The mid-1990s were a pretty great time to be a Christian man. The televangelist scandals of the ’80s were in the past. Today’s megachurch scandals and #MeToo hashtags were far in the future. Instead, Christian men were making headlines for getting together en masse to pursue “spiritual, moral, ethical, and sexual purity.”

Gary Kramer was there. Twice. In 1995 he joined more than 60,000 other men at Mile High Stadium in Denver in one of Promise Keepers’ signature moments. Two years later he traveled to Washington, DC, for the movement’s Stand in the Gap event, which drew hundreds of thousands of men from around the country to the National Mall for prayer and worship.

For decades, churches’ men’s ministries had been mostly small and informal: maybe a weekly Bible study for the highly committed. A monthly chatty breakfast that attracted a slightly larger (but still small) group of attendees. Maybe an annual overnight retreat. But with the Promise Keepers rallies and an explosion of similar church- and parachurch-driven ministries, men’s ministry seemed poised to step out of the shadow of much larger women’s ministries.

The Promise Keepers events were great, says Kramer, now 60. Full of energy and excitement. But nowadays, his weekly Tuesday morning Bible study and a bimonthly breakfast in Franklin, Tennessee, are more sustainable. They’re also what sustains his friendships and discipleship.

“It’s great to be in on something like [Promise Keepers],” he says. “But to live it out, you need the smaller group to be connected with and have life together with on a more intimate basis.”

They’re small and intimate—and common. In 2012, 58 percent of US churches had ministry groups targeting men, according to the National Congregations Study. The survey did not ask how many men participate, but anecdotal evidence suggests that they remain less popular among male church attendees than women’s groups tend to be among female church attendees.

Meanwhile, women still outnumber men in evangelical churches—55 percent to 45 percent, according to Pew Research. Overall in America, nearly 3 in 10 women (28 percent) report attending religious services at least once a week, compared to just 22 percent of men.

As large-scale men’s ministries have disappeared, those targeting women have grown into a national network of tightly connected events, books, and celebrity blogger-speakers who don’t explicitly exclude men but who nonetheless pack out arenas full of women. And these events seem not to have taken the place of the local Bible studies, prayer meetings, and meal gatherings—if anything, the big women’s events have only augmented the smaller ones.

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It’s not that men have found other ways to connect outside their churches. Social isolation is rampant in America and in other wealthy nations, fueling a loneliness epidemic that is hitting middle-aged men especially hard.

Many men are floundering, both inside and outside the church. Which poses a pressing challenge for today’s men’s ministries: Can they help men find a way forward? Can they spark more male friendships with an eye to discipleship? And to do so, how much do groups for men have to focus on “manliness” in an age when the term seems to harder to define?

On a cold Saturday morning in late October, just after 7, a dozen guys from the Franklin, Tennessee, chapter of F3—short for Fitness, Fellowship, and Faith—are having the time of their lives. And wanting to vomit.

Eleven of them gather in a circle on a morning where the temperature is just above freezing and ground is muddy from the overnight rain.

In the middle, their volunteer leader, nicknamed “Torch,” calls out instructions.

Jumping jacks, pushups, and about a dozen burpees—a combination squat thrush and pushup, with half of a jumping jack at the end. Then it’s time to mosey. A short, fast-paced run, followed by more burpees and some other exercises named after animals.

In between exercises, there is “mumble chatter”—friendly banter, a little bit of political debate, and some catching up.

Such groups are one vision of the future of men’s ministry.

Much has been made of the allure of emerging small, intentional communities centered on activity and a common purpose. Fitness programs like CrossFit are becoming especially known for creating religious-like fervor, complete with jokes about the excesses of their evangelistic zeal. F3 has that emphasis on “fit” but adds much more on “Cross.”

Social isolation is rampant in America and in other wealthy nations, fueling a loneliness epidemic that is hitting middle-aged men especially hard.

Today, there are about 1,300 F3 workouts in 25 states, with about 15,000 regular participants. All are free and led by volunteers. Multiple men interviewed said the groups make it easy to make new friends and just as easy to develop deeper relationships.

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The format is simple. A group of guys—sometimes a handful, sometimes a few dozen—get up early and meet outside for intense group workouts, rain or shine. There are nicknames, banter, and puking. Every gathering ends with a “circle of trust” (something like a huddle) and a prayer.

Though F3 is non-denominational—and at least a few groups are fairly secular—most participants are Christian men. Many in the Franklin group say their common faith bond is crucial to the group’s success.

That’s the case for Dave Redding and Tim Whitmire, who founded F3 seven years ago on a cold January morning in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Redding, a former Green Beret turned lawyer, and Whitmire, a former journalist turned leadership trainer, attended the same church in Charlotte for years. But they never met before they both joined a community workout group at a local park.

Both were married and doing well in their careers, but something was missing. Both had few friends they could confide in. Most of their time was tied up with work and family, and they rarely connected with folks at church.

