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Mixed-Up Men: The Male Identity Crisis & the Church

By Roy McCloughry.

When the women’s movement of the 1960’s began to make claims about men being oppressive, they could not foresee what the impact of that claim would be on men. Men had run society and it suited them to dominate public life while women held the fort in the private realm of family life. But this idyll was shattered by women claiming that this was not a world in which they wanted to live. If they had the same gifting as men then they wanted the same choices as men.

One of the first things that happened in this process was that women held up a mirror to men and said “This is what we see”. This was a powerful thing to do whether it was husbands, fathers or sons who had to look in the mirror. The reasons were that while the world was organised around men it was very difficult for men to see that culture objectively. It takes someone outside a culture to portray it objectively and women now did this for men, making the invisible, visible. The result was that men had to face up to masculinity and ask themselves whether this was something they wished to celebrate or reject.

Those men who saw order as a prime quality in society and family had to face up to a culture in which freedom for the individual was replacing structures in which the individual opted for the security of order at the expense of freedom of choice. This was not only expressed through the women’s movement, but also through the advent of pop culture and a fundamental change in what it meant to be a young person. Now, instead of wishing to be like one’s parents, young people wanted to be different from them and many older men found this new assertiveness throughout society a threat to the world they knew.

But the pressure on society to change did not go away. The issue was one of equality and of justice and the natural solidarity of women gave these issues an impetus that was irresistible. Men knew that there was little that they could do that women could not do equally well. The problem was that masculinity had traditionally been summed up in the roles of provider, procreator and protector. Men began to wonder what was which mad men distinctive. Men faced issues of masculinity in these situations above all. As women entered the workforce If it was not work, what was it? In the area of procreation women now controlled their own fertility and such independence gave them more control over their own lives. Without war men were no longer required to be protectors. Older men had fulfilled their duty by shedding their blood and sweat and providing semen to create the next generation. But now this was not enough to define what it meant to be a man.

A period of transition

This is a period of transition in which there are more questions than answers. We are now living in the days of a crisis in masculinity. Men are coming to realise that they now live in a culture of intimacy, where human health and wholeness is measured by the ability to share one’s feelings. Many men find this almost impossible to do. Women may have faced the crisis of oppression, but now men are facing up to crises of expression. They tend to feel isolated from other men and can try and work problems over in their own minds without communicating them with other people. Within the church, of course there is a great deal of emphasis on fellowship and on sharing. But church leaders need to ask themselves what men make of this.  Do they find it easy or even possible to share the deep things in their lives? If they do what are the conditions under which this happens?

One of the most obvious things which needs to be in place is confidentiality. Men do not have immediate rapport and solidarity in the way women often seem to do. They do not find ‘troubles-talk’ something that comes naturally. Yet the importance of getting men to talk about their lives is urgent. Levels of stress in our society are astronomic and suicide rates are rising, especially among young men.  The church can help or hinder the process.

Men need friendship

The key of course is friendship. It is surprising how few men have a close friend in whom they can confide. Men may have many friends with whom they can enjoy sport or a drink down the pub but they need more than that. They need to hear their own voice talking about their lives. They also need practice in actively listening to another person without waiting for a pause so that they can inject the conversation with their own agenda.

These requirements arise from the culture of intimacy in which we live. If we acknowledge their existence then one of the things that should happen is that the church should be careful about what it demands from men. The man who is stressed and tired in the pew on Sunday does not want to be harangued from the pulpit. He needs to be supported and encouraged in what he is already doing. He needs to feel the love of God on his life. Only when he feels that love can he reflect it. He needs to know, as Henri Nouwen once put it, that he is ‘The Beloved’.

One of the places where such love and respect can be found is in a small men’s group. These are groups of five or six men who meet once a month or so to chat together about their lives. There is no agenda, leader or constraint on what can be said or done. It is just a group of men meeting together within the bounds of confidentiality. Yet it is possible within such groups for friendships to grow so that men do learn to open up to others and talk about the things that are on their heart.

Are men talking to God about all this?

There is another side to this. If men are not talking to others about the deeper things that are going on in their lives, are they talking to God? Huge assumptions are made by leaders of Christian churches about the state of their congregations’ devotional lives. Yet research tells us that men are less religious than women both in terms of church attendance and in terms of religious devotion and belief. I think that we tend to assume that people are much further on in their Christian lives than they actually are. This can become a burden for men who find that they cannot admit that they do not pray (for instance) because they will lose face if they do. It is so important that the church does not entrap men and add guilt to their experience of Christ. Sixty per cent of church decline in the eighties was men leaving the church. Something is wrong, we are not yet sure what it is, but men are not at ease with the church.

