Tag Archives: ministry

3 Tough Questions (and Lessons) for Men’s Ministry

The purpose of my foray into Muscular Christianity has been to find some guidance on how to approach Men’s Ministry. In light of the challenge of getting men more involved in the church can we present the Gospel differently? Can we have programs and ministries focused on men? Can we do something outside of the church? Perhaps a more important question: should we do these things?

A Little Humility is In Order

First off. What good did the movement do? Here we are, a century later, still asking the same questions, struggling with the same issue that Muscular Christianity was supposed solve. So, it didn’t turn the tide.  This is a warning that it’s probably over ambitious to think we can reverse the long-standing lack of greater involvement of men in the church.

But that doesn’t mean we don’t try. Our goal in the church is not really to shift history but to save the individual man and to build up the existing church, namely our own. So we try, so that someone may be saved.

The history of the Muscular Christianity movement reveals some dangers to be aware of when we try to develop ministries specifically for men. Let’s take a look at two big ones.

What Does it Mean to be a Man?

Behind the idea of Men’s Ministry is the assumption that there is something homogeneous about men, a certain ideal manliness that we can hold up as God’s call to the Christian man. What is it that we want to make men into? What behaviors do we want to see the men in our church stop and what to begin? The danger here is that we begin to press men into a certain mold that may or may not be God’s mold for them.

Muscular Christianity sought to engage men in the church again, to turn back what it saw as a tide of feminizing. But in doing so, it defined manliness in a way that seems limited and selective. It held up the ideal man as physically strong and in shape, athletic, and primitive (which had mainly to do with being able to survive in the woods; this was part of the impetus for the Boy Scouts, and the Christian Camp movement among others). Being “civilized” was not manly. While being well-rounded was desirable, it seems if you were talented academically in college, but not on the football team, you were not manly. And if you were a pastor, who wasn’t also a baseball player or boxer, or someone, like Billy Sunday, with a muscular physique, then you also were not manly. If you had to choose one or the other, being strong in mind or body, real men chose the body.

This may be a bit interpretive, but in rejecting “Manichaeism” and asceticism because those ideas devalued the body, Muscular Christianity swung too far to the other side, exalting the body and devaluing the mind and the spirit. It also incorporated a very black and white view of the world. If you weren’t manly, then you were part of the feminizing of the church.

Then there was the unsettling racial side to it. American Muscular Christian leaders warned that because of its physical decline, the Anglo-Saxon race was becoming weaker, while the immigrants from European countries were more physically vigorous. The assumption seemed to be that the physically strongest would rule ( a social Darwinism perhaps?) so Anglo-Saxons better toughen up. (see note below)


One kind of manliness…

So, Lesson #1 is: Before we develop ministries for men, we best take a close look at our assumptions about manliness. What does it mean to be a man, not in our society, but according to God? If we do not define that, we will aim at whatever our culture says, or we will react against it. And we may wind up advocating something against God’s will.

The Idol of Power

One consistent part of “manliness” as many define it, including me, seems to be a focus on the right use of a man’s strength. Men are generally physically stronger than women, and of course, through much of history, have held greater authority and power. A good part of men’s ministry focuses on the right use of that power. But by its very nature power is a difficult thing to channel and control. Power can quickly be used to justify anything and can be easily redefined.

Early on in Muscular Christianity much was made of the power and strength of men as a means to evangelize the world. It was the great century of western missions, and if the Christian Church was to send missionaries to remote countries, it needed strong, vigorous men to do it. That was why you needed to get in shape, for the cause of spreading the Gospel.

But it is interesting how that noble purpose morphed in time to the need to be stronger than other races, to dominate others. It is also interesting to see how the emphasis on sports as a means to become stronger so that you may fulfill Gods purposes didn’t take long to change into an exaltation of sport for sport’s sake. Far from holding up the missionary as the model of a man, the ideal of manhood became the professional athlete, someone who participates in sport for no other reason than to play, be paid, and entertain others. Sound familiar? The nobility of manhood soon declined as power’s sights were lowered. Man himself became the idol that worked for himself and no longer for his god.

So here is Lesson #2: Strength and power are ultimately self-serving, and, far from being something that builds up the community, left to their own devices, they become a way to exalt the self against all others. Men’s Ministry needs to change the way men view strength and power.  This is not to deny that men possess strength and power, but how can we succeed where Muscular Christianity failed? An emphasis on being a good father or husband, to take charge at home, can easily be used to dominate those who are weaker, like a man’s wife and children. It can also be very easily co opted into the superhero/Lone Ranger mentality of men. “I am strong and powerful. I need no one else. And God has called me to save the world,” is a script we men are prone to.

