The Church Revitalization Podcast – Episode 192
Discipling men is hard. I’ve not yet worked with the church that said, “We don’t really have a women’s ministry, but we have a huge men’s ministry!” But I have heard about many great women’s ministries. Usually the men’s ministry is a “work in progress.”
But why is it so difficult to disciple men effectively?
The answer is multivariate. But there are a few key issues that compound to make it difficult to disciple men. Research shows that women are more likely to have a sense of obligation and self-discipline, and are slightly more conscientious than men. This is less true in relation to achieving goals, but is certainly true in regards to a sense of dutifulness. Therefore, men are less likely to see attending church at all (much less engaging beyond the Sunday morning worship service) as necessary or valuable.
Also, in contemporary western culture, low expectations are placed on men–and men are living up (or down?) to those low expectations. A recent report stated that 60% of young men are single–which is more than twice the rate of singleness than in young women. The labor force participation rate among working-age men is at the lowest levels in history, apart from the pandemic. Compared to 1950, the percentage of men participating in the labor force is down almost 20 points.
Additionally, men are plagued by pornography. One 2018 study found that 80% of men reported viewing pornography at least once per month. This leads to negative effects on marriages, poor mental health, and spiritual brokenness. Many men, especially Christian men, consequently struggle with the guilt and shame associated with pornography. Rather than leading them to the church, their struggles push them away which compounds the problem.
Every man has his own unique challenges, but all men are in need of spiritual growth and vitality. Unfortunately, most churches place minimal focus on developing men. It’s just too hard.
But if your church is ready to step up and make a difference in the lives of the men in your congregation, there are five key principles that can help you get better at discipling men.
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Identify Their Potential
Men need to learn to see themselves through the lens of leadership and ministry. Many men assume that leadership and ministry is only for those who are called into vocational ministry. Or, they assume that leadership is only open to people with a certain level of formal training or education.
Paul teaches in Ephesians 4 that every member is called into the ministry, and this includes every man! But in order to live out that call, men need to be able to hear and discern the call.
Empower men with tools to help them identify their unique potential. Both men and women need tools to help them discover their Divine Design. We’ve discussed this in our article on volunteer recruitment. At The Malphurs Group, we like the SHAPE tool, and also the resources available in Dr. Malphurs’ book Maximizing Your Effectiveness which explores these themes in-depth.
Men have to first see themselves as capable of more, and then you need to call them to more.
Call Them to More
The most important aspect of discipling men is getting the culture right inside your church. When the expectations are low, the performance will be low, too. Therefore, ensure that your church is undergirded by a theological framework that makes service within the Body of Christ an imperative. Serving one another isn’t just something you could do, it’s something we all do.
Your church needs to create a culture of expectation. I like to use the analogy of the family. Not every person in the family is expected to do all of the same chores, but every person in a family is expected to do chores. “Chores” is largely a negative term, but it just means that every person has a responsibility to contribute and care for one another. The least popular person in the family is the one who takes but never gives.
Likewise, your church needs a culture where people are expected to pitch in. Men especially should be counted on to be invested in the life of the church by leveraging their unique giftedness to build up the Body of Christ. This isn’t to say this isn’t important for women, too. But as we’ve already mentioned, on average, women are more likely than men to show initiative and serve. Men need an explicit call to action.
Involve Them Creatively
Some men are already involved in your church in a wide variety of areas–from your band to leading small groups and classes to sitting on decision-making boards and team. But a common mistake churches make when trying to engage men who are not already serving is treat them like they’re all the same. I’d be rich if I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard a church announcement that was something like, “Men! We need you to come out this Saturday and help with the landscaping and handyman projects around the campus. Sign-up in the lobby.”
Not every man is handy! Take it from me, a person who cannot be trusted to assemble a bookshelf from Ikea. Men who are disengaged already will tune out any call to action that isn’t in alignment with their Divine Design.
Therefore, be certain you’ve identified all of the entry point opportunities for men to plug in. Assuming you’ve helped them learn how they’re designed, you can call them specifically to participate in a role that lines up with that calling.
Additionally, find ways to mentor men with senior leadership potential and invite them into the process before they’re ready so that they can become ready. Many churches I’ve served lament that they don’t have enough qualified men to serve as elders, deacons, or key volunteers. The sad reality is that this isn’t a problem you can solve overnight. It’s a problem with 20-year roots.
The best time to start an intentional focus on leadership development is twenty years ago. The second-best time is now. Start looking for men who have leadership potential, and begin to invite them into leadership spaces today. This doesn’t mean you have to give them a vote or an official seat at the table. But it does mean you want younger men to see the training pathway that can lead to higher-level leadership in the future.
In 1 Timothy 3, Paul says, “If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task.” The journey towards senior leadership in the church begins with the aspiration for the office. You need to identify those who do now or may in the future aspire to become an elder, and you need to invest in them now. There is no downside. Even if they never become an elder, or if they move to another city or another church, leadership development is never wasted.
Leadership development is an end unto itself. When we elevate and equip leaders to grow, it makes the church, the community, families, and businesses better.
