Men, Whiskey, Cigars, Books, and Minstry

Now that I have had a score of years experience in hospitality and teaching men I should like to make a few observations and suggestions oh how Christians should approach men and ministry among them. 

Never Underestimate Laziness

I’ll be the first to admit that giving a lecture or a sermon is where I live. To pull either off successfully though, preparation (prayer, study, mastery of the subject, openness to the working of the spirit, rhetorical skill) is necessary and it is a lot of hard work. This is why the apostles appointed deacons to care for the widows and orphans so that they could devote themselves to prayer and the study of the word. And all of this work can become a ball and chain when the students aren’t engaged or physically present. This is one of the very real struggles of ministry with men and why Bible studies, book groups, accountability groups all end up dying a slow death. A great teacher will, over time not be as interesting as… other things. And he gets burnt out due to the dwindling numbers but the consistent amount of work. 

At the same time there is a lot to the idea of a class. It can be informative, it can give immediate practical application, it needs very little in the way of set up, some chairs, a lectern, a teacher, just enough light to see by. And the cost is low because only one guy eventually gets burnt out, the teacher, and he is replaceable. Also Scripture says that a qualification for deacons and elders is the ability to teach. There is structure which is pleasing to see it gives a sense of accomplishment. You also can report direct results by counting bums in seats. And it works for a while because it requires very little for those attending, show up, maybe listen. 

The problem is that it sets a low bar for the men attending by catering to their laziness, and eventually they will cave to the laziness of staying home. There is a time and a place for a class. But class’ and Bible Studies are not the all encompassing silver bullet we have been treating them as. Men despite their appearances to the contrary, are more complex. 

Qualified to Teach

Teaching can and often does happen in a classroom, lecture hall, or sanctuary. It can happen in a small group setting, or in a formal one. There is a time and a place for that kind of teaching but it is not the end all be all of teaching. We all intrinsically know this, but for some reason when we walk through the doors of the church we kind of forget it.* But going back to Deuteronomy we see teaching was a constant, throughout the day kind of thing

“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. 6And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” Deuteronomy 6:4-9 (Emphasis Added)

One of the ways we should consider a teacher is his capability to teach as he goes. Is he able to informally handle a group and instruct them in ways that might not even register for them until much later.

One of my great teachers instructed me both in the class, and by being my friend who knew when to poke, or prod me in directions, he asked questions, dropped nuggets of knowledge or truth, would confide in me about things he was experiencing and how he was navigating them. He taught me as he went. It is teaching, but I suspect it is not as in vogue because you can’t easily report back those numbers supporters and budget committees like to hear.

Formal Study

One of the ways of effectively teaching men theology is to make them study. For years I hosted a Bible Study in my home. It was the standard set up, people came, we prayed, I exposited a text, we prayed, and all round it turned into a lovely women’s Bible Study. Seriously for most of its existence the attendees were largely women. Men would come when they learned there were women present, but after they struck out enough or were met with success, they would disappear again. Men started coming back regularly when we accidentally made a change. A local Irish pub stayed open late, had good food and reasonably priced beer. And since we were all always hungry after we started going each week. And outside of wives who could not escape, the group became men. We even stole a name from a Mitchell and Webb sketch and called it A Prayer and a Pint. Finally the wives bailed entirely and it was just us. So we decided to make another change. Rather than have me study and lecture while everyone else dreamed of potatoes, corned beef, and Smithwicks Ale why not make them think by teaching them to teach. Every week then we would cram into my library three to six of us, read the text of Scripture, begin an outline, hit the commentaries, reading aloud what might be useful, marking it, swapping books with one another, debating the application, creating illustrations, and by the end of the evening we would have a rough draft that I had guided them in creating. 

COVID killed that group but lead to something else. But first some thoughts on this format.

When I was a child and an even worse speller than I am now;** I would ask my mother how to spell words. Depending on her time she would either stand there and make me attempt to spell it until I got it right and then she would confirm the correct spelling, or she would hand me a dictionary and make me look it up. Part of learning is doing. As well men tend to gather to achieve an objective. They tend to operate side by side not face to face. The format of guided study appeals to a smaller group than perhaps as many as you may be able to convince to attend a lecture series, but you grow future teachers. They learn how to handle Scripture, how to interpret it, apply it – to themselves and to others, and how to teach it. The only two caveats are 1. It requires physical books, they are being shared and passed around, they are the teachers books, he knows them and can guide in their effective usage. 2. It requires physical books, Logos, while a great software is just not practical for this kind of instruction. Perhaps pastors are the ones most equipped to do this kind of thing the average layman does not necessarily have a wall of commentaries. But this could be the excuse to start building it…