...and a greater kind

…and a greater kind

We need to somehow not deny the strength and power of a man, but instead to redefine it according to the Scriptural call to love, which means to do good, to serve others, all others, especially those most in need.

But to take this a little further, in Lesson #3, it is perhaps wiser, and more in accord with the Gospel, to not speak of strength and power at all, to not focus on them, but rather speak only of the call to serve and to love as Jesus served and loved us. If men do this with their whole heart, they will naturally use their strength and power to accomplish them. But to dwell on one’s strength and power leads inevitably to an over-focusing on those, which inevitably leads to misuse. Strength and power are a man’s means to achieve God’s purposes, not the ends.

 The Use of History

A knowledge of history here allows us to get a sense of the pitfalls and possibilities of a ministry. We can see the whole run of Muscular Christianity, and can see how it changed over time and how it connected with the events of the time. It allows us to chart our path with greater awareness of how easily such movements can be hijacked by other goals and fears, and derailed by events around us.

There are no doubt other “men’s movements” in history that would be instructive. We could investigate monasticism, some of the different approaches to ministry found in Roman Catholic orders as different as the gentle, loving Franciscans and the militant Jesuits, and more. But this is a blog, not a book. And I suspect these observations would hold after reflecting on these other examples.

To summarize: The story of the Muscular Christianity Movement raises some very important questions for the church that wants to start a Men’s Ministry:

1)  What is it that we want men to become? Or what does it mean to be manly?

2)  How will we call men to acts of love and service employing their strength and power without becoming too focused on that strength and power?

3)  How will we connect men to a community of faith and to the wider fellowship beyond fellow men, a fellowship that includes those who men may be tempted to view as “weaker”?

Note: There was, in the U.S., a Muscular Christian movement among the African-American Church and the Roman Catholic Church, which was largely immigrant, and among Jewish Americans. I limited my consideration to the much larger and socially dominant Anglo-Saxon Protestant movement, although it seems that Muscular Christianity went in different directions among the other ethnic and religious groups. 

3 Lessons Learned from a Busy Christmas Season

christmas-rush“Phew!”, sighed the Pastor after the final service of the Christmas season which, in my church, is the New Year’s Eve service.  After that, the schedule begins to return to normal…and I have a moment to write a blog post.

My aim with this blog is to reflect on ministry by learning from the history of the Church. That’s harder than it may appear, which I guess is why it doesn’t seem to be done too much.  Over the last month or so, a flurry of activity has taught me a few things about trying to join history and ministry.

1)  Reflection is a luxury.  It takes time to stand back and to reflect on what we do.  And if you have no time, there is no reflection.  This is why we often don’t learn from history.  It takes time from our busy lives to learn what has been done before and then to try to connect it to what we are doing today.  Since we don’t have the time, or at least don’t take the time, we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past, instead of learning from it.

Lack of time is a fact of life, and always has been.  So we see that Church history tends to repeat as well, as it tends to be only those who had the luxury of peace and time who have been able to reflect.  That is why, of the reformers, John Calvin is the one who wrote the most thorough explanation of the theology of the Protestant Reformation.  He had the relative peace and security of his position in Geneva, while Martin Luther, being the pioneer of the Reformation, was mostly on the run from the Church authorities.  And the Anabaptists wrote very little in the way of reflection since they were hunted by both the Roman Catholic Church and the Reformers.

2)  The things we always do are living history.  Every church has its holiday traditions that have always been done.  The way we decorate; when we decorate; what the worship is like…  We just think this is the way to do it.  In reality these traditions are history alive today.  Every tradition is rooted in the past.  So often we just do it, not realizing why.  And sometimes those traditions become unmoored from our present and we have no idea why we do them today.  It’s a little like the woman who always cut the ends of her roast before putting it in the roaster because her grandmother always did, not  realizing that her grandmother did it because she did not have a pan big enough to fit a whole roast!

3)  We bend history to suit our purposes.  I love learning about why we do the things we do, especially with holidays like Christmas.  Why do we have Christmas trees?  Why is Santa like he is?  Why do we have Advent Wreaths, Nativities, and other decorations?  While all of these have their history, such practices demonstrate how we change history to suit our purposes.  A great example is the Nativity display, which anachronistically includes the Magi, even though the Gospel of Matthew says they came later, and came to a house, not the manger.

