Phil Smith describes the growth of the Men's Shed movement in Australia.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics general social survey showed that only 20% of Aussie men are likely to affiliate with a religion. The Lifeways organisation estimates that more than 70% of the boys that are raised in church will abandon it in their teens and twenties.
In the last 10 years, the Men's Shed phenomenon has taken off in Australia in response to sky-rocketing rates of depression and suicide amongst young Australian men. Suicide is now the tenth highest cause amongst young Australian blokes; the rates are three times higher than for women.
In 'sheds' around the country, blokes have come looking for friendship, commitment, purpose and help. They can look like:
- a barbecue behind a suburban truck shed where between 90 and 120 doctors, labourers, accountants, prison parolees and IT geeks get together to hear one another's stories;
- a backyard workshop where older fellows share skills, mentoring younger men;
- a tent at a music festival where blokes can let their guard down and talk about anything from being a dad to struggling with porn. It all looks a bit like Luke's Gospel view of missional church (Luke 10.1-9).
The evening barbecue version is called Shed Night and the liturgy is simple, blokes break bread rolls and share steak; friendships are formed as stories are shared. There is no alcohol for the sake of alcoholics who are present. A couple of volunteers are interviewed with no judgement. Most men know the topics; fatherhood, sex, failure, work stress, dreams, hopes; stuff men don't usually feel safe to discuss, a place of grace is established here and disability, mental or physical health, wealth or prestige, being cool – all count for nothing.
Australian men need friends; not colleagues, not competitors, not heroes or life coaches. The Christians behind Shed Night are trusted friends who need healing just as much as everyone else. In theological terms, it's incarnational, relational, evangelism.
Like the disciples sent by Jesus, the Shed men are prepared to do the journey together, co-dependent, mission-shaped. These men are experiencing the biblical injunction to walk alongside one another and with God.
It's not clear when or where the Men's Shed movement began. In Australia there have been formalised associations and networks, such as Men's Sheds Australia and The Australian Men's Shed Association; it may not be possible to unearth the points at which Christians around the country began exploring this connective culture. The organic movement was already building around ideals of welcome, trust and respect. The physical and mental health benefits were already evident when Anglicans, Baptists, the Uniting Church and Lutherans began engaging at the local church level to introduce spiritual health.
Some denominational churches have tried to reshape the idea but the spectacular organic growth has been outside organised, denominational church.
To go where Christ is not yet known, to find people of peace and accept their hospitality has required a 180 degree shift in language and understanding. In the past three years, a new iteration of Shed has begun at music festivals; for most who take leadership in this movement, there's been a reversal of the 'build it and they will come' philosophy in the style of church in the suburbs each Sunday morning. They are prepared to go to the 'Samaritan' borderlands where they have had to learn languages other than Christianese and, in this experience, the disciples' own lives are transformed as much as anyone with whom they might share Jesus's good news about the kingdom of God.
The 'McDonaldisation' of church and society, that 'cookie-cutter' effect of forming a church, doesn't seem to be the case in Shed where the context always forms a unique ministry.
Christian Shed blokes sometimes find themselves challenged to accept the hospitality of others and learn from their experience or skill. The risk of discovering we have the same weaknesses and struggles creates a sense of vulnerability; I have seen very few clergy in any Shed Happens events – some men I know have reflected that's because pastors and priests don't have mates; they have accountability partners and only trust other priests and partners with their hearts.
On the other hand, the Stafford Baptists’ Men’s Shed is a large backyard workshop, a few doors from the church building. It’s a very big investment by the local church and the pastor is closely connected.
For many of these blokes, it's more about the journey – and leaving it to the Holy Spirit to 'worry' about the destination. I came across one Shed group that had a motto, 'Better than fine'. This was a group of blokes that were interested in belonging and being open to one another, 'fine' was an acronym – Fouled up, Insecure, Neurotic, Exhausted. If a brother asked how you were doing, you had to be 'better than fine'. This was a brother that wanted to go with you and do the journey, looking for justice, mercy, and healing.
The Shed movement flips the coin over for blokes who've been burnt by church culture that told them, 'behave yourself, then believe what we all believe, and then we might let you belong'. Shed offers the opportunity to belong amongst men who are just as screwed up as anyone else.
Is Shed church or could it be church in future? Luke's benchmark for church is followers gathered around Jesus and sent by him to express the kingdom of God. If a Shed is only men gathered round a barbecue or a workbench, it doesn't measure up as a fresh, stale, or any other expression of church. If, however, some of these blokes are parts of Christ's body, connecting with others, investing time and love to grow alongside them; if this is more about incarnation than recreation, then we'll see the transforming work of God – and that does look a lot like church.