Man Church

CCJ posted a link to this on Facebook, where I proceeded to offer such long-winded analysis in the comment thread that it seemed good to me to move my musings to a more suitable venue, i.e., here, where I can be as long-winded as I want to be.

FINE PRINT: First, a couple of caveats.

(1) I am responding to this particular instantiation of "Man Church," not the entire phenomenon of hyper-masculinized Christianity. Amid ministries offering Cage Fighting for Christ, Cornerstone's hard-sell of coffee and donuts sounds positively tame. I admit that alarms go off for me when I encounter ministries that emphasize manhood as their organizing theme, but I refuse to dismiss the particular ministries out of hand (okay; maybe the cage fighters).

(2) That said, I know very little about this particular instantiation of "Man Church" -- I have no first-hand knowledge of Cornerstone's men's ministry, other than what appears on their website. So what follows is based on the copy from the website linked above, coupled with a bunch of assumptions based on the history of American evangelicalism and my own lifetime experience in that movement. I could be totally wrong about what actually goes on in the meetings of "Man Church" or in the minds of its leaders. But since a website is the public face of a church, I think it's a legitimate basis for evaluating the message a congregation sends to the community/world before anyone ever walks through the door.

Now then, about Man Church a la Cornerstone Chandler:

First Observation: This seems like nothing so much as the application of a form of contemporary trendy advertising copy to a thoroughly conventional ministry. There's a set of highly restrictive stereotypes about what "real men" want/like/do, which I encounter almost exclusively in commercials. (I suppose they probably also show up in certain TV shows/websites/magazines, which I never watch/surf/read, because I am so not their target audience. And also I don't get cable.) Whoever wrote the description for this ministry cribbed liberally from the kind of language I usually see being used to sell deodorant and hamburger.

The line about "Man Church" being "not like any other church you have seen" is a particularly egregious bit of marketing hyperbole. There are a lot of churches that host early-morning men's groups. They generally don't have any singing, women don't attend, and "time to talk with other guys" is the order of the day. Coffee and donuts abound. I take it that any sermon at all is not a conventional feature of such a gathering, although if a leader offers a devotional reflection or leads a Bible study, that could certainly be described as a "short sermon." In other words, far from being "not like any other church you have seen," this is exactly like what is happening at thousands of other churches around the country. The only difference is that they've slapped on a cute name, "Man Church," instead of a more conventional label like "Men's Fellowship Breakfast."

It's almost as if someone read an article or book about what men want in a church service and thought, Hey! That sounds a lot like our Thursday morning breakfast group! We don't want to repackage our regular weekend worship service to fit this narrow vision of what supposedly attracts men (since, after all, we men who are leaders of the church like expressive worship music and preaching longish sermons), but if we relabel our Thursday group as church for men, maybe we can have it both ways!

(Reminder: I have no idea what regular weekend worship is like at this church.)

Second Observation: The application of shallow and jokey stereotypes about what constitutes "real manhood" to a description of a men's ministry is a symptom of the upheaval of gender roles in society at large.

Eighty years ago, when the first Christian Business Men's Committee was created, or even forty years ago, when the majority of American women still did not work outside the home, the ministry needs and opportunities of American families were different than they are today. Gail Collins' book When Everything Changed chronicles just how rapid and radical was the transformation that created the cultural environment women of my generation take for granted.

In, say, the 1950s, SAHMs were a major labor pool for the work of the church, but men who worked long hours as the sole breadwinners for their families had limited time for Christian activities beyond Sunday morning church attendance. In this context, an early-morning weekday meeting that focused on encouraging men to bring their faith to bear on their work and allowed them to get to the office by 8 a.m. was an ingenious discipleship strategy.

Times have changed. If you were to start an early-morning pre-work discipleship group today and limit it to men because work is a man's world, you would quite rightly be accused of discrimination. Thus, if churches are going to continue having men-only groups, they can't be about men qua business leaders, or they're going to miss out on offering appropriate support to large and growing segments of the adult population -- both women who are in business/professional lines of work, and men who are not.

Which is not to say that all church ministries must be coed. There is certainly a place for gender-specific ministries, and it would be unreasonable to demand a fully articulated theology of gender every time a church announces an event targeted at one gender or the other. And it's a good thing, too, because that's getting harder and harder to do. Cornerstone seems to struggle a bit with what constitutes its vision of Christian manhood: "The topics of discussion will have a definite manly focus - being the best possible husband, father, employee, leader - being a real man." Surely one can be a real man without being a husband, father, employee, and/or leader. But with gender roles in such flux, it's hard to fault the copywriter for throwing out a few of the major roles that may apply to members of this constituency. It's easier to engage in stereotypes (Men don't like to sing. Men have short attention spans. Men like coffee and donuts.) than to describe in positive terms what a group of Christian men have to offer each other in a distinctively male context.

When it comes down to it, my disappointment about the description of "Man Church" offered by Cornerstone Chandler amounts more to rhetoric than to practice. Go ahead and have a group where men meet for fellowship and Bible study -- more power to you. Go ahead and call it "Man Church" if you like; discipleship, discussion, and fellowship are as much a part of the life of the church as our formal worship gatherings. But please beware of describing such a gathering in a way that is demeaning to men, demeaning to women, and consequently demeaning of our life together as brothers and sisters in Christ.

Demeaning to women: In describing a vision of church "the way a man expects it to be done," the copy suggests that there is something wrong, or at least unappealing, about normal worship with its supposedly-feminine features. Worse, it invites disdain for the company of women by suggesting that "the way men want to do church" is with "no women present." This is where Man Church, as described here, fails to be church. I don't actually need to trot out Galatians 3:28, do I? It's one thing to offer ministries that target specific populations within a church, it's another thing to suggest that church would be better if a majority of its members would just go away. Now, I don't imagine for a moment that the leaders of Cornerstone's men's ministries actually mean that -- their website copy has clearly mixed up descriptive content ("no women present") with value ascriptions ("the way a man expects it to be done"). It would be nice if they fixed that so that their public presentation matches the values I presume they hold.

Demeaning to men: The stereotypes evoked in the marketing copy for "Man Church" (short attention spans; preoccupation with donuts) make the typical man sound like Homer Simpson. When I described the description to one of the men in my life, he was disgusted: "They should call it what it is. That's not 'Man Church,' that's children's church."


melissajacob said...

I'm glad your friend brings up "children's church." We could apply similar questions and arguments to the creation of spaces specifically meant to remove the very young from our normative worship experience. Children's church gets its rap for very good reasons, but those are the fault of no child. I hope the recent explosion of Man Church critiques on the theo-web will help us to think about the more entrenched (and ignored, accepted) forms of segregation in the church.

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