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 crash, 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 “God-Men,” is cruder than most. But it’s built around the same theory as the other experimental forums: Traditional church worship is emasculating.
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.
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 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. Pink carpet. Fresh flowers at the podium.”
Even in evangelical megachurches, which tend to use more neutral decor, the mood is hardly alpha male. Dancers wave flowing banners as the choir sings. TV screens show 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 how to write love letters to their wives. “It takes a lot more courage to do that than to talk about football.”
“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.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.
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. The rough-hewn edges and courage ... got lopped off.”