A few years ago, a church my husband and I attended announced their annual men’s retreat. And they announced it with camouflage and drill sergeants.
Please understand I mean that literally. Men wearing camo t-shirts and khaki pants marched down the aisles yelling out the retreat’s slogan while a promo for the retreat blasted on the screen: standard-issue bunk beds in a cabin in the middle of who-knows-where, men playing lots and lots and lots and lots of sports, men shouting out slogans during relays and races, and spiritual seminars on how to be…well, someone’s idea of a man. Strong. Capable. Dominant. Willing to lead. Authoritative.
At the end of the promo, as the lights lifted and the pastor started to enthusiastically give out more information on the camp, my husband leaned over and asked me with a wry grin, “They’re never going to have a retreat where they teach men how to tie bow ties, huh? Or where the bonding takes place over video games?”
I laughed. We could mark this down as yet another “men’s-focused” event he wouldn’t be attending.
I’ve experienced something similar to this myself. Women’s retreats are often marketed as spas or blissful “hideaways” with all the instructional materials marked in lavender or pink and supplemented with “you go, girl!” phrasing. Christian materials marketed at men, on the other hand, often come in steel silvers and grays and browns, emphasize strength, capability, and masculine virtues, and emphasize “guy” activities like…well, like sports. Mostly sports. (Though one event I saw offered opportunities for duck hunting and for golfing. Hopefully not at the same time.)
It’s not that this sort of marketing is inherently wrong. It does appeal to some men – but not all, because all men are different. My dad is a grizzly bear mountain ur-man: a hunter, a fisherman, a hobby farmer, a carpenter. He builds furniture with the same hands that drive a coal delivery truck that pull vegetables out of the ground that lifted me up to see birds’ nests when I was a toddler. He wears work uniforms and jeans and t-shirts and sometimes overalls and camo. He is a Christian man.
My husband is a Christian man, too. Doesn’t farm, or hunt, though he used to go fishing with his dad. He’d prefer to outsource the yard work to someone who can make sense of it. This is what he does instead: works grueling twelve-hour days, plays video games, reads for pleasure, goes hiking, seeks out really good food wherever it can be found, and loves cats. He wears suits and bow-ties and funky socks to work.
It’s too simplistic, too, to pretend that my husband and my dad represent “opposite” kinds of Christian manhood. There are lots of different ways to be a Christian man. My pastor is a swimmer, a lean man who cracks silly jokes and loves books. Another Christian man I know is a super-sensitive father of three who has no interest in sports but joyfully pours his life and all his spare energy into homesteading. One of the kindest Christian men I know is a thirty-three year old newlywed who spends every spare minute playing elaborate board games.
So it’s frustrating to me, sometimes, to see Christian materials that treat “the Christian man” as if he is one particular sort of being, and not a very enlightened one at that: someone to whom women are a cipher (what are they thinking?), to whom emotions are foreign, to whom sensitivity is not native, and to whom details and nuance are insignificant. To whom “being strong” (whatever that means) and “being in authority” (whatever that means) are paramount, and to whom athletics is always the highest form of leisure. I don’t know any Christian man like that.
In the end, the best Christian men I know – my husband, my father, my uncle, my friends – really only have one thing in common: they love God, they obey God, and they love their families. To be fair, that may come out in a million different ways or gestures. Some are fathers, some are not, and some never desire to be. They wear different types of clothes. They have different skills, abilities, and interests. They have different talents and personality types. They are complex, nuanced, and thoughtful people. Neglecting that does them a great disservice.
All the different types of Christian men represent the vibrancy of God’s imagination and the variety with which He endowed creation. Rather than assume all these men are the same or that their needs and wants are interchangeable, let’s honor them individually as people – the same way we should honor all God’s children.