Leonard Sweet, in his book “Soul Tsunami” makes the case that a critical task for church leadership in the modern world is choosing what to do and what not to do. Sounds simple and maybe trite. But nowhere is Sweet proved right more than in regards to men’s ministry. Here is a classic case of church leadership facilitating more than programming what men are doing and where their hearts are taking them. I applaud the laymen in these two groups–and the many others like them–who are taking the bull by the horns and moving out with the Lord.
Reaching men is one of the most important pieces of an effective local church ministry. When men get serious about their relationship with Jesus, they bring their families with them. If men aren’t serious about their faith, though, their wives and children may still attend church but the quality of their faith suffers. Whether they accept it or not, men really do lead their families. The issue is whether they lead them in the right direction or the wrong one. Effective church leadership in modern America has to come to terms with men’s spiritual needs: how to reach men and facilitate their growth as spiritual leaders.
One of the main reasons church attendance and participation is declining across the country is our failure in reaching men. Most everyone knows that because the statistics are so clear. Men don’t connect with church because they find it boring. I’m not defending men for their attitude: the reality is that if a thing is true, then you’d better pay attention to it regardless of how engaging you find it at any given moment. A man pays his taxes every year even if grinding out the numbers is tedious. The consequences are too painful otherwise.
Still, modern church life doesn’t fit men’s needs or expectations. Our programs are always shilling for participation; our budget needs make us beg for money; and we’ve made the church’s institutional needs the measurement of engagement with the Kingdom of God. When you lay all that alongside the pressures men face in earning a living, caring for a family and trying to get a handle on their own issues and needs, most Christian men just tune the church out, or grudgingly tolerate it like they would a nagging mother-in-law. The result is, as one of my pastor friends says, “What Christian men want most is to be left the heck alone.”
But men in and around churches still are searching for something. Which is why two conversations I had this week so grabbed my attention. The first involved a guy, a spiritually mature man who’s successfully loving his wife, raising his children and running his business, who has a passion for reaching men with the gospel. The way he went about doing this was amazing. He invited twenty men—all friends of his from different churches and jobs, maybe half who didn’t have any relationship with Jesus—to his home. He told them in advance to bring three questions they would ask Jesus, if they could. So after dinner all of them sat around the guy’s family room and asked their questions. The resulting discussion generated all sorts of real, spiritual issues and opened the door for some of them to take a serious look at Jesus and what it means to follow him. This man is going to host another dinner in the next little while to follow up with the guys.
He’s onto something. The twenty men are already connected to him through friendship. They’re not sitting in what they would consider as the artificial environment of a church building. They can be open with one another and begin exploring together what they would probably be reluctant to explore in other circumstances. Most importantly, they’re beginning to grasp how Jesus isn’t a religious icon you encounter once a week but a living Lord you obey day by day.
The second conversation I had was with a young couple who came to see me because they were so excited about their marriage. Usually, couples who make appointments with me are there for exactly the opposite reason. But not this one. It was a refreshing change.
Two years ago, their marriage was imploding. Because of the husband’s acting out, and the resulting emotional imbalances that put him into the hospital, there seemed no way for their marriage to survive. Financial problems were so severe that they lost their house. The two of them saw no future for themselves or their little girl.
Then, in a way that can only be called miraculous, God stepped in. Someone at work—just a guy the husband worked with—began a spiritual friendship with the husband that resulted in him joining a small group of men from different churches who met together weekly to challenge each other spiritually and hold one another accountable to their God-given responsibilities as husbands and dads. The group is self-organized and revolves through one another’s homes. Once a year they go on retreat. All without a direct connection with a single church. Through that small group, the husband gave his life to Jesus and began the journey of rebuilding his marriage.
Today, two years later, he’s a new man. His wife is a new woman. And their marriage is a place of love, trust and faith. A miracle, as both of them will say. They came to see me, in fact, to ask how they could encourage other young couples who are in the same condition they were in. “We want them to know,” they told me, “that if our marriage can be saved, any marriage can.”
Men connecting with men. This is a key piece of Kingdom growth. But here’s the thing about these two situations: the local church really didn’t have much to do with either one. Sure, I know both these men, and both of them are active in our church. One teaches Sunday School for our students and the other teaches a small group of our children. But their experiences in life-transforming ministries didn’t flow directly from our church or any other. Instead, it came about through laymen taking responsibility for their own spiritual maturity and doing something about it.
The form of the two ministries is different but certain dynamics are the same. They’re home based; they’re lay-driven; they’re personally challenging; they’re engaging and authentic. They meet men where they are.
Where’s all this lead us? I confess I’m really wrestling with all this because neither situation—and the many more like them we could point to—directly ties into what the local church is doing. What’s going on here is that the Spirit is moving in ways today we can neither predict nor control on the level of the local church. What we need to be doing on the local church level is praying for these kinds of ministries and facilitating them when we can. In fact, when the guy hosting the evangelistic dinners asked me if I wanted to attend, I immediately wanted to say yes. But then I realized that having a Baptist preacher hanging around a group of guys as they exposed their most personal struggles might well have a chilling effect on the conversation. Better to recognize my limitations as well as how well the groups are doing without me—or any other preacher—hanging around trying to control things. As soon as the local church tries to add a new program to handle men’s ministries like this, we’ll almost certainly kill the initiative and creativity that started it to begin with.
Men are looking for ways to connect with other men. We in the local church need to recognize when that happens then get out of the way.