The Quandary of the Evangelical Man

The Quandary of the Evangelical Man April 17, 2018
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For a long time, the most desired quality in an Evangelical youth pastor was that he be crazy. Not the “he-thinks-he’s-Napoleon” kind of crazy, but the “you-never-know-what-he’ll-get-up-to” kind of crazy. He had to be the kind of guy whose behavior could aptly be described with the words “antics” and “shenanigans.” His role in the church was “to show the kids that Christians can have fun too.”

Above all, he had to be the master of silly games and icebreakers. He had to be willing to sit in a dunk tank, get pies smeared in his face, abase himself endlessly in a stream of idiotic stunts. My wife knew a youth pastor who agreed to swallow a live goldfish if everyone in youth group brought a guest. A good youth pastor had to be the kind of guy that late-middle-aged women, largely disappointed with life and grieving their own vanished youths, would look at and say with amused delight “That Boy is CRAZY!”

More sober members of the church would chalk these behaviors up, not to craziness, as to a “servant’s heart” willing to do anything to connect with the kids. In this view, a youth pastor’s juvenile behavior was, in fact, incontrovertible evidence of the maturity of his commitment.

As Thomas Bergler has written, the youth pastor is now the evangelical paradigm for all men.  He sets the standard. The subtle message in many evangelical settings is that best thing any man can be is an entertaining buffoon. One could say many evangelical men are clowns, but clowning is a venerable profession with a unique brand of dignity. In many places, the evangelical man does not aspire to clown-level dignity.

To see what I mean, take a look at the video below. The dance move at 1:09 captures the quintessence of crazy evangelical guy. Look in the background at the same time to see a group of people shielding their eyes from what can only be this man’s unacknowledged shame.

Without understanding the dynamics behind this phenomenon, we cannot understand why most men have no interest in the evangelical movement. Without understanding men’s lack of interest, we can’t understand why the movement has so little influence on the surrounding culture.

Men like hierarchy. We like a clearly defined structures of status with a clear path to the top. The structure of the military, for example,reflects these innate traits of the masculine psyche.  The very traits that make the military understandable to men make the evangelical movement inscrutable to them at best and, at worst, repulsive.

Furthermore, hierarchy is a natural and universal part of human relations.  Evangelicals like to pretend their churches are free from social hierarchy, but they aren’t. When visiting a typical evangelical church, men naturally assess what is required to ascend the hierarchy in that setting. This process is so ingrained in the masculine psyche that it often happens unconsciously. Nevertheless, most men sense quickly that in order to ascend the hierarchies in evangelical contexts, they would have to sacrifice their dignity.

Evangelical churches typically provide two paths up the hierarchy. Both require men to surrender their self-respect, dignity and gravitas.  The first path is to be crazy, to be the funny guy who’s not so hung up on his masculine seriousness that he won’t cavort like a little girl in the worship service’s opening number. The second path is to cultivate “niceness” which means renouncing every vestige of assertive masculine energy.

Only these paths are available in the evangelical movement because the movement has subtly conformed itself to the secular world. Elite opinion in recent decades has held that men are, by nature, dangerous, abusive and, quite probably, criminal. Our redemption is only possible to the degree that we eschew those traits that characterized men of ages past and adopt new personas that are both more feminized and more boyish.

The evangelical movement largely accepts this view. The result is a movement with no room for manly gravity, dignity, and authority. Those qualities have  been replaced by nice guys and buffoons trained to take no stands, and offer no offense unless, of course, the offense given is directed toward unredeemed traditional men. Offending them is always fair play.

And so, men just stay away. Create a social situation where men cannot express their nature, cannot realize the best versions of themselves and they will protest via their absence.

See, each man carries in his heart a heroic vision of himself. The price of being part of the evangelical movement is too often surrendering that vision. In its place, the evangelical movement offers a vision of manhood comprised of an attitude of endless apology and shenanigans to make teenagers and middle-aged women laugh.

Men desire a band of brothers, a cohort of like-minded men committed to soldiering on in pursuit of personal and public virtue. Men desire to be part of something like The Fraternity of Excellence that Hunter Drew and Craig James have put together. Such a group can hardly be found in the modern world, certainly not in the modern evangelical church. Reverse this trend, and men, with all the dedication and power of which we are capable, will be more drawn to the evangelical movement. Don’t reverse it, and the movement can expect to proceed toward extinction, sashaying all the way.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Pete Wagner

    What happens when we remove the church from the equation?

  • Al Cruise

    Didn’t Mark Driscoll try that manly stuff at Mars Hill Seattle ? What happened with it there?

  • Salvatore Anthony Luiso

    I agree with parts of the diagnosis but not with the cure. I watched the video. The “group of people shielding their eyes” at 1:09 are not reacting to a man’s “unacknowledged shame”, but to a spotlight which is shining both on the man and into their faces. Notice that both men and women of various ages clown around in the video.

    In Europe and the United States, Christianity was already sentimentalized and feminized during the 19th Century. For many years there have been men who have considered piety to be a desirable quality for women and children but not for men. We do not see this attitude in the Bible–to the contrary, we see Paul speaking of Christians as athletes and soldiers, and saying to the church at Corinth “Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong. ” (I Corinthians 16;13 (ESV)). The Muscular Christianity movement, which began in the middle of that century, was a reaction to this debased form of the faith (Wikipedia has an article about it). To many American men in the first half of the 20th Century, Jesus seemed to be unmanly.

