immediate difference in how they live their faith day to day.

Larry Kreider says of men’s speakers, “Testimony is not enough. Men like to hear a speaker talk about a problem men face, for instance, undisciplined children, inconsistent devotions, a demanding boss, and describe a practical solution. They like to walk out of a meeting knowing what they can do next about the problem.”

Given this practical bent in men, it’s not surprising that in many churches they turn out more consistently for work days and mission projects than for Bible studies. I couldn’t convince my men’s breakfast, as a group, to attend a Bible study or church retreat, but at the mere mention that someone in the congregation was about to move across town, they’d start organizing how they could help.

Mike Marcey finds that although his men may be more hesitant than women to talk with one another about things personal, they will do it if they can see that being vulnerable makes a difference if it will, for example, relieve stress and strengthen their faith. So modeling vulnerability is high on Mike’s priorities. “If you show men that sharing works, they’ll do it,” he says.

Men’s Pressure Points

So what exactly are men’s concerns? What areas of men’s lives are being addressed by effective men’s ministries?

To begin with, these churches attempt to meet the pressing psychological needs. “Men are hurting,” says Fitz Neal. “Men are desperate for quality friendships. They want to be loved, and they’ll go miles to find out how.” This is one reason why simply offering opportunities for non-agenda fellowship can be such a successful strategy for men. It gives them an opportunity, almost an excuse, to develop friendships with other men.

As important as the need for friendship is, at the center of men’s concerns is faith. It’s simply not true that women are more religious than men. It’s just easier in our society for a woman to express religious interest outwardly.

“Men want to express their spiritual nature,” says Wendell Ligon. “But our culture makes it difficult for them to do that. The cultural definition of success is at odds with men’s spiritual yearnings.”

Patrick Arnold, professor of Old Testament at the University of San Diego, put it this way in an essay “In Search of the Hero”: “Everywhere around the world, at this moment, a billion men are seeking their God, fasting for visions, expiating their sins, singing divine praises, and enduring hardships for faith and justice. Men are naturally deeply religious … it is just that our modern culture provides little help for them anymore in finding their natural masculine spirituality.”

Effective men’s ministries try to provide just that help. In particular, they focus on men’s relationships at work and home: “Men’s jobs and family consume them,” says Mike Marcey. “They want to know how to be better fathers, better managers. But they have little time and energy to figure out how.”

“If the church is not equipping men to function in the marketplace, it’s irrelevant,” says Howard Hendricks, professor of Christian education at Dallas Theological Seminary. The other thing that you’ve got to help men deal with today is marriage and the family.

“The home is a frustrating place for men because in many instances they are not equipped to function in that role. They feel insecure at home, tremendously inadequate sometimes. So what do many men do? Spend more time where they’re succeeding and less time where they are not. And that just exacerbates the problem.”

Top-Secret Meetings

“Can I speak to you as a pastor now?” my friend Bob asked. We hadn’t seen each other for three years. We’d attended seminary together and then gone our separate ways; he into public administration, I into ministry.

Our wives had gone for a walk on the beach while we drank coffee in his apartment. After a few more minutes of light-hearted catching up, Bob began to get serious.

“I don’t know why I’m telling you this,” he said, “but I’ve got to talk to someone.”

He then told me about an evening when he went over to a female colleague’s apartment to finish up some business. After they had been working for an hour or so, they looked at each other intently, and before they knew it, they were in bed making love.

Afterwards Bob left and went to work as usual the next morning. His business relationship with this women also went on as usual, no further affair developed. So they simply carried on their lives from there.

Bob felt guilty, and that’s why he talked with me. “Have you spoken with your wife about this?” I asked.

“No. I don’t see the point. I’m sorry I did it. It won’t happen again. There’s no point in getting her upset. But I did need to talk to someone about it.”

And we left it at that.

“Men and women have secret areas they are not going to talk about even with their spouses,” says Fitz Neal. Although adultery may be an extreme example, men also tend not to talk to their wives about their struggles with lust or their insecurities. But they still need to talk with someone privately, and that someone usually needs to be a man.

That’s why in Neal’s small groups for men, his rule about confidentiality is absolute. What the men hear in the group is not even to be shared with one’s spouse. If Neal discovers a man, in fact, has broken the rule, he is asked to leave the group. “And there will be no appeal,” says Neal. Because he’s straight-forward about this policy, he says, he’s never had to enforce it.

Russ Stevenson seeks to protect men’s privacy in another way. He encourages the men in his small groups to share freely, but then says, “Don’t share things that would be devastating if they got out. If you have to talk about something extremely sensitive, then talk with another man privately. And if the topic concerns another person, talk about it only from your side.” (If, for example, a man is noticing another woman, he could talk about his struggles to stay faithful but not identify the woman.)

