Men’s ministry expert Dan Schaeffer says, “Women equate closeness with safety. Men equate personal space with safety.”You see this whenever men gather in an auditorium. They spread out like marbles dropped on a kitchen floor. But women sit in tight little knots, with hardly an open seat between them.
In the church, we often force men to become physically close and touch each other. Many of these rituals are uncomfortable, unbiblical and frankly, unnecessary. But we do them anyway, because that’s what Christians are used to.
Here are four areas where we could give men more space:
Handholding. Years ago, I attended a church where everyone held hands across the aisles while singing a unity hymn. This earnest attempt to model Christian oneness can be uncomfortable for men—especially when they have to hold hands with other guys. It’s a serious manhood violation.
Hugging. One man wrote columnist Judith Martin (Miss Manners) to say he’d stopped attending a church “where everybody seems to have developed a hugging addiction. Before the greeting period, the minister or lay leader stands on the platform and virtually orders everybody to get some hugs. People I hardly know run up to me and say ‘How about a hug?’” He goes on to ask, “Since when isn’t it possible to be friendly without getting so personal?”
I’m not saying churches should outlaw hugging. If two Christians want to enfold, that’s their business. Hugs are absolutely appropriate among close friends or in counseling situations. But it’s tough on men when they’re expected to hug other fellows they do not know. Where else in our society do male strangers lock up in an embrace?
Put yourself in the shoes of a male visitor who finally works up enough courage to come to church. He’s already nervous. Then the pastor orders everyone to hug. Instantly some big, sweaty guy starts hugging on him. The visitor knows little about the church except what he’s read in the media – and much of that involves gay sex scandals. Now he’s cornered by a pack of men who want to wrap their arms around him. What is he supposed to think?
Prayer mushrooms. When we gather around a man and lay hands on him for prayer, we may unknowingly violate his need for space. I call these impromptu gatherings prayer mushrooms. You know what I’m talking about: Brother Vince happens to mention that his back is sore, and before he knows what hit him, a crowd has sprouted around him, heads bowed, eyes closed. Not only has Vince got relative strangers inches from his nose and unfamiliar hands all over his body, but he must remain frozen for ten minutes or more while everyone has a say.
Other men see what happened to Brother Vince, so they keep their prayer needs to themselves, scared to death they might end up underneath a prayer mushroom. But most women love prayer mushrooms because closeness is comforting.
Some men’s groups have created a brilliant alternative to the prayer mushroom. I call it the prayer force. Brother Vince sits or stands while the others stand in front of him in a loose semicircle. As the Spirit prompts, people step forward to lay their hands on Brother Vince one at a time. Others who want to lift up brief prayers simply pray from where they stand.
Men’s meetings. Incredibly, men’s ministry meetings are often the worst offenders. We hug men when they arrive. Then we place them in tight circles, asking them to read aloud, share, and then top it off by holding hands and praying for 10 minutes. Finally everybody gets a hug, and it’s time for cookies. No wonder fewer than 10% of US churches can maintain a men’s ministry – it’s actually women’s ministry for men.
At this point you may be thinking, “Guys just need to get over their personal space issues. They need to break down those walls and trust the other men.” I agree, this would be preferable. But unfortunately we must minister to men as they are, not as we want them to be. If we want to see more men in church we must heed the words of the Psalmist, and “bring men into a spacious place.”