Training men to be spiritually strong and passionate about their faith

(Photo: Unsplash/James Garcia)

If you buy into the Hollywood stereotype, men are not weak.  They're built like Jason Bourne and James Bond, ready to shoot and fight their way through any situation with barely a scratch. 

But open the Bible and you will see men who knew their limits and were often brought to their knees before God by their own failures. 

It was with this reality in mind that Joe Barnard founded CrossTraining, a ministry dedicated to supporting men in their walk with Jesus and helping them to be the best they can be. 

Joe talks to Christian Today about why many men struggle to reach their full potential and what it is that they really need to flourish.

CT: CrossTraining is all about training guys in spiritual fitness and get out of their spiritual ruts. What is it that tends to cause men to get stuck in their spiritual growth?

Joe: I think the myth is that there is a single stumbling block. For years when I was a pastor, I preached simplistic messages with the basic subtext of: 'Get after it!', 'Stop being lazy!', and 'Fix your priorities!'

What I have come to appreciate more and more is that there is a combination of factors causing men to hit a low ceiling of growth, and these are complicated problems that require careful diagnosis.

Why aren't men achieving their potential in Christ? Any truthful answer to this question must consider diverse factors such as exhaustion, confusion, distraction, isolation, ignorance, disordered love, and hidden sin.

A lot of men have many responsibilities, both inside the church and outside of it, and as a church we don't always do a good job of training men in the things that we are asking of them. And that affects their motivation.

There's also the fact that in our modern world, we're living in an attention economy and it's harder now than ever to focus the mind and that affects prayer, awareness of God's presence, and all kinds of aspects of our spiritual life.

CT: Is burnout a problem?

Joe: I think there is a lot of that, particularly among guys in their thirties or forties. When you're in your twenties, it's easier to live with this myth that life is full of freedom. Then you get married, you have kids, your work gets busy and church starts to call on you, so by the time you get to your mid to late thirties any surplus of energy is now exhausted and you're working with a deficit.

Churches don't always help because rather than trying to figure out where men are and what they're capable of, we're just thinking about roping them into all of our own initiatives.

Then it can end up being the case that the most important thing, their own soul, is not really being nourished. They're barely surviving in their own walk with God and at the same time, they're trying to do 500 tasks for the church.

CT: Do you think men find it hard to reach out for help?

Joe: They're not so good at coming forward for help and what can inhibit them is being isolated and unwilling to admit they're struggling.

Military historian S L Marshall interviewed men coming off the field of combat after WWII and what was interesting was the degree to which the expectation of these men going into battle was the complete opposite of what they actually experienced in warfare.

They expected that going into war, they would experience camaraderie and that the adrenaline would be enough to see them through. Marshall describes a moment where these inexperienced soldiers hear the first sound of fire. Everyone immediately dropped down to the ground and rather than a rush of adrenaline, they were terrified.

That's the perfect picture of men. They can march off into the world thinking that they have enough drive and close relationships to get them through, but then a temptation or sin comes and takes them by surprise and they realise that they don't have any of these things but are afraid to admit their need.

And, as I said earlier, one of the areas men struggle with is hidden sin. A lot of guys have a millstone strapped on their back and are afraid to raise their hand and share it with anybody.

CT: What are some of the spiritual needs that you feel are more specific to men as opposed to women?

Joe: Men need focused teaching on the importance of spiritual friendship. In every church I have been a part of there have been women who naturally gathered together for prayer, fellowship, and ministry planning. For whatever reason, women just seem to do a much better job at naturally forming networks and talking about the issues in their life.

Only on rare occasions have I seen men self-organized in this manner. The sad truth is that a lot of men – Christian men included – are alone. This is one of many reasons why depression, addiction, and even suicide are tragically common among men.

In addition, pornography and associated sexual sins are well-known struggles among men. Yet, while everyone 'knows' that these problems exist, most churches do very little to help their men avoid the dangers of them or find redemption after falling into the miry pit. Pornography is a spiritual epidemic in the church that is for the most part being ignored. A lof of pastors can be slow to acknowledge that the men in their own church or even on their staff struggle with this. And so, the result is that Christian men are suffering as a consequence.

Men need a 'band of brothers' who will walk together with them, says Joe(Photo: Unsplash/VictorFreitas)

Then there is the additional problem that men today don't know what being a man is. They have no Biblical definition. Pop culture continues to lampoon the idea of being a man and the script of secularism denies the category altogether. As a result, men vacillate between a Neanderthal caricature and Hollywood stereotypes on the one hand, and total uncertainty on the other. On one side, we can exaggerate the qualities of masculinity and on the other, we can minimise them so much that it seems as if there's no difference at all between men and women, or we can't even talk about masculinity!

