Tuesday, September 3, 2019

GOD’S MERCY TO A KLANSMAN - "I deserved to die for my racist deeds. Why was my life spared?" by Thomas Tarrants

(from the September 2019 issue of Christianity Today)

I came of age in the early 1960s, when America was entering a period of political, social, and cultural upheaval. Mobile, Alabama, where I was
raised, had been segregated since its founding in 1702. In 1963, reacting to the federally mandated desegregation of Alabama’s public schools, Gov. George Wallace uttered his infamous pledge of “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” Many white Alabamians, including me, were fearful and angry. White society was in turmoil from top to bottom, and the sense of grievance was strong, adding fuel to a racist, populist wave across the South.

My high school was among the first to be desegregated. Like most people around me, I identified with Gov. Wallace’s courage in standing up to those
who were threatening our way of life. On a more personal level, I was angry with my father, alienated from him, and somewhat emotionally troubled. All these factors made me a good candidate for radicalization.

I read some white supremacist, anti-Semitic, anti-Communist literature that was circulating within my high school. Then I met the people who were advocating these ideas. They contended that black people were inferior to whites and that desegregation, by enabling intermarriage, would weaken the white race. The civil rights movement, they said, was part of a Communist plot, and the US government had been infiltrated by Communist agents. Christianity and the Constitution were being undermined, and a secret Jewish conspiracy was behind it all.

All these warnings made me anxious about America’s survival, and my fears soon turned into anger—and eventually hatred—toward those I perceived as America’s enemies. Their successes made me want to stand up and fight for “God and country,” as those around me were urging. The more I immersed myself in this thinking, the more it felt like a holy cause—something that offered a sense of purpose and belonging. I grew increasingly distant from my family and others who might have pulled me back from the brink.
In my view, preserving America justified using any means necessary. So it was only a short step to getting involved with Mississippi’s dreaded White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, the most violent right-wing terrorist organization in the United States at the time. Although various prosecutions had greatly weakened the Mississippi organization, it still had enough strength to attract me.

Little did I know that my downward spiral into extremist ideology, conspiracy theories, and racial and ethnic hatred would culminate in violence
and death. But it did. Late one sweltering summer night, as my accomplice and I attempted to plant a bomb at the home of a Jewish businessman in Meridian, Mississippi, we were ambushed in a police stakeout. My partner, a young female school teacher, was killed at the scene. Four blasts of shotgun fire at close range left me critically wounded. Doctors told me it would be a miracle if I lived another 45 minutes.

Yet God spared my life—to the astonishment of the doctors and the
dismay of the police. If anyone deserved to die, it was certainly me.

I wish I could say I repented of my sins and came to a genuine faith in Jesus after God showed me mercy, but I didn’t. In fact, I remained firmly committed to the ideology and conspiracy thinking that gripped my mind. At the end of a two-day trial, I was convicted of attempted bombing and sentenced to 30 years in the Mississippi State Penitentiary, one of the worst prisons in America at the time.

About six months after arriving in prison, I escaped with two other
inmates, intending to return to my terrorist activities. But a couple of days later, we were apprehended after a blazing gun-battle with the authorities, during which one of the other inmates was killed. Had this man not relieved me from standing watch about half an hour early that day, I would have been the one killed. God had shown me mercy once more.

Back in prison, I was confined to a six-by-nine-foot cell in the maximum
security unit. Five more years were slapped onto my sentence. Apart from twice-weekly showers, I was utterly alone in that cell. To keep from going crazy, I read continuously. Initially, I read more racist and anti-Semitic material that reinforced my beliefs, but eventually I felt drawn to a disinterested pursuit of truth, wherever that might lead.

This began with classical philosophy and eventually led to the New Testament, specifically the Gospels. I didn’t turn to the Bible because I wanted a better relationship with God. I had attended church and Sunday school more or less regularly until my early teens, at which time I made a profession of faith and was baptized. I believed I was saved and would go to heaven when I died. Of course, the truth was just the opposite. I had only given intellectual assent to the gospel and lacked true repentance.

But as I read the Gospels in my prison cell, my eyes were opened in a
way that went beyond simply understanding the words on the page. As the true meaning of God’s Word became clearer, so did its relevance to my life. I had been blind to spiritual reality all my life and was now beginning to see.

