Friday, November 4, 2011

Manly Men in a Girly Church

Look around any Christian church service. Chances are, among adults, women outnumber men two to one in the pews. Unmarried men are largely absent. A man may occupy the pulpit, but women probably do everything else, from presenting liturgy to performing music to distributing communion. Media producer David Murrow noticed this, and set out to discover Why Men Hate Going to Church. His findings seem bleak at first, but ultimately offer a great deal of hope.

Statistics abound that men avoid church. This applies across congregations, denominations, races, and nations. Other religions don’t have this problem; it crosses every demographic divide, but is a uniquely Christian phenomenon. It isn’t even new; Murrow cites one historian who traces this divide back seven centuries. Not coincidentally, this corresponds with when Church iconography started emphasizing a battered, bleeding Jesus versus a smiling Virgin Mary.

Though many have disparaged church as a patriarchal institution, anybody who watches how congregations run will notice that men occupy a thin stratum at the top of the pyramid. The pastorate remains a largely male occupation, in some churches exclusively male. But women dominate committees, volunteer organizations, and all other nuts-and-bolts aspects of the congregation. One man may “lead,” but women make the place run.

So we shouldn’t be surprised when church becomes feminine. Theology has grown spongy, emphasizing love and minimizing ethics. Music has become feminized, and many church composers write songs about being “in love with Jesus.” Many congregations have replaced altar paraments with lace doilies and flower arrangements. Even the typical Jesus portrait renders Him demure and androgynous. No wonder dudes don’t want to show up on Sunday.

This doesn’t accord with the scriptural Christ. Sure, He urged us to love one another, welcomed children, and promised us rest in Him. But He also drove out the money changers, called the Pharisees some pretty harsh names, and never backed down from a just fight. Empires don’t execute hairy provincial preachers for gently suggesting people get along and pray more. But you wouldn’t know that from the contemporary church.

This trend pushes men out of America’s churches in droves. Though most American men self-identify as Christian, they see church as an impingement on their masculinity. Six days a week, we have to be butch, mighty, and ready for any challenge; but on the Sabbath, we have to take on girly appurtenances and act dainty. Guys ain’t having it.

David Murrow
Murrow admits this sounds sexist at first blush. And he admits there are men in church; he’s one of them. But church as it stands attracts men who are primarily emotive, artistic, and introspective. Men like Murrow and me. Men, in short, who think like women. These are the men who go to seminary. This leads to the effete vicars so familiar to Monty Python fans.

Of course, there are also women who think like men. Just don’t look for them in church.

This is more than a gender issue. Murrow collates numerous statistics demonstrating that churches dominated by women tend to focus internally, fear making tough decisions, and resist needed changes, for fear of hurting anyone’s feelings. Without a balance of the masculine and feminine, like Jesus Himself demonstrated, congregations founder. Only those churches that attract both men and women have a future.

Fortunately, all is not bleak. Murrow spotlights many steps congregations have already taken to reverse their loss of men. One church he extols, led by a female pastor, reversed its decline by simply asking, while preparing the weekly service, what would a solid blue-collar dude think of this? Reclaiming men doesn’t require revised theology, new liturgy, or male dominion. It just requires keeping men’s unique psychological needs in mind.

Attracting men doesn’t mean discouraging women. Indeed, since women are allowed into male domains in ways men can’t enter female domains, women will come to churches that invite men. Note, this doesn’t mean they should come or they ought to come. Murrow doesn’t deal in abstractions. He shows how real churches, taking practical steps, have boosted both men and women in the pews by keeping men in mind.

If we want men back in our churches, we don’t need new music or new ministries. We don’t need showmanship or spectacle. Churches simply need to relearn how to speak the language of dudes in the regular activities they carry on right now. Men show up when they feel needed and useful. Jesus started a movement with twelve guys. Surely the modern church can do just as well.


  1. This dovetails really well with our theories about our generation and younger needing more meat, theology, recognition of suffering, frank discussion and not avoidance of what Jesus really did, suffered, died, was buried, and resurrected to save us from sin, death, and the devil. And the connection with ancient practices such as chanted liturgies and solid meaty topic yet ancient hymns! I think the needs our generation have would meet the needs quite well that men have.

  2. We need to ask this question: How do we get men back into church without turning women off? I have heard that Marrow respects Mark Driscoll, the misogynistic pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle. If that is true, we're in big trouble.

    I do not want the church to adopt male chauvinistic language and tell women to be submissive to their husbands just so that they can get more gender balance.

    I want women to be strong senior pastors and set the agenda for the church. I also want the church to respect the great contributions of the feminist movement.

  3. I agree with much of this, does being artistic emotive and introspective make a man feminine? Why cant a sensitive artistic male be as much of a man as a so called manly man? Many men in the Bible such as king David proved that the twain can meet.