By Eddie Pipkin
I recently had coffee with the talented and thoughtful worship leader at the local church my wife and I have been attending. What I had seen of his public persona I liked a lot, so when he sent an email proposing we get together, I enthusiastically accepted. His boss, the lead pastor, had suggested that he and I get together to talk about men’s ministry. This is a revitalized, reborn and still-figuring -it-out congregation operating out of a century-old campus, and from the moment I walked in, I had been impressed with the long list of innovative things they’ve been doing that are exactly the kinds of things Phil and I encourage in this space every week. So, there we were, enjoying our coffee and a robust conversation about all the exciting developments, when I interjected, “So why do you want to focus on a ‘men’s ministry’?” to which he responded, “Exactly. I was wondering the same thing.”
Men’s ministry is one of those ideas that feels foundational when we’re thinking about church programming. We historically carve out specialized offerings for groups that seem to have obvious shared interests, so we get youth ministry, children’s ministry, senior ministry (which we can argue about what to call), young adult ministry, singles ministry, couples ministry, women’s ministry, and men’s ministry. Feel free to add your own which I have missed. These were mainstays of the 20th Century denominational churches. But as we struggle to redefine what local church ministry looks like here in the 21st Century, those models sometimes work swimmingly and sometimes wash up onto dry land and flop about gasping for breath.
The very defined roles of society and family that prevailed in post-WWII America shifted in dramatic ways, and the institution of the church not only was slow in adapting to these shifts, but has often been the bulwark of last defense of many of the traditional structures. Youth and children’s ministries with their constant infusion of new faces acclimatized more easily, but women’s groups and men’s groups have struggled to stay relevant. In local churches across America, they are fading away as vital outposts.
I’ll focus on men’s groups in this blog, since it’s the real-world topic that came up, and since I may have an additional insight as a man and can contribute my thoughts on what it is to be a husband and a father and a person who thus has been part of these groups over the years and has certainly been actively recruited (and definitely resistant in recent years) to becoming part of them. However, many of the thematic issues apply to men’s, women’s, or any subset group of ministry.
Here are some problems with keeping men’s groups relevant:
- The very concept of what manhood is has changed in dramatic ways within the past couple of generations – arguably for the good.
- As roles have shifted, the idea of breaking men out into a separate group has diminished as a priority, as opposed to involving men in mixed groups or groups built around passions or interests rather than gender identity.
- The demands of the modern 24-7 always-connected world and workplace and the shifting ideas about how men should allocate their time as husbands and fathers have made scheduling resistant to blocking time away from their wives and spouses to focus on an exclusively male setting.
- What men are looking for when they do get together has changed. The old ‘civic club’ model, which closely modeled the Lions, Elks, Moose, Kiwanis, Rotary Club, etc. is not a model that works as well with younger generations.
In terms of the generational shift in how men think of themselves as men, Forbes magazine’s article, “7 Reasons Why Millennial Men Are Reinventing Masculinity” has some specific insights:
Today, less than a third of men aged 18 to 29 report feeling “completely masculine” compared with 65% of baby boomers. It is not uncommon to see many men choosing a green juice over a beer, meditating instead of watching the news in the morning, or journaling their feelings.
The masculinity modeled to us by older generations—which held that men shouldn’t express emotion, be sensitive, or show vulnerability—is fading.
Here are some ways of thinking about masculinity differently, cited in the article:
- Self-awareness is prized as a value.
- Non-conformity is celebrated.
- Competition against other men isn’t an obsession.
- Authenticity is a goal.
- Vulnerability is encouraged.
- Values should be lived out.
- Growth is pursued with passion.
The great news is that all of these principles are Gospel principles. Each is clearly a value that Jesus held, preached, and demonstrated by example. Whereas the old men’s group model may have sometimes fallen into the trap of using the Gospel to reinforce societal expectations of what the role of a man was supposed to be (occasionally defending the power of the patriarchy in ways that were less than healthy for marriages and families), the interests of these quoted millennials in freshly exploring their masculinity lines up in compelling ways with Jesus’ message.