As this process unfolded, my sins came to mind, one after another. Conviction grew, and with it tears of repentance. I needed God’s forgiveness. And I knew it came only through trusting Jesus, who had given his life to pay for my sins. One night I knelt on the concrete floor of my cell and prayed a simple prayer, confessing my sins and asking Jesus to forgive me, take over my life, and do whatever he wanted to with it.

The next morning, I awoke with a deep hunger for Scripture and a
desire to pray and to live for God. As I read the Bible daily, a whole new world opened up to me, and I couldn’t get enough! Early on, God delivered me from hate, and I began to grow in love for others. Friendships developed with black inmates and others who were very different from me, including the FBI agent who had orchestrated my initial capture as well as the Jewish lawyer who helped him.

But part of this awakening was not such welcome news. Morally, my
life was a mess—and the more I read the Bible, the more I saw it. Some of those changes happened quickly and without too much difficulty; others took more time and struggle. Like all believers, I remain a work in progress, as God continues to work on my sins, flaws, and follies.

After serving eight years in prison, an extraordinary—some would say miraculous—turn of events resulted in a parole grant to attend university. That set in motion a series of developments which, over the next 40 years, led me first into campus ministry, then pastoral ministry in a racially mixed church (including speaking and writing on racial reconciliation), and finally to a long ministry of teaching, discipling, spiritual mentoring, and writing at the C. S. Lewis Institute.

As I look back over the nearly 50 years since God saved me, I can only
thank and praise him that he didn’t give me what I deserved. But because he is full of grace and mercy, he gave me exactly what I needed. He “is patient with [us], not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9).

I marvel at his continuing patience in my life. Truly, with God there is
no sin too great to forgive, no bondage too hard to break, and no pit so deep that his love isn’t deeper still.

THOMAS TARRANTS is president emeritus of the C. S. Lewis Institute. He is the author of

Friday, August 30, 2019

Does the Existence of Evil Argue Against the Existence of God?

A few years ago world renowned Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias was asked that very question by a student at the University of Nottingham.  Zacharias responded that the idea of evil implies the idea of good.  The idea of good implies a moral law to differentiate good from evil.  A moral law implies the existence of a lawgiver.  Ravi further explained, “So, if there is no moral lawgiver, there is no moral law; if there is no moral law, there is no absolute good; if there is no good, there is no evil.  You see in using the idea of evil to argue against the existence of God, you are actually assuming that God exists.”
Ravi pressed in, ‘So how do you distinguish good and bad, by what faculty?’  The student replied, ‘By my feelings.’  Ravi responded, ‘In some cultures, people love their neighbor, and in others, they eat them, both based on feelings.  Do you have any personal preferences on the matter?’ The stunned, perplexed student could only respond by asking, ‘What then am I asking you?’

Sunday, June 30, 2019

What Every Man Should Know: God is the Gospel

Brothers, receive Christ as your Lord and your Savior and your Treasure, for this is what it means to believe the gospel. Below is an awesome description of what "God is the gospel" means as well as the meaning of "The love of God is the gift of himself." It comes from America's greatest theologian Jonathan Edwards in 1731, when he was 28.

"The redeemed have all their objective good in God. God himself is the great good which they are brought to the possession and enjoyment of by redemption. He is the highest good, and the sum of all that good which Christ purchased.
God is the inheritance of the saints; he is the portion of their souls. God is their wealth and treasure, their food, their life, their dwelling place, their ornament and diadem, and their everlasting honor and glory. They have none in heaven but God; he is the great good which the redeemed are received to at death, and which they are to rise to at the end of the world. The Lord God, he is the light of the heavenly Jerusalem; and is the "river of the water of life" that runs, and the tree of life that grows, "in the midst of the paradise of God."