Christian men desperately need help discovering what the Bible says about human sexuality. They need both a critique of cultural trends and a positive statement of the calling to serve God as men. What does it look like to be not only made in God's image but also made by God as a man? What does it look like to fulfil the special roles God does give men, like being a husband or being a father? These are the questions we need to help men answer.

CT: Your programme emphasises the need for a "band of brothers". Why is that so important?

Joe: We all need a sense of affirmation. A lot of guys walk into the workplace on Monday and they're the only Christian there. Every now and then, you need to look into the eyes of another person who gets what you are about in life and be able to share that sense of 'hey, we're in this together'.

And there is great inspiration that comes with that. As followers of Christ, we need a lot of motivation because the road is often very difficult and there are few things that energise us like being in fellowship with other people who are on the same road.

Then there's the accountability that comes from close spiritual friends. We can have moments of irrationality where we're going to make bad choices and in that moment you need someone who will say 'don't go there'. We need guys around us who will love us enough and be committed enough to the relationship to say that.

CT: One of your programme goals is to raise up men not only to reach their own spiritual goals, but to be leaders. What does excellence in godly male leadership look like to you?

Joe: I would use the following words to describe godly male leadership: service, submission, and pace-setting.

Thinking about service, Jesus makes clear that the road to leadership for all – male or female – begins with humility and self-giving love. Men need to remember this, especially as they are taught to recover the Biblical roles of being husbands and fathers.

And there is no word more glorious in the Christian life than submission. The entirety of Jesus' life was an act of submission to the Father; if a man is going to exert spiritual leadership, the whole of his life must be an act of submission to the Son.

Finally, pace-setting: this was a favourite word of Dawson Trotman, the founder of the Navigators. I like the concept because someone who sets the pace must have vision, earnestness, and self-discipline.

Men who want to lead need all three of these qualities. Spiritual leadership is less a matter of telling other people what to do than modelling a better life.

CT: A lot of the men who come to you for help will likely either be married or can see marriage in their future. What is it that wives can do to support their husbands' spiritual growth?

Joe: The first thing I would say is: develop a spiritual friendship with your husband. This means talking about Jesus together and sharing the road of discipleship. I would encourage women to ask good questions, to listen carefully to what their husbands are sharing, and to wait and pray before inserting too much spiritual advice. Often, for example, a wife may know more about the Bible than her husband. His 'new' insights might be well-known to her. Avoid throwing cold water on excitement.

(Photo: Unsplash)

Secondly, allow men time to share meaningful spiritual fellowship with other men. Men's ministry usually happens on Saturday mornings or weeknights. It is a sacrifice for wives to give up this time. Nonetheless, Christian men need close relationships with other men. Allow space and time for this to happen.

Thirdly, pray for your husbands. Only the grace of God can mature a Christian. Men need the Spirit of God to be active in their lives, assisting them to resist temptation, to practice spiritual disciplines, and to run hard after Jesus.

CT: Your own ministry experience is interesting because although you are American and now based in the US, you actually pastored a church in Scotland for many years. Did that give you any "life lessons" that have fed into what you are doing now with CrossTraining?

Joe: Three things stood out to me as a pastor in Scotland. Firstly, that there was a 'gap' of men's ministry in local churches. By gap I mean , on the one hand, that very few men attended church, and, on the other, that little effort was made to develop the men who did. And while many churches had a women's workers, there could be an assumption that because the pastor and the elders were all male, this provided enough of a male 'presence'.

But the weakest group in the church is often the men, not only in terms of numbers but because it's hard to find a church where the men are flourishing in terms of their own spiritual growth.

Secondly, nationally, the emphasis tended to be on training professional ministers rather than ordinary laymen, and the training that was supplied for men was largely ineffective.

Thirdly, most men's ministry can be reduced to book studies or breakfasts. Neither is sufficient for maturing the faith and character of men. My transition from being a full-time pastor to launching a men's ministry has largely been driven by a sense of urgency to fill this 'gap' and to help churches develop men into spiritual leaders.

CT: You've pastored men on both sides of the Atlantic. Do you see similar issues at play?

Joe: A lot of the issues are very similar: exhaustion, distraction, a lack of training, and so on. The difference is primarily that, whereas in parts of America it is still acceptable, even encouraged, to identify as a Christian, men in the UK feel a strong cultural pressure to reject Christianity.

This is why having a spiritual band of brothers is even more important in the UK than in the US. A man can go to work in Atlanta and bump into a variety of Christian men in the course of a day. A man in Edinburgh might feel totally isolated, as if he is the only star in a pitch black sky.

CT: What is it that the whole church needs to be praying for when it comes to the men in their midst?

Joe: Pray that their hearts would be captivated by a vision of the glory of Christ. Men pursue what they love. If they love Christ, they will run hard after Him. Men need nothing more than to have a fresh vision of holiness as revealed through the person and work of Jesus.