In the book Switch Chip and Dan Health make the point that what often looks like laziness is exhaustion. This is certainly true of men in the 21st century. Guys are worn down by work, family life, commuting, trying not to get fat, trying to lose weight after getting fat, coaching youth soccer, driving kids to birthday parties and piano lessons, not to mention all of the other cultural expectations and social commitments that we inherit as the birthright of modern society. Looking back, I now laugh at how naïve I was in my teens and 20s. As a young man I never foresaw the incoming tide of aging, each year surging forth will new obligations and added responsibilities.
Church leaders are not sensitive enough to how tired men are or how valuable their time is. In theory, every pastor knows the difference between using men and developing them. In practice, I know from experience how easy it is to treat men like they are factory workers to be drained of time, talent, and energy.
I have consistently bumped into this problem since stepping out of pastoral ministry to start Cross Training Ministries. For the first time in nearly a decade most weeks I am sitting in a pew instead of standing in a pulpit. If I am visiting a new church, regardless of denomination, my experience is usually the same. Walking into the building, almost immediately, I feel an undertow pulling me to become fuel to maintain and advance some grandiose mission statement. Pressure is exerted to show up more often, to volunteer for rotas, to donate more money (not to the poor, but to some visionary cause), to share more of my wife and children, and so on. Donuts must be purchased, sermons recorded, buildings cleaned, youth meetings chaperoned – and I am the missing cog needed to keep the machine running. Other men will be able to identify with this experience. Too often, stepping into a church feels like dancing on the edge of a black hole, a force so strong that it threatens to consume anything orbiting its perimeter.
Given this tendency among churches, I would suggest that Christians are the most exhausted of all men. Why? Because we not only have to fulfill the normal roles and responsibilities of life – working jobs, raising kids, and mowing grass – but also are obliged to fulfill the expectations of church membership. Pastors need to acknowledge this point. They need to understand that the answer to the question, ‘Why don’t you attend the midweek Bible study?’ is not always, ‘Because I am lazy.’ Often the answer is, ‘Because I am exhausted’.
Now some Christians will be uncomfortable with this. No doubt a few will object saying, ‘But to whom much is given, much is expected. Did we not sign up for more? Is not following Jesus a matter of self-denial, of taking up a cross in order to serve God through sacrifice and mission?’ In response to this I would say, ‘Yes, of course!’, but not without two additional qualifications.
The first is this. Much of what drains the time, energy, and money of Christian men has little to do with fulfilling the mission of God. This is true both within small churches as well as within large ones. Too often buildings are built, activities organized, and services required that do more to edify the collective ego of a congregation (or even worse, a pastoral team) than to fulfill the Great Commission or to honor the mercy and justice of God. When this happens, men are treated as spiritual cannon fodder. Their energy is squandered for purposes that fall short of the glory of Christ.
Here is the second caveat. Christians are exhausted because the call to discipleship trumpeted in many churches is not radical enough. To understand this point we need to remember the original meaning of the word ‘radical’ – the sense of going to the root of something. Too many Christians today are trying to add spirituality to their lives like icing on a cake. The substance of their lives is never challenged. Therefore, they are attempting to fulfill all of the expectations of culture while also fulfilling the expectations of Jesus. Because human are finite creatures this is impossible. Christ’s yoke is light if we bind ourselves exclusively to him. However, if we yoke ourselves to Christ in addition to a second master, the total weight is insufferable.
This raises the frightening thought that a lot of preachers are proclaiming the wrong message. The subtext of countless sermons is, ‘Get off the couch and do more for the kingdom of God!’ The assumption is that Christians are not growing, or serving, because they are lazy. However, I would argue that most Christians today are not lazy, but idolatrous. The message they need to hear is not ‘Do more!’ but ‘Do less!’. They need to be told to repent of the idols of luxury, success, beauty, fitness, and pleasure – to cling to the words of Jesus, ‘One thing is needed’.
So does this mean that laziness is not a problem among men? Of course not. A lot of guys (especially young guys) do in fact need to turn off their PlayStations and choose instead to drive to a midweek Bible study. Yet, the success and achievement of a lot of Christian men (not to mention their willingness to coach T-ball) indicates that more than a few are industrious and sacrificial. For these, the problem is not self-discipline but wise investment. Having exhausted themselves on lesser tasks, they have no mental or emotional resources left to pursue the higher ends of life. What should men do who fit this diagnosis? They need to recover the simple but scandalous word that, if we seek first the kingdom, God will take care of the rest.