Though a luxury, it is important for us to reflect on what has been done before.  That way we can move things forward, instead of just repeating the same mistakes over and over.  At least, that is why I study the history of the Church.

Drawing from the Bottom of the Barrel: 3 Things a Failed President Taught Me

In my previous post I wrote about Andrew Johnson, the man who became President after Lincoln was assassinated. Here I share what I learned from a reading of his life in Hans Trefousse’s biography of Johnson.

English: President of the United States of Ame...

English: President of the United States of America Andrew Johnson (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

1)  Convictions can blind us. Generally, one’s strengths are also one’s weaknesses. Johnson’s stalwart, devil-may-care clinging to his beliefs, led him to act unilaterally in restoring the country as he thought should be done. Being sympathetic with the South, and not a supporter of the ex-slaves, he set a very low bar for re-admission to the Union. Actually he believed that the southern states never truly seceded at all since in his reading of the Constitution a state could not legally remove itself from the Union. So as long as they ratified the 13th Amendment and made a vague promise of loyalty, they could come back. Congress generally thought otherwise, and fought against the President. It was a confusing time, and I don’t claim to understand it, although I am looking forward to learning more as I read Grant’s biography. But it is clear to me that it was wrong for Johnson to claim sole authority to bring about restoration, ignoring the many opinions and ideas being circulated. He was certain he was right, and refused to consider the ideas of others. And the country suffered for it.

2)  How do we use the power we have? We all have beliefs and convictions. When do we stand by them “to the death,” and when do we compromise and strive to work with those who have other convictions or beliefs? As a pastor, I certainly have my non-negotiables, and many of these I share with the leadership of the church I serve. But beyond those, my responsibility is to lead with, not over, the lay leaders. I may have strong opinions about what we should do in a certain area, but so do my leaders. It is not for me to simply enforce what I want, even if I can. My calling is to work together with the leadership to find solutions and to make decisions. And the more crucial the decision, the more important that is. The future of our church, not unlike the future of the country, is not solely up to me to decide. Nor was it Johnson’s. And when you act as though it is your decision, you may find yourself impeached, just like Johnson.

Use the power you have, but don’t exceed it, not just for your own good, but for the good of the church too. Johnson, because of his bullheadedness, squandered the opportunity the country had to do Reconstruction right. Instead, the course was set for a future of continued racism, white supremacy, and Jim Crow.

The Senate as a Court of Impeachment for the T...

The Senate as a Court of Impeachment for the Trial of Andrew Johnson (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

3)  Integrity under fire, even when you deserve to burn. Andrew Johnson deserved to be humbled for his arrogance and his over-stepping, but he was acquitted of the charges brought against him in his impeachment. There was no evidence of “high crimes and misdemeanors”. And everyone really knew that. But, drawing on that inner well of conviction, Johnson weathered the storm with integrity. He continued to do his job, did not strike back at his enemies, and kept the course he had always followed. After his generally failed presidency, he even had the wherewithal to get elected to the Senate again. That impresses me. Is that well of conviction in me strong enough to see me through adversity, deserved or undeserved, and keep me working for what I believe in?

I don’t want to do what Andrew Johnson did, and I don’t think I will.  But my certainty of that may be simply because I know I don’t have the strength of conviction that he had. Does that make me stronger? Or weaker?

5 Facts about a Pastor’s Visiting drawn from Church History: Visiting and the Pastor, Pt 3

So, having had some time to mull over the lessons of history regarding the place and practice of regular home visitation in the pastor’s work, here’s what I have learned:

1) Home visitation, or at least personal visitation no matter where it occurs, has always been an important part of pastoral ministry. Public gatherings for worship and teaching, however frequent and regular, just aren’t enough if the goal is spiritual development. Pastors have always gone to their people. It is, without much exaggeration, what makes a pastor a pastor, and not solely a teacher, preacher, or theologian.

Ideas about what needs to happen during a regular visit, and what furthers spiritual development, have varied over the years. The Apostles taught the Gospel, presumably in ways that mirrored their writings in the New Testament. The priests of the medieval church grew more concerned about exacting confessions and prescribing penance to preserve the glory of the Church. The Reformers and Puritans seemed most concerned about catechizing, instructing in basic doctrine, and encouraging the flock to live out the teaching. In more recent years, in this age of psychology and informality, it has taken a more therapeutic shape of semi-counseling, or simply a social visit.