How about a men’s ministry built around those values?
The first step – and we stress this repeatedly with all churches with whom we work here at EMC3 – is to define and respond to your own unique context. Each local church is different. Lean into your unique qualities and opportunities. You begin this process with a “listening tour.” If you have an idea that you want to focus on a men’s ministry, get out there and talk to the men who make up your congregation. Ask them what their needs are, what they’re excited about, what they’re curious about and would like to know more about. Many churches with good motives skip this critical step! Too often, passionate people get together in a room and chart out a new program without first spending time with the people that program is theoretically planning to serve. Figure out who your ministry partners and participants are: they may surprise you with their insights; they may dispel your assumptions; they may suggest innovative directions you never considered. They will certainly be flattered that you sought them out for conversation and input – that you valued their thoughts – rather than just tried to recruit them for your latest project.
One of the things you might find out is that your men’s ministry does not have to be a monolithic one-size-fits-all project. It is not uncommon for there to be an older generation of men who like getting together with time for a more leisurely social gathering, while you also have a younger generation that has different priorities. Great! Celebrate each group doing their own thing (and be very clear in communicating their different personalities to your congregation). Get them together occasionally for a large gathering. And pursue connections in which they can help one another and combine their resources on service projects, retreats, and outreach initiatives.
There are may ways, some new and some old, that you can emphasize men’s concerns, depending on your specific local context:
- Give men ways to be better at their roles as husbands, fathers, employees, and civic activists. Offer them access to resources and experts who can give them the tools to do these important things well. Give them flexible ways to learn new skills.
- Build opportunities for accountability groups and mentoring. In the quest to be better disciples, men need encouragement to commit to a group of fellow believers who will help them explore what it means to follow Jesus. One of the powerful but often neglected paths forward is to match mentors with men who are fresher in their faith.
- Provide opportunities for developing deep relationships. Make it a priority to connect men in one-to-one friendships that go deeper than occasional large-group gatherings. Get men together in social settings or spiritual growth settings, but encourage them to move beyond those settings to get together one-on-one. You do this by suggesting it, making it an expectation, and treating it as a part of the accountability regimen of your larger groups.
- Give men opportunities to be vulnerable in a safe space. Men need a regular place to be honest about their emotions and authentic about the struggles they are facing.
- Promote events that bring men together with their wives, with their children, and with their entire families. Don’t just make it a “men only” thing all the time. Focus on men, but then expand the circle. Particularly, give men compelling opportunities to do things together with their kids.
- Promote hands-on service projects. This has not gone out of fashion as a men’s ministry strategy. Guys love doing!
- Promote the men’s ministry taking ownership of church campus projects and special events. They can bond together by leading together and solving projects together. Do resist the urge of creating “now and forever” scenarios where a project or event becomes an “every single year from now until eternity” project or event. Keep things fresh. Mix it up.
- Get out of the cinder block room with folding chairs. Meet in people’s houses. Meet at the local pub. Meet at the local park. Boring rooms lead to boring discussion and dull interactions.
- Keep it active. Schedule outings that revolve around the interests in your group of men. Some could be going to sporting events; some could be hunting trips or hiking trips or fishing trips (totally depends on the group); some could be historical tours or a trip to the local used book store; some could be a car show or a rock concert. The world is your oyster. It’s fun to explore it with some guy friends, and then maybe mix in a little creative discipleship.
- Never lose sight of the greater community. Design keeping in mind the men in your midst who aren’t already part of the club. What are the interests of your neighborhood? What would interest your curious co-workers? How might you engage the fathers of your preschool program who are not part of your church already?
There are plenty of ideas out there for how to get a vital men’s group ministry going.
What are some of the men’s group ideas you have seen work well? What changes has your church made to keep its focus on men relevant and vibrant? What challenges have you overcome? What unexpected outcomes resulted? Do you have a good system for mentoring and accountability groups? Share your own stories. Your vulnerability and reflections on authentic experience are welcomed here!
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