Years ago, Paul Tournier suggested in his book Secrets that husband and wife, in order to maintain a healthy relationship between two individuals, need to keep certain areas private, even from their spouse. Effective men’s ministries recognize this need and give men opportunities– small groups, one on one, retreats– to talk about some of those secrets with other men.

A Hero’s Sendoff

Patrick Arnold, in his essay “In Search of the Hero,” argues that there is a tendency in the contemporary church to equate what have been considered traditionally feminine virtues– patience, meekness, compassion, mercy, gentleness– with all of Christian morality. Among some Christians, he says, “Jesus, once again meek and mild, no longer calls them to radical discipleship and the Cross but only to nurturing and gentleness.” In a few places, “Christianity is beginning to produce a generation of men with no ‘wildness’ or ‘fight’ in them, a blow-dried, Gucci-shoed, and suntanned lot whose primary moral achievement is ‘being nice.'”

Arnold may exaggerate, but many pastors recognize the reality. They also recognize that this partial Christianity does not appeal to most men. As vital as it is for men to learn “feminine” virtues, leaders of men’s ministries suggest an effective ministry with men also will spotlight the traditionally “masculine” virtues: strength, boldness, courage, sacrifice, and heroism.

“You can make more demands and put more pressure on men,” says Bufe Karraker. “In some ways you have to if you’re going to counteract the pressure men get from the world. And they know it. They want the pastor to call them to boldness, to courage in their faith.”

So Karraker expects his men to share their faith one on one with their colleagues and friends. He knows this is scary for most men. But he doesn’t ask or plead; he simply sets a high goal and challenges his men to meet it.

This is another reason mission trips, as these pastors report, are a successful program for men. They not only give men an opportunity to accomplish something practical, they also challenge men to do something significant (such as building a Christian education building) and to make sacrifices doing so (giving up a week’s vacation). “Our men really go for mission trips in which they have to build some-thing,” says Fitz Neal. “It’s almost a fail-safe way to get men involved.”

“Don’t under-employ men,” says Fred Smith. “Challenge them to do something significant. It doesn’t have to be dramatic; most of life isn’t dramatic. But men want to do something spiritually significant.”

Stories about men sacrificing to do things significant abounded as I talked with pastors. In one church, a concrete contractor, at the challenge of his pastor, went to Ecuador on his own time and expense to show a mission group how to make hollow blocks for construction. In another, a successful businessman is taking an early retirement to begin a tent-making ministry in Mexico City.

Speaking figuratively and more dramatically, Arnold says that masculine spirituality, as he calls it, means “undertaking the hero’s journey: leaving the safe comforts of home for an adventurous exploration of the world and the self. It demands an ordeal, a struggle with demons and dragons real and imagined. And it requires, finally, a return to a life of service and responsibility on behalf of people. [It] is all about heroic suffering, not for its own sake, but to provide good things for a family, a nation, a church.

Ministries that challenge men to wrestle with a lack of devotional discipline, battle the temptations of lust, overcome the compromises of business, reach out to the poor and lost, sacrifice themselves for the family, and speak courageously for Christ in hostile settings such ministries tend to touch a central spiritual nerve in men, and men respond.

In The Beginning

After a couple of decades of benign neglect, men’s ministries are being rediscovered. Even the effective churches are still learning how to reach men, still frustrated by certain gaps in their ministries. “It’s tough scheduling opportunities for men’s ministry,” says Bob Kraning, associate pastor at First Evangelical Free Church in Fullerton, California. “Men keep wild schedules, and they don’t want another thing to go to.”

And Mike Marcey wonders, “How can we help men establish meaningful relationships? How can we nurture them in faith in the midst of a suburban, spread-out, transient culture?”

Yet in spite of the continuing challenges, there are stories that suggest the moment is ripe, as Howard Hendricks, who also heads up the Leadership Center at Dallas Seminary, discovered.

“We recognized that many young men want a mentor; they need an older man who will help them develop in a practical way, especially professionally. We also knew older men who had a great deal to contribute but who thought nobody cared.

“So we asked about forty key leaders in Dallas to tell us which local men were going to be the movers and shakers in the next generation. They came up with seventy names. We took these seventy men along with ten of these mentors to a ranch in south Texas.

“It was the best conference I’ve ever attended. The older men were excited: ‘Hey, somebody is interested in what I have to teach them.’ The younger men were impressed: ‘Now here’s a guy I respect who I can learn from.” And they’d talk for hours about problems in business, in their marriages and families, in their faith. I don’t think we averaged more than four hours of sleep a night.”

Men with men, one on one, authentic conversation, practical concerns, little structure, confidentiality: just a few of the principles that make for effective ministry to men.

The article “What Do Men Want” written by Mark Galli is excerpted from Leadership the 1991 winter quarter edition.

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