NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The strobe lights pulse and the air vibrates to a killer rock beat. Giant screens show mayhem and gross-out pranks: a car wreck, a sucker punch, a flabby (and naked) rear end, sealed with duct tape.
Brad Stine runs onstage in ripped blue jeans, his shirt untucked, his long hair shaggy. He’s a stand-up comic by trade, but he’s here today as an evangelist, on a mission to build up a new Christian man – one profanity at a time. “It’s the wuss-ification of America that’s getting us!” screeches Stine, 46.
A moment later he adds a fervent: “Thank you, Lord, for our testosterone!”
It’s an apt anthem for a contrarian movement gaining momentum on the fringes of Christianity. In daybreak fraternity meetings and weekend paintball wars, in wilderness retreats and X-rated chats about lust, thousands of Christian men are reaching for more forceful, more rugged expressions of their faith.
Stine’s daylong revival meeting, which he calls “GodMen,” is cruder than most. But it’s built around the same theory as the other experimental forums: Traditional church worship is emasculating.
Hold hands with strangers? Sing love songs to Jesus? No wonder pews across America hold far more women than men, Stine says. Factor in the pressure to be a “Christian nice guy” – no cussing, no confrontation, in tune with the wife’s emotions – and it’s amazing men keep the faith at all.
“We know men are uncomfortable in church,” says the Rev. Kraig Wall, 52, who pastors a small church in Franklin, Tenn. – and is at GodMen to research ways to reach the husbands of his congregation. His conclusion: “The syrup and the sticky stuff is holding us down.”
John Eldredge, a seminal writer for the movement, goes further in “Wild At Heart,” his bestselling book. “Christianity, as it currently exists, has done some terrible things to men,” he writes. Men “believe that God put them on earth to be a good boy.”
Says Christian radio host Paul Coughlin, author of “No More Christian Nice Guy”: “The idea of Jesus as meek and mild is as fictitious as anything in Dan Brown’s `Da Vinci Code.’ “
So what’s with the standard portraits of Jesus: pale face, beatific smile, lapful of lambs?
“He’s been domesticated,” says Roland Martinson, a professor of ministry at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn. “He’s portrayed now as gentle, loving, kind, rather than as a full-bodied person who kicked over tables in the temple, spent 40 days in the wilderness wrestling with his identity and with God, hung out with the guys in the street. The rough-hewn edges and courage … got lopped off.”
Stine’s wife, Desiree, says she supports manly leadership; it seems to her the natural and God-ordained order of things. As she puts it: “When the rubber hits the bat, I want to know my husband will protect me.”
But some men at the conference run into trouble when they debut their new attitudes at home. Eric Miller, a construction worker, admits his wife is none too pleased when he takes off, alone, on a weekend camping trip a few weeks after the GodMen conference this fall.
“She was a little bit leery of it, as we have an infant,” he reports. “She said, ‘I need your help around here.’ “
Miller, 26, refuses to yield: “I am supposed to be the leader of the family.”
In-your-face aggression at first troubles Howard Stephenson, who paid $68 for a day at GodMen in hopes of forging friendships with other Christian men. When Stine, a born-again Christian, shouts that it’s OK to cuss – and then demonstrates – Stephenson shifts uneasily.
“This is so extreme for me,” he says.
A few weeks later, Stephenson, 43, is still not sold on profanity. But he has ditched the nice-guy reflex of always turning the other cheek. When he spots a Wal-Mart clerk writing “Happy Holidays” on a window, he boldly complains: It should say “Merry Christmas.”
The clerk erases the offending greeting. Chalk one up for Christian testosterone.
“I wouldn’t have done that before,” Stephenson says proudly. “I am no longer a doormat.”
The virility crusade is, in part, a response to a stark gender gap. More than 60 percent of the adults at a typical worship service are women. That translates into 13 million more women than men in the pews on any given Sunday, according to David Murrow, author of “Why Men Hate Going to Church.”
Women are also significantly more likely than men to attend Sunday school, read the Bible and pray regularly, according to the Barna Group, a Christian polling firm.
Murrow blames men’s lackluster attitude on the feminization of mainline churches: “Lace curtains. Quilted banners on the wall. Pink carpet. Fresh flowers at the podium.”
Even in evangelical mega-churches, which tend to use more neutral decor, the mood is hardly alpha male. Dancers wave flowing banners as the choir sings. TV screens glow with images of flowers and sunsets.
Millions of men, of course, find such worship peaceful or inspirational, not stifling. And there remain some staunch defenders of the Christian nice guy. “It’s a wonderful thing to see a man welling up in tears,” says Greg Vaughn, who teaches men nationwide how to write love letters to their wives. “It takes a lot more courage to do that than to talk about football.”
Stine argues that the genteel facade of a Christian nice guy inhibits introspection and substitutes cliches for spiritual growth. GodMen is his attempt to encourage men to get real. His speakers admit to masturbation and adultery. Such honesty, Stine contends, molds better, more godly men than a typical Sunday service.
“We want to force you out of the safe places that have passed for spirituality,” Stine says. “Maybe worship could be hanging out with a bunch of guys, admitting we like blowing crap up.”
A similar – though less ribald – approach is taken by Men’s Fraternity, which was founded in Little Rock, Ark., in 1990 and has expanded around the world, with hundreds of chapters meeting weekly at 6 a.m. in churches, office buildings, even car dealerships.
“It’s testosterone-friendly,” says Rick Caldwell, global director of the program. He urges chapter leaders to have NFL bloopers on the big screen when the men come in, and oldies or country-western on the radio. “No opening prayer. And for heaven’s sakes, don’t ask the guys to take the hand of the guys next to them. That scares them to death.”