Note: this article has been excerpted from the SmallGroups.com training resource titled Effective Small Groups for Men.
It's no secret that men do not normally line up to join small groups. Their reasons for resisting are usually complex, often practical, and sometimes a little paranoid. It's not that they don't want to be in a group. All men want to be in a small group—until they find out they have to go to one.
Ask any guy if he wants to be in a "band of brothers." The answer is almost always yes. He wants to be accepted, admired, and protected by men he accepts, admires, and protects. Acceptance: in spite of his shortcomings. Admiration: of each other's complementary strengths. Protection: as we look out for each other and watch each other's backs.
Team sports are a good example. Guys who have played, won, and lost together often find that the common challenges and celebrations have given them a bond in community that they long for later in life. There is something both touching and sad, however, about a man describing his experience in a tight-knit community starting with "I remember back in High School …."
The idea of community is appealing. It's fear that prevents guys from jumping in, and men have very different fears. Some fear possible exposure of something they want to hide. Some fear that the cost of community (time, competing interests) outweighs the benefits. For some men the ultimate fear is: It might not be worth it. I might be wasting my time.
Two Kinds of Men
When I joined the Men's Ministry staff at Willow Creek Community Church, Tim VanDenBos made an observation that turned out to be one of the best lessons I've ever learned: "Men's ministry is an interesting thing" he said. "You've got to know which guys to hug and which guys to kick in the butt. And you can't afford to make a mistake."
Some men are in desperate need of acceptance. Their view of God has been skewed by rejection and failure, and they need to be around godly men who can provide emotional and spiritual support (a hug, in other words). Other men need an "in your face" challenge to step up and accept responsibility for their own spiritual growth—a kick in the butt.
I needed a good butt-kicking. I was being discipled by a retired missionary who had hand-selected a few guys in which to invest. He gave me some assignments, which I failed to complete. When I told him, he closed the book we were studying, shut his Bible, and put away his pen. He lowered his voice and said: "You are wasting my time. If you don't want to do this, there are other guys waiting to take your place." A gentle word was all I needed to hear, but he had to use a 2 x 4 to get my attention first.
Another way of classifying these two kinds of men is by what they are likely to raise as objections to an invitation to community. You might think of these as fear of exposure and fear of waste.
Fear of Exposure
When I first accepted an invitation to join a men's group, I couldn't imagine what it would be like. Guys sitting around and talking about personal stuff? Not for me! I think most guys would rather be nibbled to death by minnows than find themselves in a circle "sharing their feelings." What sold me on giving the group a try was the attitude of the men involved. Male friends (whom I admired) confessed that "we are in this together" and that by talking about our mutual challenges, spiritual wins and losses, we would be able to help each other become Godly men.
Most men want to know: "What will you ask me to do? Will I be shamed for my behavior? Will I be embarrassed by my lack of Bible knowledge? Will I be asked to pray out loud? What will I be asked to reveal? What's the worst case scenario?" (Incidentally, the worst case scenario is this: on the first night of group, the leader asks: "What's the worst sin you've ever committed? Give details, assuming the Statute of Limitations has run out.")
The best approach to overcoming these fears is the personal testimony of a godly man. I have seen both video and live testimonies of men who are respected and well-known in the local church who were willing to share their fears (prior to joining a group) and then admit the reality: they wouldn't give up their group for anything. The response is usually very pragmatic: "He looks like a regular guy. If it worked for him, maybe it would work for me."
A few years ago, I was leading a training event for small-group leaders in Seattle. The event planners had interspersed some testimonies throughout the day. One businessman stood with his wife to talk about the terminal illness of their teenage son. Although he had resisted and finally relented, his involvement in a men's small group became more and more crucial as his son became more and more ill. He began spending nights, and then days at the hospital, at his son's bedside. His business responsibilities could wait. All other commitments were secondary. He only left his son's side to be with his small group, who walked through the valley of the shadow with him. Nothing I taught that day compared to this man's testimony of what his small group meant to him. He was accepted and supported by men he respected.
Tell the stories. They will make a difference.
Fear of Waste
There is another fear prevalent among certain men: that you are going to waste their time with trivial pursuits. Many men are already busy (even with "good" things) and don't want to commit to something only to find out it wasn't worth it. You've got to convince them that their investment in community will be worth it, and you may need a 2 x 4 or steel-toed boots to make your point.
It's counter-intuitive to think that making it harder to get in a group and stay in a group will actually appeal to some. Not everybody survives SEAL training, graduates from Harvard, or plays in the NFL—but those who do are rewarded with a sense of community that only comes to those who sacrificed for the reward. These men require that you raise the bar, not lower it.
Convenience and comfort are not high values for these guys. In the early days of Granger Community Church, founding pastor Mark Beeson invited guys to join "Joshua's Men," a group committed to leadership development and discipleship. They met for two hours each week, from 11 PM Sunday night to 1AM. Monday morning. You either wanted in or you didn't, and there was nothing else you could possibly have scheduled that would conflict with the time. It was an honor to be invited, and guys rose to the challenge.
One of my men's groups actually wrote "No homework" into their small-group covenant. Those are not the guys I am talking about here. Chapters of reading, verses for memorization, and hours of serving requirements convince some guys that being in a small group is "worth it." These are the guys who respond to "the big ask"; to something worth living for.
Bonding "Shoulder to Shoulder"
I once heard that "women bond face to face; men bond shoulder to shoulder." It's true. One of the best ways to overcome men's resistance to groups is to provide something to do with other men. Men learn they can trust other men when they serve together. Whether building a Habitat house, feeding the homeless, or erecting a church in Haiti, swinging hammers and slinging sweat are entrees into community.
During the recent devastating tornados here in Alabama, many churches organized teams to pick up debris, attack downed trees with chain saws, haul supplies, load wood, and cook. One man who had resisted invitations to a small group for years decided to go along and help, and he had a surprisingly good time "bonding" with the other men, especially his pastor. He has now decided that a small group might be a good idea!
—Dave Treat is the Discipleship Pastor at Friendship Church in Athens, AL. You can read more from Dave at his blog, www.ThinkingSmall.net.