“You would go to church,” Whitmire says. “You’d put on your suit, you would slap guys on the back, you would sit in the pew—but you didn’t really have any close male friends.”

Both also had gotten out of shape and wanted to make a change. So they joined a Saturday morning boot camp–style workout in Charlotte.

Before long, they grew close with a number of guys in the group. The combination of sweat and camaraderie made it easy to start new friendships, and it brought a sense of purpose.

“The workout had solved a problem for us—in that we were both lonely—even though we hadn’t particularly realized it,” Redding says.

When the workout became too popular, Redding and Whitmire started a new workout of their own on New Year’s Day of 2011 at a local middle school field. They hoped a handful guys would join them. Instead, that first workout drew 34 guys. So from the beginning, they had to think about expanding.

F3—like other small-scale men’s ministries—addresses loneliness by drawing on two key components of building strong friendships. They meet a regular basis and they focus on what they call “shoulder-to-shoulder” activities rather than “face-to-face” ones.

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That kind of sideways approach works better than “man dates”—like meeting up for coffee or beer—says Boston Globe reporter Billy Baker.

“If you say, ‘Will you come on over and help me fix my boat, I’d probably show up—even if I didn’t know anything about boat engines,’” Baker says. “We’d get dirty and the next thing you know we would have had a male-bonding experience.”

Baker jokes that he became “America’s No. 1 middle-aged loser” in the spring of 2017, after a Boston Globe Magazine piece he wrote on the loneliness epidemic went viral. “I’m hesitant to say I’m lonely, though I’m clearly a textbook case of the silent majority of middle-aged men who won’t admit they’re starved for friendship, even if all signs point to the contrary,” he wrote. “Now that I’ve been forced to recognize it, the question is what to do about it.”

For one thing, Baker noticed that he and many other men had settled for shallow relationships based in social media. He decided that being intentional about doing things in real life is key, especially as men age and making friends becomes more difficult. So is gathering regularly with friends.

After his story forced some self-reflection among Baker and his old friends, they started meeting up on Wednesday nights after work. Sometimes they go out for dinner and a movie at the mall. Other times they watch a ball game or talk.

“This isn’t eating your vegetables or exercising. This is just hanging out with your best friends,” says Baker, who is writing a book on friendship. “And the health benefits are incredible and immediate.”

But can simple friendship and weekly informal gatherings do more than address loneliness and isolation? Can they disciple?

Wes Yoder thinks so. The author and president of Ambassador Agency Inc. hosts a bimonthly dinner gathering of friends outside of Nashville. Over steaks and wine, Yoder asks questions like: What’s the greatest sorrow of your life? What’s your greatest fear right now?

For Yoder, such direct questions about “things that matter” have deepened relationships even with Christian brothers he’s walked with for decades. “How could we have known each other 20 years and not know this about each other?” says Yoder, who calls the kitchen table “the least used asset in the kingdom of God.”

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Author Stephen Mansfield thinks the spiritual benefits of simple friendship are at least as strong as the health benefits Baker points to. Discipling men can’t happen, he says, if they don’t have “a band of brothers.”

Mansfield built his own band in midlife—after a stepping down as pastor of Nashville’s Belmont Church in 2002 following a divorce. Mansfield realized that he had many acquaintances and a broad social network but few close adult male friends.

Many other men, he realized, were in the same boat. They had no one who knew their secrets, no one they could call in the middle of the night if their family faced a crisis. And no one who would hold them accountable if their life went off the rails.

“Most men are awash in a sea of casual relationships,” Mansfield says.

While intense, activity-driven groups like F3 have established their place in the world of men’s ministry, they leave a lot of men out. Many men would rather take that weekly coffee or beer appointment over fixing a friend’s boat.

As the Promise Keepers movement waned, the so-called masculinity movement took its place in many churches in the early 2000s on the wings of writers like John Eldredge and David Murrow. They preached that men were being left behind by “feminized” churches that no longer appealed to them.

But critics say the movement offered more caricature than model of biblical manhood. It may sound odd that the guy who wrote Mansfield’s Book of Manly Men is among those critics. But he is quick to argue that men’s ministry should not focus on manliness. Relying solely on cultural stereotypes to attract men is at cross-purposes from the core goal of making disciples, Mansfield says.

“It became all about tattoos and motorcycles and cigars,” he says. Being a real man—and a follower of Jesus—goes much deeper. Meanwhile, he says, “The cultural climate has changed.”

Stereotypes about “that’s just how men are” have turned much darker in the last few years. Articles in 2018 tend to be less about how lonely men are than about how they’ve abused power for sexual favors. A year or two ago, there was a lot of focus on how increasingly hard it is to be a man in America (women are by far outpacing men in college completion, women in their 20s are increasingly out-earning their male peers, the labor market is shifting quickly away from male-dominated industries like manufacturing . . . ). Now, in many ways, that has been replaced by a sort of male self-consciousness amid constant #MeToo revelations.