Hold Them Accountable
The failure of men in contemporary western culture is largely a failure of accountability. Gender stereotypes, rightly or wrongly, are massively in flux in recent decades. A 2019 study by GQ (interesting in its results and also in its own questioning and methodology), found that 97% of the people polled in their survey say “expectations for male behavior have changed in the last decade.” This is undeniably true.
But what should be the source of our understanding for male behavior? Cultural and societal expectations will always color our perspective in sometimes helpful and sometimes unhelpful ways. However, the ultimate source of insight and direction for male behavior must come from Scripture. We’ll discuss this more in the next point. What’s relevant here is that a Scriptural understanding of masculinity should shape not only the individual’s behavior but also the church’s culture of accountability.
Twenty-first century manhood in the west has become infected by effeminacy, but not in the way many would describe it. By “effeminacy” I don’t mean “cries in movies and owns a pink tie.” Effeminacy is defined by St Thomas Aquinas as a vice that is opposite of perseverance. He states that effeminacy is when someone is “ready to forsake a good on account of difficulties which he cannot endure.” Put another way, effeminacy is lacking inner strength to do hard things.
With this definition, it is undeniable that contemporary men–especially younger men–are plagued by effeminacy. Throughout the Scriptures, men are called to “gird their loins” (Jeremiah 1:17, Ephesians 6:14) and “act like men” (1 Corinthians 16:13). It would be easy to project a wrong-headed view more akin to machismo than true masculinity when reading these passages. Rather, the Lord is calling men to be fully engaged, to stand firm, and to endure hardship for the cause of what is right.
As we discussed in the introduction, many men today are addicted to substances, pornography, and video games. They often neglect their families, if they have one, and pursue pleasure. This is a kind of softness that leads to the deterioration of families and churches on the small scale, and communities and culture at the larger scale. Of course, I have in some ways exaggerated the point for the purposes of demonstrating the problem in general.
Nevertheless, churches have largely failed to serve as a course-correcting community for men. They’ve allowed the extremes of our culture–either machismo or womanishness–to shape the men in our churches, rather than holding men accountable to being conformed to a Biblical view of masculinity.
What does accountability within the church look like? It starts with prayer and confession. Men need to be honest about their sin, and have a safe place to be able to confess that sin so they can repent and move forward. The sad irony is that many men struggle with their sin in secret, desperate to escape the clutches of their temptations, but they suffer in isolation. Evangelical protestant churches are often the least-safe places to confess sin because of a legitimate fear that confession could lead to ostracization or becoming the source of gossip. This must change.
The Scripture tells us that spiritual healing comes from confessing our sin “one to another” and not only to God (James 5:16). When others are made aware of our failures, they can pray for us, encourage us, and even admonish us when necessary. True accountability and repentance can only come if one’s belonging is not in question.
Accountability also looks like a commitment to teaching the Scriptures with clarity.
Instruct Them Intentionally
As we’ve already discussed, the ultimate source of healthy masculinity is Biblical literacy. If we want to know what it looks like to be a man, we need to look at God’s template in Christ. In 1 Corinthians 15:45-27, Paul calls Jesus the Second Adam. This is not only a reference to Christ’s success in resisting temptation, but also in His ability to model the perfect image of God’s character. While Jesus is both the template for all humanity, it is especially critical for men to reflect Jesus’ model for manhood.
To fully explore the Scripture requires that men know how to read the Scripture. Therefore, teach men how to be biblically literate. I know it’s easier to grab the boxed curriculum from Lifeway or just tune in on Right Now Media. These tools have their rightful place in your discipleship process, probably. But there is no good substitute for buying your men a copy of Grasping God’s Word or Gordon Fee’s How to Understand the Bible for All It’s Worth. Taking the time to teach men how to read the Bible on their own and actually understand it is invaluable, and this is a skill that doesn’t have to be reserved for vocational ministers.
Finally, teach men to pray. Prayer is the means of conforming our will to that of the Father’s. Our vision of manhood is easily muddied by society, culture, and social media rather than the Scriptures. But when we take time to seek the Lord in prayer, we can be like Jesus and say, “not my will, but your will be done.” But prayer takes training. Model a healthy prayer life, and provide tools to help men learn how to take the time to engage in daily prayer.
If you want men to reflect Scripture’s call to “gird their loins” and be ready to “stand firm,” then you need to train them. Even wearing the full armor of God has prerequisites. To wear the belt of truth requires you to know the truth. To wear the breastplate of righteousness assumes that we know what righteousness means and where it comes from. Ultimately, to see spiritually healthy men requires that we be willing to take the time to teach men intentionally.
An Imperfect Messenger
It feels necessary to end this article with honesty. I have my own list of failures and brokenness. My internal weakness has at times wrought pain in my life and in those I love. By God’s grace, I’ve grown to be a stronger man today than I was a decade ago, and pray that I’ll be even more mature in another decade.
The heart behind this article is for churches to stop putting ministry to men on the backburner, or relegate it to pancake breakfasts and Super Bowl parties. Effective ministry to men can not only change your church, but can transform families.
Share your ideas for discipling men in the comments below. Let us know what’s working in your context, and encourage other leaders to step-up and raise-up a new generation of Godly men.
Scott Ball is the Vice President and a Lead Guide with The Malphurs Group. He lives in East Tennessee with his wife and two children. (Email Scott).