    There is a pervasive confusion about masculinity, and a lack of it, throughout Western society now. Not a lack of “toxic” masculinity–there is an abundance of that, as we can see from popular culture and #MeToo–but of proper masculinity, which used to be common not so long ago. Hence I do not believe that men are not joining evangelical churches because they cannot find a place there for “self-respect, dignity and gravitas”, nor “authority”, nor for their “heroic vision” of themselves. I agree that if a man sought such a place in many evangelical churches, he might not find one. I disagree, though, that it is common for men to desire such a place in a church nowadays. I do not believe most men “desire to be part of something like The Fraternity of Excellence”.

    My cure: Return to what the Scriptures say about men, masculinity, and maturity–e.g. Titus 2:1-8.

    On another subject: Today Dr. Gene Veith has posted on his blog (also on Patheos) an article entitled “Status and Belief”, which contains a large portion of your recent article “Engaging the Culture Doesn’t Work Because Christian Beliefs Are Low Status”. At present his article is accessible here:

  • Maine_Skeptic

    “…The very traits that make the military
    understandable to men make the evangelical movement inscrutable to them
    at best and, at worst, repulsive…”

    What you’re describing is inconsistent with the top-down authoritarianism for which the Evangelical Movement is increasingly known. Far from lacking in hubris, the would-be manly men running the megachurches go around claiming “dominion” over the country and its institutions. You cite the military as an example, but the military has accountability at all levels. There is no accountability for Evangelical leaders, as we’ve seen time and again in examples like Mars Hill Church. The church collapses, and those most in need are hurt worst, but the leadership goes on to the next book deal and TV interview. All because your movement keeps coughing up the idea that you’re not “manly enough.” It’s like a cud you just can’t digest or spit out, so it keeps coming back up.

  • George

    Mark Driscoll was and is, in every way, a poser. Leather vest, biker boots, wallet on a chain.

    But that wasn’t his real problem.

  • George

    I agree with a good share of the information and sentiments shared in this blog. But I have to ask, what’s the alternative? The mainline liberal church whose “youth pastor” is an overweight, unattractive woman who makes the tiny youth group her therapy group? Pedophile priests?

    I’m blessed to be part of a church that is led by good and Godly men – including our youth pastor – who do things like fix and paint houses for the elderly poor, serve at the homeless shelter, and have in-depth Bible Studies at a local rehab mission. Currently our High School Sunday School Class is studying through the Old Testament. It’s a solid little church.

  • Randy Thompson

    Does anybody, anywhere, like clowns outside of a circus? Of course, one could argue that a great deal of evangelical churchianity has replaced the circus.

  • Interesting points…but your conclusion is wrong. I work in men’s ministry and goofiness seems to be on the decline – particularly among the younger men, who are extremely earnest and more emotive than older men. Fun is out – seriousness is in.

  • Alonzo

    >>>”the youth pastor is now the evangelical paradigm for all men. He sets the standard.”

    The big problem with this paradigm as setting the standard is that men becomes disciples of other men and not of Jesus. Jesus is the man’s man since He knows man. In fact He created man. He lived, died for our sin, rose again, ascended to the Father who exalted Him above all. If anyone wants to be a real man, follow Jesus.

  • s ci

    There’s some truth to this analysis (we’ve seen some of it), but the landscape of Evangelicalism is just too diverse for this to be correct. The vision of an ideal masculinity varies widely. Contemporary secular culture offers a splintered variety, especially when feminism gets involved. It’s no surprise that these various options and cultural confusion walks into the door of the church, or even becomes part of the leadership. Perhaps the way out of our masculinity quagmire, both in culture and in the church, could best be escaped by focusing on the ideal human (ahem, Jesus) being. Let both masculinity and femininity build from that ideal human being, its traits, virtues, and character.

  • Robert Schleicher

    While I get what you’re saying, at the same time, I don’t see why you need to be so insulting to youth pastors who are often just trying to make kids laugh and have a good time.

  • Martha Anne Underwood

    God became incarnate in male form because otherwise in the patriarchal culture into which God became incarnate in Jesus Christ, no one would have listened to Jesus. Jesus is not the one who told women to be submissive to their husbands. That was Paul and what he wrote was colored by the culture around him.

  • Alonzo

    Are you responding to someone else? I read nothing in your response to me that address what I wrote. All I read from you is the logical fallacy of shifting the issue. That is faulty thinking. Besides, your response is all over the place and without support. If you write more of the same, I will simply ignore you.

  • Jack Bauer

    It grew into one of the most influential ministries in the country. Quickly, and uniquely. For all his failures, Driscoll found a way to attract a significantly unchurched demographic … young men. He found a way to preach to the lost. To attract those that the church needs to truly thrive. To speak to men the church has been ignoring for decades.

    Imperfect as Driscoll is … maybe he was onto something. His theology was solid. His teaching method worked well for attracting Godly men. He gave straight answers to tough questions. His temperament and management style apparently left much to be desired — and, as often happens, his sin caused the downfall of his ministry. But, there is still much to learn about ministering to men from the growth and reach of Mars Hill.