Over the next few weeks we will take a look on both sides of the blog at how we — as both youth ministers and parents — might love and disciple our boys and girls well and with prayerful, thoughtful intention, within their God-given genders. This week, we will begin with a look at boys.
If you’re male and have been around youth groups long enough, you’ve been to a “guys night.” The theme is normally some tongue-in-cheek play on hyper-masculine culture and it ends with an all-meat barbeque. (And I mean “all meat” literally. I went to one with no buns, no vegetables and someone forgot the plates.)
But between the more-dangerous-than-they-should-be games and the meat sweats, there are usually some genuinely good talks about “how to be a man.” A decent version of this talk goes through the lives of Biblical characters like David or Daniel. It explains how these men’s bravery, strength, leadership, and godliness in the face of adversity are the essence of true manhood, and that we should aspire to be like them. And then the even better talk will point to Jesus as the perfect example of a man (even while he fit neither Jerusalem nor America’s cultural expectations for masculinity); Jesus was both gentle and strong, tender to children and yet flipped over tables, willing to die for his enemies but will one day return with a sword and a blood-soaked robe. The best talks about masculinity allow room for both sensitive-souled artists and future marines. They call aggressive men to gentleness and passive men to action.
For all the nuance and even Christ-centeredness this talk might offer, it’s still a deficient way to call our teenaged boys to manhood.
Four Reasons Why the Best “Man Talks” are Deficient
- They focus on externals.
Our culture is obsessed with the “externalities” of gender. The culture thinks it’s breaking down gender barriers, but what it’s actually doing is giving even more weight to long-held stereotypes about masculinity and femininity. If you like action movies, have broad shoulders, tend to be assertive, know sports, and generally “act like a man,” then you are a man – even if you’re biologically female. If gender is primarily a matter of cultural externalities, that line of reasoning makes sense.
This makes youth group “man talks” that focus on the external actions of men, and even the internal character qualities of great men, insensitive and confusing for students living in this cultural moment. The question our male teenagers are asking is not “How does a real man look and act?” it’s “How do I know I’m a man, at all?” We can no longer assume boys know that they’re boys.
If our Man Talks only sketch out what male actions look like – if we only say, “Act like Daniel! Act like David!” – we are unintentionally re-enforcing our culture’s narrative that masculinity is what you do with the body you have. We need to understand that our teens are dying to know if they’re really men (or really women). And in order to prove it to themselves, they will “try on” what’s considered masculine or feminine in an attempt to save themselves from that profound disconnect from their biological sex. This is the logic of the transgender movement, but it’s also the logic of any 6thgrade boy who’s unsure of his masculinity because he is taught by both his culture and his church that masculinity is primarily defined by what he does, by the external.
- They don’t begin with the garden.
If we want to speak to this cultural moment and to our teens lost in it, our talks need to go back to the beginning, when Christ created us male and female in his image. Let’s look at each of those italicized words, one at a time.
- Created: Our gender was created. Masculinity is a gift. We were men before we ever tilled one field or took one bite of fruit. We are men, not because we have done but because “God said… and it was so.” Down to our chromosomes we are men. That means men knit scarves and fight wars, compose poetry and shoot bears, change diapers and kill spiders. Masculinity is inherent to us. Our teens need to be assured that they are not less a man or more a man simply because of how they behave. They are men, just because God said it was so.
- And: Men and women were created in God’s image. Man is not the sum total of the image of God. If we try to define masculinity apart from our relationship with women, we will neither help our students image God fully, nor will they understand themselves deeply. They were made to co-create, co-reign, and glorify God side-by-side with women. Our talks need to begin training young men to see the women in their church as sisters and co-laborers well before they are temptations and potential spouses. It is men’s purpose and design to image God in relationship with women.
- His image: God cannot be divided into parts, but he has given his image two genders. None of God’s attributes overrule or over power another, but instead are co-extensive. He is not simply loving, but omnipotently loving; not just omnipotent, but wisely omnipotent; not just wise, but wisely Holy. If you isolate one of God’s attributes you lose the full image, and his full glory. Since God has given his image to men and women, what is true of God in his wholeness, is true of us only when we come together. Together, not in isolation, is when we most fully put God’s image on display, and when we function most like men. This is why marriage is so sacred, but it’s also why “Guys’ Nights” – without great intentionality – can be ineffective tools in calling men to be men.
- They offer Jesus as an example instead of a savior.
Our Man Talks can’t be about masculinizing an effete generation – that will compound the problem. We need to offer salvation to boys who think “acting like a man” will save them from their identity crisis. If we only offer Jesus as an example, our boys will just see another man they don’t look like, or another avenue by which they might justify themselves. And instead of proclaiming good news, we unintentionally take on the voice of the enemy, acting as accusers of our younger brothers’ fragile identity.
On this side of the fall men are always asking, “Am I really man enough?” Jesus’ death and resurrection must be preached as good news to men who feel their gender is on trial. The gospel comes in the man Christ Jesus. He dies under the curse of all mankind so that all men might be saved. At the cross, our manhood is no longer on trial. Jesus said, “It is finished.” If you trust that Jesus’ trial was your trial too, the verdict is already in. You are a son of God.
- They’re not the only tool.
I’m not saying there isn’t a place for guys’ nights. We are embodied souls. Our biological gender has a cascading effect on our attitudes and temptations. The fall hits men differently than it does women. Men are more prone to be pugilistic porn-watchers who put their identity in their careers (although that can be true for women as well). Divide and conquer is an important strategy, but it’s not the only one.
Neither our male nor female teens will become the the image bearers they were designed to be, or the men and women they want to be by attending a couple Guys/Girls nights. We should expect that our boys will learn most about their manhood once they learn to engage in vibrant, servant-hearted, non-romantic relationships with their sisters in Christ.
Let’s begin rethinking the Man Talk. Let’s start taking an eternal view of our students’ masculinity. Let’s give them the toolkit to build a masculinity that lasts forever and will pass through the fire. Let’s go back to both creation and new creation. Let’s be counter-cultural and free our men from the courtroom, and free them to serve their sisters forever.
And give our podcast a listen: How Do We Love and Disciple Boys Well?