The Stronger Men’s Conference in Missouri has attracted criticism after a viral clip showed them hosting monster trucks and rodeos alongside Christian speakers. For Carl Beech, organiser of Christian men’s event The Gathering, the complaints aren’t new. But for him, they don’t stack up
Twelve years ago I founded a festival for men called The Gathering. Being totally honest about it, I came up with the idea after boring myself at my own events.
I had never put on a festival before, so it was a bit of a learning curve. There weren’t enough showers and toilets, and we had the world’s grumpiest barmen who, it seemed, hated all humanity. The main tent wasn’t big enough and the field quickly became a mud bath. But we hired in loads of inflatables, played football (I hate football but, understanding that many men generally like it, I conceded), booked a comedian, made a display out of a few cars that blokes turned up in, and preached the gospel. At that first event, around 25 men gave their lives to Christ for the first time. So we thought we would do it again.
The phrase ‘toxic masculinity’ is poisonous; sweeping, generalising, debilitating and essentially toxic itself
Fast forward ten years and over 2,500 men attend each year. We still have a car display, comedians and football, but there’s also sword fighting, wrestling and even chess. There are huge inflatables and world class tribute acts (one year we had Elvis and Neil Diamond. The next year, the performer offered to do Julio Iglesias…I declined.) There’s a huge turnout by the military and the police, and the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight perform an aerial display over our heads, perfectly timed for straight after communion.
As you can imagine, over the years, I have received quite a few letters and emails from people “voicing concerns” about our approach. Along the way, I’ve been attacked in Christian media. I’ve been called misogynistic and “irredeemably sexist” because we only reach men - despite there being many successful women’s ministries running events just for women.
Perhaps it would surprise you to know that there is nearly always a female speaker at The Gathering (unlike many women’s conferences, most of whom would never invite a male main speaker). We’ve featured men overcoming disability, HIV and addiction. We’ve seen over 1,000 men make first time commitments to Christ; men asking for forgiveness and returning to their marriages. Once, a career criminal accepted Christ, publicly repented and apologised to the police, receiving an embrace from the dozens of Christian police present.
We’ve seen generational salvation and reconciliation between family members. We’ve sponsored hundreds of children in poverty through our partnerships with Christian charities. In the early days of Restored, a fantastic ministry that tackles violence against women, The Gathering was instrumental in raising awareness of its work.
And yet people complain. Because we also burn stuff, blow stuff up, banter off the scale from the platform, have loud engines and throw axes (not at each other for the most part). About 30 per cent of men who attend The Gathering are not believers when they arrive.
And then there’s this event in the US called the Stronger Conference, which packed out a stadium in Missouri with men and featured explosions and monster trucks alongside Christian speakers like Louie Giglio and Craig Groeschel. Last weekend, when someone shared a clip of the event on Twitter, the complaints and criticisms started pouring in. It quickly attracted over one million views.
There's a Christian conference "for men" in Missouri and it's just as cringe as you'd imagine. Tickets for the "Stronger Men's Conference" are $119 and Josh Hawley is one of the guest speakers. pic.twitter.com/VtQCUCo3e5— Fifty Shades of Whey (@davenewworld_2) April 30, 2022
“Nothing quite delivers that Jesus message of feeding the hungry, caring for the sick and loving everyone, like a monster truck rally,” one critic posted. “It looks like every toxic masculinity stereotype under one roof,” said another. “I can’t stop laughing… this is either a Simpsons episode or idiocracy.”
For what they’re worth, here’s my thoughts.
Firstly, can we please drop the phrase ‘toxic masculinity’? It’s poisonous; sweeping, generalising, debilitating and essentially toxic itself. Find another language. It’s a cheap shot at men who are often already in crisis.
Secondly, some men like monster trucks. Get over it. Some women like monster trucks too. Why moan about that?
Thirdly, people have said that all this masculinity is too much. Too much for whom? All the men who the Church isn’t currently reaching? The millions of men who aren’t hearing the gospel?
Becoming all things
For the record, I don’t know the theology of the organisers of Stronger or what they are preaching, but I doubt that many of those people who commented on Twitter do either. For me, I just apply 1 Corinthains 9:22: “To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.”
Christian Vision for Men, which hosts The Gathering, is an unashamedly evangelistic organisation that exists to encourage men to be bolder in sharing their faith. We create resources men are comfortable using and events they would be happy to invite their mates to. And we help churches reach out to men, because, quite frankly, who else is doing that?
One day, when we’re in heaven and my neighbour is there because he heard the gospel at a CVM thing, please don’t float over and get all neggy because he heard it shortly after a wrestling pro hit someone with a chair. Because that would be churlish. Only Jesus can make us the kind of people we know we ought to be. But we need to start the discipleship journey somewhere.