Informal Teaching

Part of the problem with a lot of approaches to men’s ministry is the subtext that if left to their own devices men will waste time, or fail to be productive, they require some kind of supervision. Therefore there is either a covert point to be made hidden behind all of the talk of fellowship and grilling cheap meats from Costco with a sermonette wedged in somewhere, or it is overt, “we are men, we will wake up early and study manhood!” And while neither of those are bad things it is pretty obvious that there is diminishing returns on it. I have said it before men are not institutional friendly. In order to get to the deep part of a mans soul requires time and fraternity, which can’t be done once a week for a rushed breakfast and man up talk or the occasional get together in the church parking lot over styrofoam plates. It isn’t ginned up over appointed dates, times, and church sanctioned activities. It happens in the context of friendship. Which incidentally why geographically assigned mens groups struggle, the only thing in common is, proximity. It requires the “you too, I thought I was the only one.” that Lewis speaks of. There has to be something beyond the vague feeling of, “I’ll go because this is what is expected of me as a Christian.” 

A good teacher knows when to guide, overtly or subtly and when to simply back off and encourage friendships to simply grow and deepen. The problem for many people is that from the outside it looks like nothing good is happening, at best time is being wasted, at worst those men are drinking and smoking, and saying uncouth things. God forbid they look like Christ who was accused of being a glutton and a drunkard… 

I have been fascinated for some time now how in the structured group of men assigned to me by my church how stilted things feel, theological conversation is slow and like pulling teeth, prayer requests are guarded and general. But with the men that I have chosen, conversation flows and overlaps, laughter is uproarious, and prayer occurs naturally as lives are shared and the question gets asked, “What keeps us from prayer?” So we pray. The difference between the group is that we gather as friends not as dutiful churchmen. I long to attend one group I force myself to attend the other.

Men need more than just information. Churches are very good at transferring information. Men need edification. They need to be built up and that is mostly done in a fraternal setting with respected peers, with friends. Bearing in mind, respect is earned, it is given to those we know and have come to respect. Friends do the work that structures want to do, and they frequently do it more successfully, it is simply difficult to chart, it happens organically. It is no secret that the friendless American male is a thing. Churches need to encourage friendships not easily visible and reportable groups. Encourage christian men gather over things such as model railroading, hunting, cigars, whiskey, books, science fiction. Some friendships will need to be guided, that is where elders need to know their people and the body needs to be aware of one another.

“And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.” – 1 Thess 5:14

The key may well be patience. Don’t expect these groups to report in with successes and great strides in sanctification. Sanctification is by it’s nature progressive and slow, and elders are not and should not want to be Charles Finney with his spiritual bean counting.

My own experience has of course been in the area of a weekly whisky tasting.*** That grew from one friend, to the point that I have no more room and a waiting list every week of men hoping someone drops out so they and join in. It all came down to the, “You too?” and though our base began with Ardbeg it has grown to a wide range of ages, personalities, even denominations who exhort, encourage, rebuke, and train in righteousness one another. There was no plan other than to gather, and yet last night, we had the testimony of one who was an atheist, a discussion on the foreknowledge of God, and some things that have shown up in this article. All of it happening on its own with no direction. There is something about christian men gathering around a fire, with drinks and cigars that is undeniably holy.

“In a perfect Friendship this Appreciative love is, I think, often so great and so firmly based that each member of the circle feels, in his secret heart, humbled before the rest. Sometimes he wonders what he is doing there among his betters. He is lucky beyond desert to be in such company. Especially when the whole group is together; each bringing out all that is best, wisest, or funniest in all the others. Those are the golden sessions; when four or five of us after a hard day’s walk have come to our inn; when our slippers are on, our feet spread out toward the blaze and our drinks are at our elbows; when the whole world, and something beyond the world, opens itself to our minds as we talk; and no one has any claim on or any responsibility for another, but all are freemen and equals as if we had first met an hour ago, while at the same time an Affection mellowed by the years enfolds us. Life — natural life — has no better gift to give. Who could have deserved it?” – C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves


It would not be a bad idea to apply semper reformanda to how the western church approaches ministry among men. Not everything we have been doing is wrong or even ineffective. I for one think that Sunday Schools and old school Men’s Prayer Breakfasts should make a roaring comeback. But it is time to shed a few of our feminized and victorian approaches to men and ministry among them.

*Yes there was that big rise of enthusiasm for one on one discipleship a few years back. And in that there was a lot of Rabbi style teaching that was the guy just hanging around to learn by experience (usually after he had proved his faithfulness by showing up at 5 am to mow the disciplers lawn a few times). But as far as groups are concerned it typically devolves into a classroom style setting with some Q&A at the end.

**Can you imagine how bad that was?

*** While I know some may blanch, swoon, and wail for their fainting sofa and smelling salts over such a thing. I would point out with all humility that The best summary against alcohol I have ever heard was from John MacArthur and all he does is reveal his complete and total ignorance of how alcohol works. And that this kind of thinking is very new and that prohibition was an early feminist gambit to destroy the fraternity of men. And now we bemoan the friendless American male…

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