For generations, preachers have been asking the same sobering question to provoke people into thinking about ultimate issues: If you died tonight, do you know where you would spend eternity?
The Rev. Rick Kingham has started asking men a different question, knowing that too many of them are living lives defined by solo commutes, office cubicles, fast food, Internet niches, TV remotes, 8-foot fences, garage-door openers and gated communities. Here is the question: Do you have any idea who will carry your casket out of the church after your funeral?
Many men struggle to answer.
"It's a sad day when most men can't name six men that they know are their close friends," said Kingham, president of the National Coalition of Men's Ministries, a nondenominational network of 110 regional and national groups. "There are men who — if they really get honest — will tell you that they only have one or two real friends."
That's a huge gap in millions of lives.
A decade ago, waves of men gathered in Washington, D.C., to kneel and repent of their sins, from spiritual apathy to workaholism, from absentee fatherhood to emotional aloofness in their marriages. The event was called "Stand in the Gap" and, with the Promise Keepers movement leading the way, it drew a million or more men to the National Mall — one of the largest gatherings of any kind in the nation's history.
The goal of the 1997 rally, said Kingham, was to dare men to stand up at church, home and work and say, "I'm a man. I'm a Christian. I'm not ashamed of that." The event's original slogan was, "Where are the men?"
That remains a valid question, which is why some of leaders of the first "Stand in the Gap" event have decided to mark its 10-year anniversary with another rally. They hope to draw about 250,000 men to the Oct. 6 event, which will be held at the Washington Monument and on the Ellipse, just south of the White House. The Promise Keepers network, which is much smaller than at its peak in the late 1990s, is one member of the larger coalition behind "Stand in the Gap 2007."
Truth is, religious groups that want to reach men face many of the same cultural challenges as they did a decade ago, and some of the problems have even gotten worse. In the case of online pornography, 1997 was the "good old days," said Kingham.
"If anything," he said, "there are powerful forces at work in our society that have driven men even further into isolation than they were 10 years ago and even further from the kinds of community that they need in their lives."
While the 2007 event will be smaller in size, its leaders hope to reach out to a wider audience in terms of the ages of the men who take part.
For better or for worse, the original rally turned into a kind of born-again Woodstock for men in the 77-million-member Baby Boom generation. Organizers hope that the program at Stand in the Gap 2007 will also include speakers and themes for the World War II generation that many call the "Builders," as well as the post-Boomer generation known as the "Busters" and the "Millennials," born after 1982.
"If we can find a way to let these four groups of men talk to each other about what is going on in their lives and their faith, then we will have accomplished our main goal," said Steve Chavis, who served as media coordinator for the 1997 rally and is playing the same role again.
The first rally focused most of its energy on family issues and racial reconciliation and these subjects will surface again. Kingham said Stand in the Gap 2007 will also emphasize themes of loneliness, complacency and disillusionment. But after looking inward, men must find ways to reach beyond their own needs and help others.
Take, for example, all of those Baby Boomers who will soon face retirement.
"We have to tell these men, 'Don't quit your jobs. … Use your jobs and skills in missions, relief and development projects around the world. You can help the widows and children,' " said Kingham. "There are all kinds of ways that men can offer a credible witness to what Jesus Christ is doing in their lives."
Terry Mattingly is director of the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities and leads the GetReligion.org project to study religion and the news.