“Menergy”: Men’s Ministries and the New Masculinity

At Dolce & Gabbana’s fall collection at Milan Fashion Week, the New York Times’ Horacio Silva, noting a distinct resurgence of masculine energy, promptly coined the term “menergy.” Certainly manliness does seem to be having a renaissance in popular culture, (think of Josh Brolin smoking, in every way, on a recent cover of GQ magazine with the headline, “Return of the Tough Guy”). But it’s not just popular culture using testosterone to sell its products and services: so is Christianity.

It is widely known among Christian leaders that men are generally missing from the pews; women attend church in far greater numbers. One response to this perplexing state of affairs is the proliferation of men’s ministries, attempts to bring men back into the church by creating a more manly space for worship.

The best-known of these ministries is Promise Keepers, founded back in 1991. When it first emerged, critics were quick to label Promise Keepers as the reassertion of patriarchy and to condemn it for its retrograde ethos. This is, of course, perfectly understandable given its emphasis on the role of servant leadership, of a man leading his family (Promise Keeper leader Tony Evans once appealed to men to reclaim their God-given position with the words, “I’m not suggesting that you ask for your role back, I’m urging you to take it back.”)

But public attitude toward Promise Keepers softened with time, as other aspects of its agenda came into play. Feminist critic Judith Lowder Newton even wrote of experiencing “feminist hallucinations” at a Promise Keepers event in her 2005 book From Panthers to Promise Keepers: Rethinking the Men’s Movement:

[F]ifty thousand men in a sports arena wearing jeans, shorts, and baseball caps, hugging, holding hands, talking intimately in small consciousness-raising-like groups, men audibly urging each other to “serve” their wives, men ritually repeating the words “I was wrong,” “I am sorry,” “Can you forgive me?” Sights and sounds like these evoked memories of the personal transformations that feminists had once dared to hope for from men.

Promise Keepers, it seemed, was maturing. But, more interestingly, its numbers were dwindling; the early concern that patriarchy was gaining fresh momentum was, it seemed, unfounded.

Promise Keepers never really went away, it simply became less visible. In the past few years they, along with a large number of similar men’s ministries, are operating with a newly styled menergy, and there appears to be a sizable appetite for it. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to bring men back into the church; the issue is how men’s ministries go about it. How is Promise Keepers appealing to men in 2008? What kinds of masculinity does it promote?

On Saturday morning, April 12, in fourteen cities across the nation, Promise Keepers will be holding its second “cinema and community service event” PKAdventure. This event will include the showing of a 90-minute film produced for Promise Keepers, followed by attendees dispersing into the community: “Projects include food drives, blood drives, a cookout for homeless men, and light construction.” On the surface, it sounds like a good thing; but what message will attendees be getting from the film?

As it turns out, the PKAdventure presentation is largely focused on the message of Del Tackett and his DVD-based The Truth Project. Tackett is the president of Focus on the Family Institute, an ostensibly educational organization created by its right-wing parent Focus on the Family. The Truth Project is a $2 million “small group curriculum” designed to promote the Truth (with a capital T) of the biblical worldview. The production and marketing of The Truth Project resembles an evangelical version of the “law of attraction” phenomenon, The Secret. It reiterates many of the themes Focus on the Family is so fond of communicating: that a breakdown in a biblical understanding of the family (or, more specifically, Man) results in divorce, abortion, homosexuality, abuse, addiction, and so on. This is what Tackett has to say to attendees of PKAdventure, and this is the worldview shaping the Promise Keepers model of masculinity in 2008. The blood drives and cookouts for homeless men sound great, but at what price?

PKAdventure sets the scene for the annual Promise Keepers conference event which is scheduled for an eight-city tour between July and November. This year’s theme: “Manhood ’08: Let the Truth Be Told.” No doubt that truth will include more of Tackett’s manly advice.

Equally disturbing is how this conference is built around the language and themes of warfare, a rhetoric employed liberally in men’s ministries. The conference this year, for instance, is focused on six “battles”: for Eternity, for Truth, for Godliness, for Freedom, for Priorities, for Influence. This in response to the assertion that “the identity of men and the concept of manhood itself are under assault.” The conference material includes the questions, “Who and what defines a man? What gives him purpose and meaning?” It appears that for Promise Keepers, at least, a right-wing biblical worldview defines a man, and battles give him purpose and meaning.

On one hand, the recent rush of menergy is a good thing: it has people talking about men and masculinity, a crucial step in addressing some of the most fundamental problems the world faces today. On the other hand, however, there is a danger that menergy is simply accepted uncritically as a resurgence of some “authentic” or, as Tackett would have “truthful” way of being a man.

If churches want to attract more men back into the pews, they need to think very carefully before harnessing Christian menergy, which appears to lend itself to a rather violent biblical worldview. This type of masculinity may lead us into some troubling territory which, borrowing from Tertullian, sees the blood of the men as the seed of the Church.