In trying to determine my own stance in visiting practice, I appreciate what Thomas Oden says in his wonderful Pastoral Theology: “Visitation runs the dual risk of either turning in the direction of an overbearing inquisition or reducing itself to an awkward routine of social trivia. The first error prevailed in the seventeenth century; the latter in the twentieth.” (1)

In order to avoid both of those errors, and yet to take seriously the heritage of pastoral ministry, I make these further observations:

2) Spiritual development, sanctification, discipleship, or whatever else you would like to call it, is the point of a pastor’s visiting. If there is no attempt to further that development than it may be a visit, but it is not pastoral.

3) There needs to be a plan to visiting. The pastor needs to develop a plan that will encompass the entire congregation he or she is responsible for, providing for a regular routine of visiting, whether it is once a year or four times a year, or some other frequency. And like other non-urgent but important things it needs to be fit into the weekly schedule with intention, letting other duties fit into place around this commitment.

4) Visiting should focus on the needs of the person being visited, not the needs of the pastor or the Church. The Medieval Church’s shift of focus to the confessional was also a turn away from the value of the individual Christian and a turn to what best serves the glory of the Church, i.e., an obedient people. Perhaps this is best symbolized in the intentionally anonymous confessional booths with its partition between priest and parishioner. While such confession may have its place (there’s a future post here!), it is not enough to replace regular visitation, which properly focuses on the whole of a person’s spiritual development.

5) If we keep regular pastoral visitation from becoming limited to the sacramental act of confession and penance, then others besides the pastor can join in the work. As we have seen, Calvin visited along with the elders of the church of Geneva and Richard Baxter divided his parish with an assistant. While this work is the special call of the pastor, and he may direct others in their visiting, it is more important that the work gets done than who does every visit. So share the load, and make it happen. The “pastoral” part is in its purpose, not in the title of the one who does it.

All of this is mostly a confirmation of what I already thought, with an greater sense of the importance of regular visitation in my own work. It needs to get into my weekly schedule first. Because of my difficulties in visiting, which I shared in the first post on this subject, I find the emphasis on making a plan and defining the purpose of such visiting helpful. I am also challenged to try to bring other leaders into this work. But it is hard to train others in something you find a challenge yourself. And training is necessary if we are to avoid the errors of visiting that Oden pointed out above. Bringing others into this work can also help provide better care for those members of the congregation who, for whatever reason, don’t exactly get along with the pastor. In those situations, crisis visits are rarely awkward because the need is so great, but routine visits can be uncomfortable for all parties.

Regular pastoral visitation. It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it. And the more the merrier!


(1) Thomas Oden, Pastoral Theology, Harper San Francisco, 1983, p. 178

3 Questions: Children and Communion, Pt 3

So what do we make of all this?

History doesn’t decide ministry.  To decide what we will do about our children and communion in our church we don’t just poll history and go with what has been done most.  To decide our policy, we need to turn to Scripture and approach it theologically.  But history does inform ministry; considering how a question has been answered in the past helps us answer it today.  It can also raise other questions for us that are not arising in our own time and context.  As a Protestant, I am suspicious of tradition.  It is not an authority on par with Scripture, but seeing how Christians have sought to live out the teachings of Scripture helps me to figure out how to do that now.  

So what questions is this history asking me?

1) If you are a supporter of infant baptism, why would you reject infant communion?

Until the 13th century, infant communion immediately followed infant baptism.  They were seen as one piece.  If one was baptized then one also partook of the sacrament.  If I support one, why not the other?  My tradition asserts that if the child understands the significance of the Lord’s Supper they can take it.  Yet one can be baptized without understanding it.  And we know infants are not participating knowingly in their baptism.  Why not let them unknowingly participate in the Lord’s Supper?  There is a Biblical argument to be made, based on 1 Corinthians 15, where we are told we must eat “discerning the body”, but some have suggested that is not ironclad.  Perhaps I hold a double standard when it comes to sacraments.  One option would be to deny both sacraments to infants and children until they are more aware of the meanings, as some traditions do.  Another would be to offer both to infants as the Greek Church does.  Perhaps my tradition is being selective and fails to give a basis for it.  Think it through further.

2) Is your protectiveness of the Lord’s Supper consistent with your view of the Sacrament?