One of the other difficulties the church faces is in finding the right balance between preaching holiness and providing an environment where people can be open about their failure. Many men tell me that the church is the worst possible place to fail. Whether the problem is sex, alcohol, violence or any other problem the person concerned needs to feel cherished and accepted as they try and face up to what is happening to them. There is a real need for gifted and compassionate pastors who know when to be firm and when to console. If men sit in church with darkness inside then they may start to suffer from mental health problems or their stress may come out in other ways such as marriage breakdown.

It is here that the church can be a real help. Marriages need to be MOT’d frequently and churches need to take them seriously while not giving the impression to single people that marriage is the only way of living a fulfilled life. Whatever is done to renew marriages within the church, (marriage enrichment weekends, for example), there needs to be a real emphasis on the difference between men and women and the need to see communication between men and women as cross-cultural. The extraordinary success of John Gray’s book Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, which has sold by the million all over the world, shows that men and women feel a real need to understand each other again. One of the problems we often have in the church is that the religious language we often succumb to hides more than it reveals. We need to have many more ordinary

conversations about the things going on in our lives. We need to make things simpler for ourselves.

Wounded men in need of healing

Within every church there will be men who are wounded and need healing. This wound is called the ‘father wound’ and is part of the relationship between father and son. Many men have been wounded by their fathers. Silent or distant fathers who made a young son feel unloved; fathers who walked away from the home leaving sons feeling rejected; abusive father who made sons feel worthless have all had a part to play in the lives of men in our churches. I remember an elderly man coming up to me after a talk on masculinity. He said that his father had never told him that he loved him or even that he approved of what he had done with his life. On his father’s deathbed, he as a grown man asked his father to tell him that he loved him. He would not, and died soon after, The man, though in his seventies or eighties had a running wound. It had never healed. I have met so many men who have felt rejected by their fathers that I feel that this ministry of healing is an important ministry of the church in the twenty first century. It is something that comes up on men’s retreats that I lead. It seems that if you ask a man about masculinity he will get on to the subject of his father within minutes. How can we come alongside men who are in pain in this area of their lives and provide healing through mediation and reconciliation? It seems to be a task which God is asking the church to accomplish.

The most helpful thing that the church can do is to not stray away from the person of Jesus. It is easy to find other things attractive and to range far and wide in one's theology and preaching. But men need a leader, a model to follow. Of course, many men will lap up conceptual and tightly argued exposition about abstruse subjects, but they will grow and be changed by the challenge of Jesus. Here is somebody who was able to wash his disciple's feet as well as whip the money changers out of the temple. He is not somebody who models extremes to men. In a society where the stereotype of the gentle new man is balanced by the equally unhealthy macho man, Jesus stands out. He is the whole man. Indeed he is a person who both men and women can emulate because although he is biologically male he is not conventionally masculine in his behaviour. He exhibits the whole range of human emotion enabling men to cry by gravesides, to feel afraid as he did in the garden, as well as asking men to give courageous leadership to a world which is aimless and has lost its way.

So the church needs to take the debate about men seriously for many reasons. Masculinity is in transition and many men are confused. Employment is fragile and some men feel threatened by the success of women. Other men feel isolated and lonely and need friendship. Some say they feel most lonely when they go to church. Some men feel that the church is not allowing them to be the person they really are, but is putting all kinds of expectations on them and making assumptions about them. Still others want the church to listen to advice which theologian Tom Wright once gave: “God is God, therefore relax”.

If the church is faithful to the gospel then men will grow strong under its influence. But the church can also hinder Christian growth. The time has come for us to be able to celebrate masculinity at a time when it is in crisis. As a church we need to be able to say that not all men are oppressors. Many men empower those who are powerless. Many Christian men model what is means to be a good father, husband and friend. There are many men who have a deep devotional life from whom we can learn. There are strong loving relationships between fathers and sons. There are marriages within which mutual respect and love flow. There are churches which set people free to be themselves and to nurture and to care for one another. There are Christian leaders who are loved and respected for who they are and are able to step off  the pedestal and enjoy the liberation of their calling.

These are crucial times for men and the sooner we realise that the more we will be able to do to help them.

Ministry Today

You are reading Mixed-Up Men: The Male Identity Crisis and the Church by Roy McCloughry, part of Issue 22 of Ministry Today, published in June 2001.

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