Tag Archives: Muscular Christianity

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. 

Earl, Teddy, and Billy: Manly Men for Jesus

A while ago, I asked how the church can get men more involved. This is not the first generation in the church to find that women are more likely to be involved in the church than men. In fact, the dilemma is as old as the Church itself. To gain some insight into how to address this challenge, I find the Muscular Christianity movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries very helpful. In this post I will try to summarize what the movement was about, why it became a big thing, and what happened to it. Then, in a future post, what do we learn from it about getting men involved.


He came to be known as “Earl”. That was the name the students of Princeton University gave him in the 1920’s. His real name was “The Christian Student”. He was a statue erected in 1913, “a bronze embodiment of manly character, athletic prowess, intellectual force and fine spiritual fellowship.”(Putney, 195)  Earl, or The Christian Student, commemorated Princeton’s involvement with the Student Volunteer Movement, the YMCA movement, and the World Student Christian Federation. He was a tribute to the “Muscular Christianity”, promulgated widely through those organizations and others, that became prominent among White Anglo-Saxon Protestants in England and America in the previous 4-5 decades.

“Muscular Christianity” was the term by which a reviewer of the 1857 novel of British author Charles Kingsley described this new Christianity. It taught thought the Christian Church had become too feminine, and men too soft. It was opposed to asceticism and to a “Manichaeism” that exalted the spirit of a man over the body. It used sports, exercise, and outdoor activities to “primitavize” men and boys.

Victorian England was at that time obsessed with health. Coupled with this new view of Christianity, this led to an incredible growth of sports, invented, imported, and practiced with great gusto.

But it was “in America that muscular Christianity and its institutionalized cult of youth…found the widest acceptance.” (Putney, 19).


One great American model man and populizer of Muscular Christianity was Teddy Roosevelt. He told his own story of “redemption” in “The Strenuous Life” written in 1901. He was “an asthmatic, spectacled child descended from a patrician New York family” who, after “a searing adolescent experience during which he was beaten up by two boys” remade himself through gymnastics, boxing and shooting into a real man. (Putney, 33-34) And after his manly leadership on San Juan Hill, he became the great man who would become the youngest (and most macho?) President to ever lead the nation.

The growth and popularity of Muscular Christianity was a reaction to over-civilization in the Industrial Age, as men left farms and worked in factories, and as sedentary middle management and executive jobs became more prominent in the gilded age. Leading to a decline in men’s fitness and physique, this was seen as a big problem in light of the growth of immigrant populations who were more physically vigorous. To summarize the fear, in uncomfortable terms, white Anglo-Saxons were committing race suicide through their sissifying.

It was also a reaction to the perceived feminizing of the church as men left leadership in the church, opting for business in the mid 1800’s meaning women became more prominent in leadership and life in the church.


Another model man of Muscular Christianity, and one that has special interest for me as a Presbyterian, was Billy Sunday. The popular, yet largley forgotten, evangelist of the 1920’s was ordained by the Presbytery of Chicago despite having no ministerial education. He was a professional baseball player, though, and he was ordained on the basis of his “muscular physique” and effectiveness in evangelism. The Presbytery had drunk the Koolaid (not the first or the last time IMHO).

Muscular Christianity was quite prominent in mainline Protestantism for several decades, but largley disappeared after World War 1. It went the way of many other idealisms in the face of that terrible dream-dashing war. Grand plans and ideas rang hollow after such inhumanity, and Muscular Christianity was one of these. As the founders died and the mainline denominations began their decline, as hopes turned away from religion as a way to make a better world, and to psychology and therapeutic healing as ways to cope, Muscular Christianity seemed something from the old order that had failed.

It’s effects are still with us, though. Groups like the YMCA, although leaving their religious heritage behind, grew strong because of this movement. Professional sports as we know them today came into existence in connection with it. Christian organizations such as the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Youth for Christ, and Promisekeepers have carried the torch in some ways. The place of Christian Camps, physical education in schools, and even the sport of basketball all came into being through Muscular Christianity.

Earl, in Hiding

As the fortunes of Muscular Christianity went, so did Earl’s, the Christian Student. During the 1920’s the students began to repeatedly vandalize the statue and gave him his name in mockery of the ideals for which he stood. Finally, the school removed him in 1931 and put him in storage. There he sits, a forgotten relic of a forgotten age.



Putney, Clifford. Muscular Christianity: Manhood and Sports in Protestant America 1880-1920, Harvard, Cambridge, 2001.

Watson, Nick J., Stuart Weir, and Stephen Friend. “The development of muscular Christianity in Victorian Britain and beyond.” Journal of Religion and Society 7.1 (2005): 1-25.

A Faith for Manly Men?

There are far more women than men active in my church, and we’re pretty typical of other churches. I am a man. Aye, there’s the rub.

While God is the God of women and men, women are more likely to be involved in the Church. We are talking here about women in the pews, not necessarily in leadership, which varies according to tradition. And this is not a new situation; it has always been the case (as far as I am aware). In fact, as Rodney Stark contends in his The Rise of Christianity, its appeal to women was one significant factor in Christianity’s eventual domination of the Roman Empire in the 4th century.

One common portrayal of Jesus…

For male pastors the challenge has always been how to draw in men, who need the Gospel as much (I’m tempted to say more) than women. But men are not likely to feel at home in a congregation mostly female. And we male pastors, because we run an institution composed mainly of women, tend to do things in a way that appeals to that constituency. Thus, many men charge pastors with being too feminized. It doesn’t help that the qualities needed to be an effective pastor, which include a certain level of sensitivity, patience, and emotional know-how, plus a certain bookishness depending on the tradition, are not seen as very manly traits.

Like many male pastors, I am sometimes tempted to try to be more manly in order to connect with men in and out of the church. I am not one of those Harley-riding pastors, but I try to pepper my language with sports references occasionally, don’t advertise that I care not a bit for the NFL, and avoid cataloging the list of birds I saw last weekend, since birding is not so macho.

At the same time, I have appreciated the men-focused events and teachings I have encountered over the years. I went to a Promise Keepers event around the time my first daughter was born and I ate up the emphasis on being a good husband and father, using my strength as a man for the benefit of my wife and daughter. The reminder that the Gospel is an adventure and a quest, as John Eldredge, among others, has written, does resonate with me deeply. I have always come back energized from the men’s retreats our church has attended, appreciating the connection with other men and the teaching.

…and a different portrayal, still with great hair, though!

The question in my mind is what can we do in the church to better present the Good News of Jesus Christ to men, especially men who do not value the church, yet do need to know Jesus. 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?

To get at an answer to these questions, I turned to the men’s movement that spanned the turn of the 20th century, the Muscular Christianity movement. The men involved sought to save a “feminized” church and arouse the sleeping giant of men’s committment to the Church, by calling men to a vigorous Christianity so that the world might know. What I found was not what I expected…

Upcoming: The Muscular Christianity of Teddy Roosevelt and the Christian Student

So, what have you done or seen done in an attempt to involve men in the life and work of your church? Leave a comment below.