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Do real men talk tough?

06 December 2013

Peter Ormerod goes in search of examples of 'men's ministry', to see whether he is the man he is meant to be


THE church hall smelt of bacon. The gathering - in a small town in Warwickshire - was polite, occasionally verging on apologetic. It comprised dozens of people ranging in age, social class, and ethnicity. But there the diversity ended - there were no women.

And that was the point. This was a group called Men in the Morning, formed of male church members from the surrounding area. It was my first experience of "men's ministry".

The group was part-way through a course, "The Quest for Authentic Manhood", created by an American organisation, the Men's Fraternity. The material dealt with various "wounds" that render men inauthentic, such as the somewhat inelegantly phrased "overly bonded with mother" wound.

The images used in the course material were of "real" men - with shoulders wider than the wingspan of a B-52 bomber, chests like a Panzer tank, and hands calloused by adventure. As one who does not conform to that body image, I did not feel particularly comfortable.

If the style was troublesome, the content was borderline offensive - to me, at least. It was man-as-head-of-household stuff, based on Eve's original feminine indiscretion. It portrayed a vision of Christianity at odds with those elements that I regarded as its most attractive, and, indeed, truthful. I resolved not to give up on it instantly, however, and gave it a second week. But it soon became clear that men's ministry, in this form, was not for me.

I have long held that the differences between male and female are subject to exaggeration, and that, where those differences exist, they often grow out of culture rather than nature. For instance, I know women who, by almost every standard, are far more male than I am.

As a result, men's ministry does not make sense to me, either in practice or in theory. But it has made life-changing sense to men whom I know. For instance, one friend wanted to revisit the faith of his childhood, but felt alienated by what he saw as the prevailing culture of the church. By attending a men's group, he found he wasn't alone in his views, and made firm and faithful friends. Is one of us wrong?


I DECIDED to look further. I came across Christian Vision for Men (CVM), which organises and promotes various forms of men's ministry across the country, and is expanding its reach across the world. At first glance, its website seems to reinforce masculine stereotypes - the background of the home page resembled patterned steel, and carried a list of the "Top Ten Power Tools" (spoiler alert: number one is the cordless drill).

A list of forthcoming events in parishes around the country includes such attractions as pies, bowling, and fire. A section on frequently misquoted Bible passages is headed "Demolition Squad". CVM's biggest annual event is called "The Gathering", and includes a beer festival, cars, darts, and more fire.

Some 30,000 men are involved with CVM's various activities, and about 1600 are expected at next year's Gathering - up almost 60 per cent on last year's attendance. Its organisers say that it is reaching thousands of men currently unreached by local churches.

"The Church, by default, tends to cater very well for more genteel guys," CVM's UK general director Carl Beech, says. "We're reaching the men that the majority of the Church doesn't know how to interact with, let alone disciple. I don't like football, really; but I choose to get involved, because millions of men do. I will use any legitimate means to create a conversation about Jesus, and build relationships with those who don't know him."


RESPONDING to the suggestion that CVM promotes stereotypical ideas of manliness, Mr Beech points to CVM's engagement with South Asian men, tackling gender violence, and its work with older men. But he is unapologetic about CVM's blokeyness.

"Funnily enough, these accusations only ever come from within the Church," he says. "Most men outside the Church love what we do, as evidenced by the high attendance at CVM events by those who don't know Jesus yet.

"Who reaches the white-van man? Who reaches the so-called 'chav'? We create imagery and resources primarily for those outside the Church, not those within it. CVM is not a club for Christian men: it's a movement of men in churches who want their mates and family members to meet Jesus as well."

There is, of course, an irony here. We are talking about an institution whose most senior figures are men, and which has, in my view, a pretty poor record when it comes to women. Why treat men as a special case? The statistics, Mr Beech maintains, are revealing.

He says that 38 per cent of believing men have left the Church in the past 20 years; and nearly 50 per cent of those under the age of 30 have left in the same period. Across the UK, he says, the official ratio of women to men in churches is six to four; but he thinks that, in reality, it is more like seven to three. He concludes that without action there will be no men left in British churches in 30 years.

