THE strobe lights pulse and the air vibrates to a killer rock beat. Giant screens show mayhem and gross-out pranks: a car wreck, a sucker punch, a flabby (and naked) rear end, sealed with duct tape.
Brad Stine runs onstage in ripped blue jeans, his shirt untucked, his long hair shaggy. He's a stand-up comic by trade, but he's here today as an evangelist, on a mission to build up a new Christian man -- one profanity at a time. "It's the wuss-ification of America that's getting us!" screeches Stine, 46.
A moment later he adds a fervent: "Thank you, Lord, for our testosterone!"
It's an apt anthem for a contrarian movement gaining momentum on the fringes of Christianity. In daybreak fraternity meetings and weekend paintball wars, in wilderness retreats and X-rated chats about lust, thousands of Christian men are reaching for more forceful, more rugged expressions of their faith.
Stine's daylong revival meeting, which he calls "GodMen," is cruder than most. But it's built around the same theory as the other experimental forums: Traditional church worship is emasculating.
Hold hands with strangers? Sing love songs to Jesus? No wonder pews across America hold far more women than men, Stine says. Factor in the pressure to be a "Christian nice guy" -- no cussing, no confrontation, in tune with the wife's emotions -- and it's amazing men keep the faith at all.
"We know men are uncomfortable in church," says the Rev. Kraig Wall, 52, who pastors a small church in Franklin, Tenn. -- and is at GodMen to research ways to reach the husbands of his congregation. His conclusion: "The syrup and the sticky stuff is holding us down."
John Eldredge, a seminal writer for the movement, goes further in "Wild At Heart," his bestselling book. "Christianity, as it currently exists, has done some terrible things to men," he writes. Men "believe that God put them on earth to be a good boy."
Cue up the GodMen house band, which opens the revival with a thrashing challenge to good boys:
Forget the yin and the yang
I'll take the boom and the bang....
Don't need in touch with my feminine side!
All I want is my testosterone high.
The 200 men in the crowd clap stiffly. Stine races through a frenetic stand-up routine, drawing laughs with his rants against liberals, atheists and the politically correct. Then Christian radio host Paul Coughlin, author of "No More Christian Nice Guy," takes the stage. His backdrop: a series of wanted posters featuring one Jesus of Nazareth.
"Jesus was a very bad Christian," Coughlin declares. After all, he says, the Son of God trashed a temple and even used profanity -- or the New Testament equivalent -- when he called Herod "that fox."
"The idea of Jesus as meek and mild is as fictitious as anything in Dan Brown's 'Da Vinci Code,' " says Coughlin, 40.
So what's with the standard portraits of Jesus: pale face, beatific smile, lapful of lambs?
"He's been domesticated," says Roland Martinson, a professor of ministry at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn. "He's portrayed now as gentle, loving, kind, rather than as a full-bodied person who kicked over tables in the temple, spent 40 days in the wilderness wrestling with his identity and with God, hung out with the guys in the street. The rough-hewn edges and courage ... got lopped off."
Martinson considers the experiments with high-testosterone worship "an important attempt to address at least one aspect of the difficulty Christianity is facing with men." He just worries it might go too far. "Too often, it turns into the man being in charge of the woman," he says. "Christianity has been there before, and we learned how wrong it was."
In fact, men taking charge is a big theme of the GodMen revival. At what he hopes will be the first of many such conferences, in a warehouse-turned-nightclub in downtown Nashville, Stine asks the men: "Are you ready to grab your sword and say, 'OK, family, I'm going to lead you?' " He also distributes a list of a real man's rules for his woman. No. 1: "Learn to work the toilet seat. You're a big girl. If it's up, put it down."
Stine's wife, Desiree, says she supports manly leadership; it seems to her the natural and God-ordained order of things. As she puts it: "When the rubber hits the bat, I want to know my husband will protect me."
But some men at the conference run into trouble when they debut their new attitudes at home. Eric Miller, a construction worker, admits his wife is none too pleased when he takes off, alone, on a weekend camping trip a few weeks after the GodMen conference this fall.
"She was a little bit leery of it, as we have an infant," he reports. "She said, 'I need your help around here.' "
Miller, 26, refuses to yield: "I am supposed to be the leader of the family."
He's pretty sure his wife will come around once she recognizes he's modeling his life after Jesus', like a good Christian should. It'll just take a little explaining, because the Jesus he has in mind is the guy on the wanted poster: "confrontational and sarcastic when he needed to be," Miller says, and determined to use "whatever means was necessary to achieve his goal."
Or as another song from the GodMen band declares:
You're not a slave, break the chains...
We've had enough, "cowboy up"
In the power of Jesus' name.
SUCH in-your-face aggression at first troubles Howard Stephenson, who paid $68 for a day at GodMen in hopes of forging friendships with other Christian men. When Stine, a born-again Christian, shouts that it's OK to cuss -- and then demonstrates with a defiant "bull...." -- Stephenson shifts uneasily.