As we saw, the practice of infant and child communion ended as the belief in transubstantiation rose in importance, which led to a desire to prevent the elements from being handled with disrespect or casualness. If we deny children the Lord’s Supper because they will in some way profane the sacrament, are we not doing the same thing?  Yet, my own tradition does not believe in transubstantiation, but insists on the common-ness of the elements and that they do not change.  This seems like it may be a contradiction between our theology and our practice.

3) Is your assumption that a person must understand the Sacrament before partaking of it too individualistic?

The idea that the individual had to understand the sacrament to take part in it rose to greatest prominence with the Protestant Reformers, who emphasized the individual’s own relationship to God, and the importance of personal faith.  Until that time, the individual’s participation in the community of faith seemed to be the greater emphasis, and communion, especially for all the baptized regardless of age, embodied that emphasis.  It strikes me that my own tradition’s emphasis on understanding may be an overemphasis on the individual at the expense of our sense of connection to the community.

So while a look at the history has not answered my original question in any certain terms, it has given me much to think about and to talk to my leaders about, questions that had not come up before.  I am, however, leaning toward including younger children more, but I do want to wrestle more with Scripture, especially 1 Corinthians 15.

What about you?  What does the history suggest to you about how we handle the participation of children in the Lord’s Supper is our churches today?  I’d welcome your comments and thoughts.

Pills or Prayer, so Which is It?

So, what are we to make of all this?  Should Christians make use of modern medical technology or not?  Is it valid for churches that seek to live like the Christian Church in the first couple of centuries to rely solely on healing through prayer and miracle?  I believe that a survey of the church in those centuries demonstrates that the early Christians appreciated that question, but did not answer it as the First Century Gospel Church does.  But neither did they answer it as many non-Charismatic American churches answer it.

Illness has different sources.  It is a simplistic worldview that always sees natural causes for everything.  While we resist the idea that God visits us with illness, it seems apparent that illness can and does result from sinful behaviors.  It can also stem from more spiritual roots.  Sometimes a pill isn’t going to touch the real source of our suffering.

All healing comes from God.  Whether through prayer, a miracle, or a medical treatment, the origin of all helping is God.  It may come in one of many intermediate means, but it comes ultimately from God.

God can heal.  The historical record is clear.  God does heal directly, through miraculous means.  We may not believe it today in the west, but it is unavoidable in the record that healings happened.  And not only among Christians, but in those pagan temples.  More is out there than we imagine.

The Church has a two-fold role today in relation to illness and healing. Continue reading

The Big Idea

So what’s the big idea behind this blog?  It’s this: history guides ministry.

Who to turn to?

Today is a tough time for the Christian Church, and for those who would do ministry in today’s church.  This won’t be a place where the reasons for the difficulty will be explored.  That is being done in many other places.  And while I have my ideas, I am not qualified to examine beyond my own situation.

I have always found it hard to really turn to anyone for help and guidance in doing ministry in my particular context.  I am the pastor of a small to mid-size church in an urban area on the East Coast.  There are lots of such churches.  But, every ministry context is unique, and no one really can tell you what will work in your exact and unique church.  So what do you do?

The Great Cloud of Witnesses

I have found a rich source of help in the history of the church.  Everything we face today Christians faced in the past.  Yes we have a lot they didn’t have, especially in terms of technology and scientific knowledge.  But there is little difference between our wrestling with understanding the impact of social media today than Christians of yesteryear trying to adapt to the life-changing invention of the printing press.  We can learn much about the issues we face by delving into how that “great cloud of witnesses” responded to the challenges of their own day.

Over the years I have dug deeper into studying the history of the church as I have wrestled with what to do in ministry. I have taught classes to a Sunday School along the way because teaching something is a great way to learn something.  We have made decisions about how we do church in a variety of ways in light of what we have learned.  A knowledge of history has become an indispensable part of my own work in ministry.

Through the Lens of History

Source: "Life Through the Lens", Jay Harrison, fineartamerica.com

Source: “Life Through the Lens”, Jay Harrison, fineartamerica.com

I have named this blog “Ministry Through the Lens of History”, drawing on the idea that learning what Christians have done in the past is like putting on a pair of glasses which help you see everything before you more clearly.  Knowing something of how ministry has been done in the past sharpens the challenges and questions before us, and removes some of the fuzziness of the daily work of being the church.

This is the place to look through that lens and reflect on what I can learn.  And you are welcome to come along.