And for Mr Beech, the benefits of evangelising men go beyond merely increasing church attendance. "Men are responsible for most violent crime, violence against women, the proliferation of porn - I could go on," he says. "Change the hearts of men, and you begin to tackle the injustices."


AMONG those who say that their hearts have been changed in this way is Paul Gask, a police officer. He says that he "believed in no one but himself" until a dramatic experience of conversion. He now runs a "blokes' ministry", MAFIA - Men and Faith in Action - in Leicestershire.

"I know that I'm not the man I should be, but I also know that I'm not the man I was," he says. "This is key to my ministry. Without exception, all the blokes I meet long to be better husbands, boyfriends, dads, granddads, workmates - even the 'bloke down the pub'. I see it as my job to introduce them to a Jesus who can enable them to achieve their heart's desires, and become the men they know they should be."

But, I ask, why can't his group include women? "Think about it," he says. "Is a man really going to share that he has a problem with pornography, for example, if 'Ethel' is in the room? Blokes need blokes. It's in our DNA."

His approach also seems to be working. "I have seen countless numbers of blokes come to know Jesus for themselves through a men-only ministry. I can personally testify to seeing Jesus smash into the lives of some guys, whose lives have been plagued by violence, racism, and hate. Only Jesus can do that.

"Just because I was a cop does not mean that I led an acceptable existence. Far from it. Jesus turned me upside down, and inside out. He saved my life, and he is doing it in the lives of blokes all the time."

Graham McBain is head of adult ministries at Upton Vale Baptist Church, in Torquay. Its male-only work includes evenings playing football, eating, and drinking. Between 20 and 30 men take part.

"Men's ministries are generally demeaned and patronised through misunderstanding," Mr McBain says. "We've found men's stuff works better when it's less formally a ministry time, but more just about guys getting together, and being themselves - fixing a trailer, or making something.

"Men's ministries can be a bit clichéd: curry nights, or men's breakfasts. Why is it always those things? The group I'm part of does like a curry and a pint - but we also like the chance to say from time to time 'Life's pretty crap right now: God's silent; my marriage isn't working,' and so on, to be real, in a real way.

"We always talk about things like fighting for your marriage, and looking after your wife, while acknowledging that we are just wired differently to women. We're getting wives in the church, now, urging their husbands to join groups like this, as they see the benefits of it."


NEVERTHELESS, concerns persist about some of the more extreme examples of men's ministry. Perhaps its greatest advocate on the global stage is the American pastor Mark Driscoll. He ran a series of conferences in the United States in October, Act Like Men, which were attended by more than 6000.

The blogger Preston Steinke was there. "Chauvinistic mistreatment of women, and pointless insensitive generalities peppered the teaching," he writes. "Women take for ever to get ready. Real men aren't vegetarians. Women are only helpers. Men don't follow, they lead. Real men don't order low-fat decaf lattes. Women are the weaker vessel."

He continues: "Conference organisers drummed up audience support with 'The Most Insensitive Man' competition, literally celebrating the lack of sensitivity towards others."

Mr Beech is hesitant to either endorse or criticise Mr Driscoll's approach. "I applaud anyone who is making Jesus known. Yes, we would disagree on areas. Yes, we adopt a different tone - partly because I'm British, and partly because I have a different ethos of how people need to be led into a mature faith."

But what of a central criticism of men's ministry: that it reinforces stereotypes when the Church should be undermining them? Mr Beech draws on his own experience. "People stereotype me all the time, because I have an Essex accent and look like a typical bloke. But they neglect to find out that I play three classical instruments, have two daughters I watch chick flicks with, and am a published author, including poems. Who is stereotyping whom, I wonder?"

Of course, acknowledging our gender, and other differences, is important. That's why ministries dedicated to children, older people, skaters, goths, and so on are necessary, and helpful. But there is a danger that men's ministry assumes - and perhaps exaggerates - the differences between males and females. And while it is clearly successful in attracting many men, the ideas that underpin it may well repel others. 


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