PARISH churches are increasingly adopting the idea of “ministry to men”, influenced by books such as David Murrow’s Why Men Hate Going to Church (Thomas Nelson, 2011).
The book’s basic premise is that churches need to develop a specific ministry to men: a ministry that plays to gender stereotypes, and which separates boys and girls. For example, the author takes the idea that men like action movies while women like romantic comedies, and suggests that the church should be themed thus. Essentially, Jesus is to be presented to men as a superhero, not as a suffering servant.
I would like to offer humbly an alternative approach to ministry to men, based on more than four years of working in an institution for young offenders as part of a multi-faith team that offers faith and pastoral care. I have never needed to use the stereotypes and methods of “men’s ministry”, and nor do I think that they would be helpful.
I WORK with young men who have been accused or convicted of crime. In our environment, there is so much testosterone in the air you could bottle it as aftershave. There is nothing “sissy” about this group: sometimes they can be intimidating and aggressive.
Yet in the five years that I have worked with these young people, I have only three times had an empty chapel for worship. I have consistently found that some young people are called to come to worship, even to the point of being baptised and confirmed.
Our young people are surrounded by stereotypes and expectations. As young men — especially as gang members — they are expected to be loud, strong, and dominant. They are fiercely loyal to their gang, and hostile to strangers. The atmosphere is often charged.
Yet something calls these young people into chapel. Many have good memories of being taken to church when younger, often by their grandmothers. Those older women have sown good seed. Some young people are looking for a less chaotic lifestyle. Some are in despair and grasping at any straw. Some are just looking for love, and we offer love without strings: unconditional, beautiful, divine love.
As they come into chapel, these young men visibly relax. The door is locked behind them, but the sense is that prison is locked out, rather than them being locked in. The noise dies down, and they know that they are in a sacred and a safe place. I greet them, and we have a few minutes of chat before God’s peace is allowed to fall on us in silence. We participate in the ancient ritual of holy communion respectfully and reverently. At the start of our prayer time, each young person lights a candle.
After worship, we sometimes have a discussion, but often we make art together. Creating a collaborative artwork brings young people together, and avoids any sense of competition. Our chapel is decorated with these works: a representation of the pillars of cloud and fire, a bright candle in a dark room, a burning bush, a tree of life.
I find that these young men respond best to ministry which meets them where they are, but which then offers them a new hope. They do not want the superhero narrative — every young person I have worked with has said that he wants to get away from violence. They seek and struggle with forgiveness. Touchingly, for young people who have often had disrupted lives, they often say that they just want to “settle down”.
SO, WHAT are the keys to working with young men? I find them to be the same keys as to working with anyone else.
First, and most important, the gospel needs to be central to what we do. This is not a social group, although we offer fellowship and safety. We are there to worship, pray, and open our hearts to the divine. It is our very difference that calls them in.
Second, these young men, like all young people, can spot pretence from ten miles away. I am far from being a male role-model. I am a middle-aged woman priest with liberal views and a fondness for rich liturgy and poetry. Any attempt on my part to “speak street”, or to pretend to be part of their culture will produce instant alienation. Teen culture has exquisitely detailed rules, and it belongs to teenagers. I can only be myself, trusting in my vocation and my faith. I offer what wisdom I can from my different vantage point.
Third, we must listen to young people, and understand something of what is going on in their lives. I always ask them what they would like to pray for. I look at their body language: are they withdrawn, wrapped in their own arms, hiding in their hoodies? Teenagers will tell you a great deal, but often without many words.
Finally, it may seem trivial, but for young men whose voices are breaking, corporate singing is agonising. I never ask them to sing in an environment where their voice will be heard individually. I also take care whom I ask to read, since some have reading difficulties.
I do not pressure young people to do anything: just being there is enough for God, and it must be enough for me. Too many churches like their young people to perform rather than participate.
I have never offered “men’s ministry”, just ministry. I have never offered bacon rolls and paintball, just quiet worship and an atmosphere of positive change, forgiveness, and hope. Sometimes, by God’s grace, it has borne blessed fruit.
The Revd Anne Bennett is the Chaplain at HM Young Offender Institution Cookham Wood, near Rochester, in Kent. A version of this article was first published on the God Loves Women blog.