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Nate Pyle, the author of Man Enough: How Jesus Redefines Manhood, worries that some men’s ministries—especially those in local churches—are still built on what he sees as unhealthy models of manhood.

Pyle, who pastors a church near Indianapolis, says he and some members of his congregation recently attended a men’s retreat where the focus was on being tough and manly, rather than being a servant. The message, he says, was, “We’re going to go out and grill steaks, do CrossFit, and get fired up for Jesus.”

To be clear: Pyle isn’t against steaks and CrossFit. He just thinks discipleship rarely happens at motivational pep rallies and that ministry is too easily shaped by American culture rather than the Bible.

“In America, men are taught to climb the corporate ladder, conquer foes, and then celebrate their victories,” he says. “But Jesus descended, denied himself, and died for others.”

Pyle worries that the ideal Christian man described by many contemporary men’s ministries is always in control.

“Fear or loneliness or failure become places of shame,” he says. “Because you have to be the rock that everybody needs.”

That same focus on control shapes the approach to sexuality that’s often a key theme in men’s groups, Pyle says. “Sex becomes this place where there’s guilt and shame and insecurity,” he says.

Pyle doesn’t want to give the wrong impression. He thinks that Christian men are, in fact, concerned about sexual misconduct and harassment. They rightly recognize the dangers of pornography and sexual sin. And they do think sexual abuse is wrong and want to protect women.

“In America, men are taught to climb the corporate ladder, conquer foes, and then celebrate their victories. But Jesus descended, denied himself, and died for others.” ~Nate Pyle

But emphasizing self-control alone ignores the other fruits of the Spirit. Men are not only called to exhibit self-control, but also love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and other virtues. The emphasis on self-control has sometimes sent the message that women exist mostly as temptations to be avoided rather than family members to be loved.

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Other men’s ministry leaders say that an overemphasis on self-control can backfire.

“Often, attempts to do motivational ministry for men—becoming a more godly father or leader—only serve to promote moralism and perfectionism, which further perpetuates a cycle of shame,” says Chuck DeGroat, a professor of pastoral care and counseling at Western Theological Seminary. “The sense of not being enough fuels workaholism, perfectionism, moralism, and more.” As a result, he says, many men “resort to adolescent coping mechanisms which prevent them from loving those around them well.”

DeGroat and others point to research that suggests strong connections between loneliness, feelings of failure, and bad male behavior. New York University psychiatrist James Gilligan and Stony Brook sociologist Michael Kimmel, for example, found that shame and isolation are the primary drivers of male aggression.

In fact, it may be that the best kind of ministry for men is one that focuses least on what it means to be a man, according to Adele Calhoun, co-pastor of spiritual formation at Highrock Church in Arlington, Massachusetts.

“The goal of Christian formation is no different for men than for women—to be conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of others,” she says. Single-sex events can still afford helpful conversations, she says. But gender-roles discussions can direct the focus inward and truncate the biblical model of holiness.

“If I step back and say I will be pure, I won’t abuse or harass women, but I never stand on the side of marginalized—that’s not following Jesus,” she says. Men’s ministry conversations are rarely structured to discuss how to advocate for women or talk about what it means to share power with them, she says.

Whether the focus should skew toward male betterment or, conversely, toward descent and relinquishing power, one thing seems clear: The future of men’s ministry will remain small for a long time. In fact, it may still be a weekly gathering for the committed, a monthly chatty breakfast, and an annual overnight retreat.

But men’s ministries are fine with that. Some of the larger ministries are even encouraging it. Brett Clemmer, president of Man in the Mirror, a national men’s ministry, says the best way to combat so-called toxic masculinity and help men rediscover their place in families and communities is, in fact, very old-fashioned: create disciples, men who follow Jesus and who want to lay down their lives for others.

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He thinks a small-scale approach, focused on building friendships, is an effective way to do that.

His group had been primarily focused on producing curriculum for churches and large-scale events until about six years ago when it switched gears to work directly with congregations. It has 76 staffers in the field serving as men’s discipleship consultants.

The keys to success have been helping churches create spaces for men to become friends, then getting those men to study the Bible and serve together. For the most part, the ministry emphasizes the “shoulder-to-shoulder” shared experiences like F3. But the focus is more community building than bodybuilding. “The best groups for men are when they have a chance to serve together,” Clemmer says.

A recent survey of about 1,400 churches it had worked with found modest progress: The average church had more than 300 men in the congregation and added about 15 men to its discipleship ministries through its various efforts.

Clemmer wasn’t surprised. Building relationships takes time, he says.

“We have to give guys a place to belong,” he says. “Once they belong, and they know that we love them—then we can speak into their lives.”

Bob Smietana is senior writer for Facts & Trends and a frequent contributor to Christianity Today.

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