"This is so extreme for me," he says.
A few weeks later, Stephenson, 43, is still not sold on profanity. But he has ditched the nice-guy reflex of always turning the other cheek. When he spots a Wal-Mart clerk writing "Happy Holidays" on a window, he boldly complains: It should say "Merry Christmas."
The clerk erases the offending greeting. Chalk one up for Christian testosterone.
"I wouldn't have done that before," Stephenson says proudly. "I am no longer a doormat."
The virility crusade is, in part, a response to a stark gender gap. Though churches have tried all sorts of gimmicks to attract men -- even sponsoring clubs for motorcycle riders and paintball players -- more than 60% of the adults at a typical worship service are women. That translates into 13 million more women than men in the pews on any given Sunday, according to David Murrow, author of "Why Men Hate Going to Church."
Women are also significantly more likely than men to attend Sunday school, read the Bible and pray regularly, according to the Barna Group, a Christian polling firm.
Murrow, 45, blames men's lackluster attitude on the feminization of mainline churches: "Lace curtains. Quilted banners on the wall. Pink carpet. Fresh flowers at the podium."
Even in evangelical mega-churches, which tend to use more neutral decor, the mood is hardly alpha male. Dancers wave flowing banners as the choir sings. TV screens glow with images of flowers and sunsets.
As for the music, "Onward, Christian Soldiers" is long gone. Instead, there are ballads about Jesus' eternal embrace. "Very Barry Manilow," says Mike Smith, Stine's manager.
Millions of men, of course, find such worship peaceful or inspirational, not stifling. And there remain some staunch defenders of the Christian nice guy. "It's a wonderful thing to see a man welling up in tears," says Greg Vaughn, who teaches men nationwide how to write love letters to their wives. "It takes a lot more courage to do that than to talk about football."
The most famous men's ministry, Promise Keepers, packed stadiums throughout the 1990s with men who wept and hugged one another as they pledged to be dutiful and pure. Men at Promise Keepers rallies today make the same vows, but in a nod to the new ethos of manliness, the conferences now carry titles such as "Storm the Gates" and "Uprising." This year, the theme is "Unleashed," as in unleashing the warrior within.
"It is not about learning how to be a nicer guy," the website declares.
Coughlin and others in the manly Christian movement are unconvinced. Promise Keepers still emphasizes obedience and purity. Participants still shed tears. Plus, children are invited, and women work the arenas as support staff, so the conversation never gets too raw. In several years of performing stand-up at Promise Keepers events, Stine never cursed; the closest he came to vulgarity was his liberal use of the word "stinking."
"I get tired of trying to maintain that Christian persona," he says. "I hate that sense of decorum. I hate thinking, 'Boy, I hope I don't say the wrong thing.' "
Stine argues that the genteel facade of a Christian nice guy inhibits introspection and substitutes cliches for spiritual growth. GodMen is his attempt to encourage men to get real. His speakers admit to masturbation and adultery. A workshop called "Training the Penis" encourages men to talk openly about temptation and bond with guys who share their struggles.
Such honesty, Stine contends, molds better, more godly men than a typical Sunday service.
"We want to force you out of the safe places that have passed for spirituality," Stine says. "Maybe worship could be hanging out with a bunch of guys, admitting we like blowing crap up."
A similar -- though less ribald -- approach is taken by Men's Fraternity, which was founded in Little Rock, Ark., in 1990 and has expanded around the world, with hundreds of chapters meeting weekly at 6 a.m. in churches, office buildings, even car dealerships.
"It's testosterone-friendly," says Rick Caldwell, global director of the program. He urges chapter leaders to have NFL bloopers on the big screen when the men come in, and oldies or country-western on the radio. "No opening prayer. And for heaven's sakes, don't ask the guys to take the hand of the guys next to them. That scares them to death."
Leaders don't even bring out the Bible until they're well into the curriculum; instead, they teach ideals of Christian manhood through Steve Martin movies and clips from "Braveheart."
"Do not think Sunday morning worship," Caldwell says. "Think Saturday afternoon tailgate."
The ironic bit about all this rough-and-tumble manliness is that it often leads to what can only be described as touchy-feely moments.
Eldredge runs "soul-searching" wilderness retreats in Colorado that prompt men to bare their innermost needs. Men's Fraternity gets guys talking about their psychological "wounds" and encourages them to ask their dads: Do you love me? Are you proud of me? BattleZone Ministries, based in Clovis, Calif., has posted an online video on how to pray for a man without freaking him out -- but its recommended approach still involves guys laying hands on their buddy.
Even Stine is thinking that GodMen could use a slightly softer look. He hopes to roll out the conference nationwide next year, but he plans to downplay the profanity, make time for group prayer -- and maybe even get a sing-along going. Not a sappy sing-along, mind you.
He'll be looking for a manly Christian hymn.