I want you to imagine something with me. Pretend that I have a son and a daughter. They’re very different people, but they’re both amazing. And they both need to hear something important.
So every year I sit down with them for a family chat. I know they’ve heard this before, but it’s a big deal. So I emphasize the need to listen, and then I plow right in.
Son, men are important. They matter. They have an important role to play in church, family, and society because God has called them to be godly leaders in the world. So you need to find men who will encourage you toward greater godliness. You have a tremendous responsibility.
And honey, you need to pray for your brother because of the challenges he faces.
I’m sure you see the contrast. You may agree with everything that I said, but you’re still wondering: Why would I take time out to emphasize that my son is important and that God has called him to godliness without saying anything similar to my daughter? What kind of father would do something like that year after year?
I don’t know. But I see it in churches all the time. And it needs to stop.
Theory vs. Practice
I heard basically this same message last Sunday when the pastor preached a sermon that was “for the guys.” For some reason, the pastor felt it was important to spend an entire sermon exhorting the guys, and just the guys, to greater faithfulness.
And, to be honest, I can sympathize. I do think that guys are dropping the ball and we do need to be challenged to greater faithfulness. So there may well have been good reasons for this particular sermon.
For example, it’s entirely possible that the church I attended last Sunday had good reasons for its men’s-only sermon. The sermon coincided with the kickoff of its new men’s ministry, and it’s possible that this important ministry had languished in recent years. So the sermon served to remind everyone of the challenges men face, how the church had failed recently to respond to those challenges, and what it would do differently in the future.
If that’s what was truly happening, I wish it had been made more clear. But that would be a fine reason for a challenging sermon to the men. Done well, I have no problem with sermons “to the men.” My frustration isn’t with the theory, but the practice.
Mind the Balance
At the beginning of the sermon, the pastor raised a question that resonated with me: Why do people get uptight when a sermon is directed toward men like this? After all, he pointed out, men and women are both important. Trying to decide which matters more is like trying to decide which of your legs is more important. Silly, right?
So, he argued, you shouldn’t get upset that I’m “speaking to the guys” this morning, because I’m not saying that they’re more important. Am I?
That depends. When was the last you spent an entire sermon speaking to the women?
To be honest, I have never heard an entire sermon specifically addressed to the women in the church. I’ve heard many sermons that directed specific applications and analogies to women. But an entire sermon? No.
I was going to qualify this to say that I only heard sermons like this on Mother’s Day. And then I realized that every Mother’s Day sermon I’ve ever heard was actually addressed to the men as well:
- Men, appreciate what your mothers have done for you.
- Men, honor your wives.
- Men, man up and own your responsibilities so that the women in your life don’t have it so hard.
In these sermons, only the men or exhorted to do anything. The women are just something to be cherished. Once you get past the fluff, even Mother’s Day sermons focus on the men.
The Pulpit Matters
If you regularly address the importance of men from the pulpit and never women, or even if you address both but in a highly unbalanced fashion, how are you any different from my imaginary father at the beginning of the post? What are the women in your church supposed to think? How could they not walk away wondering if you think they are as important as you claim they are.
The pulpit matters, and the math is simple. If you’re willing to devote a Sunday sermon to something, it must be important. If it never gets pulpit time, it must not be that important. Done.
Godliness Isn’t Just for Men
One of my biggest frustrations with the classic men’s-only sermon is the tendency to take biblical statements intended to apply to all Christians, and address those specifically to the men. I’m sure the pastor doesn’t mean to suggest that these don’t apply to women as well, but if you do this often enough, it’s hard to avoid the implication that they apply more to men than to women.
Last Sunday was a great example. Drawing on 1 Corinthians 16:13-14, the pastor emphasized that Christian men need to do the following:
- Be on guard.
- Stand firm in the faith.
- Be courageous.
- Be strong.
- Do everything in love.
I may have missed something, but why exactly are we addressing these specifically to the men in the congregation? As far as I can tell, these are expectations for all Christians. (Yes, women are supposed to courageous and strong too.)
My favorite example was the time I heard a sermon emphasizing that men need to be godly, but making no effort to connect this to women as well. If there’s any characteristic that should apply to every Christian regardless of gender, godliness would seem to be a good candidate. But this sermon repeatedly called on men only to be godly.
After more than a decade in that church, I never heard women receive a similar exhortation.
Remember that Silence Is Louder Than Words
I’ve raised this concern to pastors before, and the response I usually receive is that they were just exhorting the men. They never said that women shouldn’t be strong, courageous, or godly.
That’s right, they didn’t say that, because they didn’t say anything to the women. They never do. And their silence screams far more loudly than their words ever could.
Explain the Need for Your Focus
I alluded to this earlier, but let me make it clear. If you’re going to focus on either men or women during a particular sermon, make it very clear why you are doing so. What is it about the men/women in your context that requires this exhortation? If you’re going to take characteristics that apply to all Christians and focus them on one specific group, why are you doing so? Do you think that the men or women in your church uniquely neglect those characteristics? If so, explain (and defend) your reasoning. Do you think this group will be uniquely motivated by this exhortation? Great, explain that too.
If you don’t explain, we will connect the dots, but probably not the way you intended. So we may end up with a picture that you never imagined, even though it’s one you helped us draw.
A Tale of Two Jewels
Suppose that I have two jewels, and I tell you that both of them are valuable, but I only ever hold one of them up to the light, relishing the way the sunshine gleams off its many facets, proclaiming to everyone who passes how marvelous it is, displaying it whenever I get the chance. How could you not draw the conclusion that this jewel is the one I value most?
Done poorly, speaking “to the men” tells people what you truly value. Even worse, it tells people what God truly values.
What kind of father would do that? I don’t know. But I hear it in churches all the time, and we need to stop.