“That kind of thing just doesn’t do it for me.”
Those are pretty much my exact words whenever typically “male” activities are proposed as some sort of meet up. When there’s a choice between paintballing and grabbing a quiet drink, it’s a no brainer—I’ll always choose the quieter option.
That’s who I am, and I get that it’s just me and that I’m not a benchmark for all men. Plenty of men get excited about rowdier, brawling activities. That’s probably why men’s church groups do so many of them. And, I stress, there’s nothing wrong with those activities at all. But it poses a deeper question as to whether our definition of male friendships has become too narrow. Do men’s ministries which almost exclusively focus on macho activities reinforce the idea that men have to be macho and rugged to be real men?
Where does that leave those men for whom that just doesn’t work? A vegetarian man who doesn’t care for bacon. A bookish man who prefers foreign films, computer coding and the indoors. A physically handicapped man who has to be assisted everywhere he goes. Guys who are more interested in fashion than football. By many cultural standards, these men are all sitting on the sidelines of “real” masculinity.
Here’s an experiment: Compare the church getaways offered to exclusively men or women. Women are generally offered dessert nights or book clubs. Following these, they talk, often about their families, jobs, relationships, health and more. They are emotionally and physically intertwined with their friends and are encouraged to know almost everything about what is happening in each other’s lives. Men are offered a shot to get together and watch sports. Barbecue. Throw a football around a little, complain about the refs and then go home.
Remember, these are generalizations and so should not be taken as the full picture. There are plenty of men who get a deep sense of community and fellowship from sports. There are plenty of women who would love it if their women’s Bible study went to a Brave’s game instead of brunch. And there are plenty of churches who are thinking beyond this stale gender divide. But the fact remains: most men’s groups would be uncomfortable with the idea of having everyone sit in a circle and talk about their feelings.
There’s an untold pressure that to be a real man, you can’t be overly emotional or share too much. At times, that pressure manifests itself in unhealthy ways. Men feel they have to be tough, chiseled, not phased by life. We see cultural examples of this kind of “real manliness” over and over again: Bear Grylls, Chuck Norris, Parks and Recreation‘s Ron Swanson.
And while there is nothing wrong with those qualities—in fact they are found in the lives of many Biblical men, and are important traits to have—they come at a cost. They result in men who struggle to explain their emotions. They result in men who don’t have anyone they speak to about what they are going through, and so consequently bottle up their issues. They result in men who constantly wear a mask of strength in order to not fall short of the image they are desperate to live up to. They result in men who struggle to talk to God, to express their love and passion for Him, because it feels just a little too “feminine” to say you love God.
In the Bible, we find a myriad of men, all with different character traits. The psalmist David was a warrior and a poet, a shepherd and a dancer. Small and unassuming, he was chosen by God to fight Goliath. He ordered the killing of Uriah, the husband of the woman he lusted after. Later in life, he took to writing poetry to express his heart, to cry out to God, lament and praise the Creator. Over his lifetime, he took on many different characteristics, none of which made him more or less of a man. Moses had the strength to kill a man and yet was embarrassed by his stutter. Through God’s strength he became a leader of Israel. He was a staggeringly complex, mixed individual. Jesus himself was emotionally strong and vulnerable, not afraid to weep at the loss of a friend and also challenge the religious society of the day.
While not true of all churches and ministries, there is a worrying trend that suggests the way to be a real man—a Biblical man—is simply to be strong, to be tough, to be defiant in the face of adversity. While being strong in and of itself does not reject or oppose emotion, the focus is misplaced almost exclusively on men’s self-reliance. On the machoness. On building male friendships built around having a laugh and a good time, but nothing more. Again, there is nothing inherently wrong with focusing on these things, but doing so does not paint a complete picture. It does not allow men to discover themselves, to work out who and what they really are, both to each other and to God. It can thwart creativity, passion, response to God.
The Church, especially, must ensure that in its attempt to reach out and attract more men, it doesn’t create a definition of a man that only fits certain molds. As with all humanity, men come in all shapes and sizes. Some are pro-wrestlers, some are poets. Some love to play football, others love to read. Some are incredibly open about their insecurities, some go quiet when asked about their feelings.
The challenge for those involved in men’s ministries, church leadership and ultimately all of us at any level of relationship, is to ensure that being a man does not become stereotyped. That men are taught that the best they can be is themselves in God. That the process of finding out who they are is crucial. That a man who paints for the glory of God is just as much a man as he who plays pro-ball. That it is alright to weep, to grieve, to worship, to be passionate, to love, to cherish, to have weakness. That all these things are held together by a man’s relationship with God—and that the roots of that relationship must run deep. That God made man in His image, and that being true to that image is more important than conforming to stereotype.
“Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” Genesis 2:7