The glorious excellencies and beauty of God will be what will forever entertain the minds of the saints, and the love of God will be their everlasting feast. The redeemed will indeed enjoy other things; they will enjoy the angels, and will enjoy one another: but that which they shall enjoy in the angels, or each other, or in anything else whatsoever, that will yield them delight and happiness, will be what will be seen of God in them.
(by Jonathan Edwards, "God Glorified in the Work of Redemption, by the Greatness of Man's Dependence upon Him, in the Whole of It [1731]"

Monday, May 27, 2019

D-Day and VE-Day

Students of World War 2 have often remarked that although VE-Day was not until May 8, 1945, in a very real sense the war in Europe was over on June 6, 1944 — D-Day. In “Operation Overlord” some 1,000 ships — the largest armada ever to set sail — carried some 200,000 soldiers across the English Chanel to France where they stormed the coasts of Normandy. It was only the beginning of a military buildup that Germany could never have stopped. Anyone watching objectively knew that it was not only a matter of time — not if, but when. The amassing of such military personnel and materiel, the relentless crushing of German factories from American aircraft, the ever narrowing of Germany’s supply lines — all this declared that the difference between D-Day and VE-Day was just a matter of time. And for this reason many have said that it was on June 6, 1944, that the war was over.

I suspect, however, that this rather academic assessment of things differed greatly from the perspective of the soldiers on the ground. They were still dodging bullets and all manner of military force. They were bleeding and wounded, many were still dying, and there were still many harrowing days of the war yet to be endured, even some setbacks. It’s not that our soldiers in France were unaware of the significance of Normady. I’m very sure they understood it well, and this understanding doubtless gave them great encouragement. But from the day-to-day experience of things, this war was still very much in full swing. The dangers were many — and they were everywhere.

I can’t recall where I first heard this analogy and its various forms, but in the circles of Christian scholarship the basic observation is traced back to Oscar Cullmann: There is something about all this that has close resemblance to Christian experience. God himself has invaded history. He came as one of us to our rescue and has fought the decisive battle of the war. In his death and resurrection Christ has “obtained eternal redemption for us” (Heb. 9:12). Final victory has been secured. He has made full and final satisfaction for our sins, and having successfully completed the work that saves he has triumphed over Satan. “Now is the ruler of this world cast out” (John 12:31), the works of the devil are destroyed (1John 3:8; cf. Heb. 2:14), and Christ has forever secured his elect people for eternal life (John 6:38-39).

But then again it does not always seem that way. We are caught up in a real battle. Our adversary walks about like a hungry lion trying to eat us (1Pet. 5:8), and our constant struggles are struggles against him (Eph. 6:12). He takes people captive, and he is powerfully deceptive, masquerading even as an angel of light. Satan is alive and well. Like Hitler, knowing his time was all but up yet launching his last great hurrah at the cost of so many of his soldiers, Satan, knowing his time is short, is on a furious rampage against the people of Christ (Rev. 12) seeking to do what damage he can. And we, the people of Christ, safe though we are in Christ, feel it. And there are casualties. From the perspective of the trenches, the war is still on. Sin, temptation, suffering, injustice, sickness, death, loneliness, disappointment, failure. There are injuries and casualties of all kinds. “Satan hinders us,” and so does the world. And so does our own flesh.

And in the trenches, if we are not careful, we can lose perspective. We must never lose sight of the fact that we struggle in hope and in certainty of final victory. Redemption has been accomplished. It may not yet have been fully applied. There may be many skirmishes still. But it is heartening indeed as we recall that D-Day is behind us. And we are assured by it that VE-Day is ahead. The redemption that Christ accomplished for us will yet be ours in full experience, with him.

Each time we gather to observe the Lord’s Supper we “proclaim Christ death — until he comes.” These are the two reference points of the Christian life, and this ordinance is given us to keep perspective — Christ has come, and he is coming again. Redemption has been secured, and it will be fully enjoyed. And in the meantime we are encouraged, as we gather, to “remember” him as we wait eagerly for him.

It is this gospel-informed confidence that shores us up throughout the conflict. Our Redeemer has come, and he has won. And one day he will come again, and the redemption he accomplished for us all will then be brought to full realization. No more Satan. No more sin. No more suffering. No more curse. The church militant becomes the church triumphant.

“He who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely, I am coming soon!’” And until he does the impassioned heart-throb of the church remains: “Even so! Come, Lord Jesus!”

by Fred Zaspel - (PhD, Free University of Amsterdam) serves as a pastor at Reformed Baptist Church in Franconia, Pennsylvania, an adjunct professor of systematic theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and the executive editor of Books At a Glance. He is the author of The Theology of B. B. Warfield (2010) and Warfield on the Christian Life (Crossway, 2014) and has published numerous booklets, articles, and book reviews.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Mending Men’s Ministry

How to disciple in an era of male floundering.
Bob Smietana| Christianity Today May 18, 2018

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.

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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.