Tuesday, July 25, 2006

The Mystery of the Missing Men; or, Where the Boys Are--Not!

It seems to be a new cause du jour: the lack of men in the church, the reasons Why Men Hate Going to Church, and the so-called feminization of evangelical Christianity. David Wayne on Jollyblogger has a list of recent articles about the subject. Some are little more than chest-thumping affirmations of David Murrow's above-referenced book, but there are also those that have a bit more substance.

Among these, Holly Pivec's article, "The Feminization of the Church," notes that the issue is not new--dating back to the Industrial Revolution, according to some theories, or the 13th century, according to others. She cites statistics such as that 57% of evangelicals are women--which seems to me a little less dire than the rhetoric makes out; this means that 43% of evangelicals are men--but also that women are more involved in ancillary ministries of the church than are men. She also notes that worship styles tend toward romantic imagery, service opportunities tend toward traditionally female roles, pastors may be tailoring their messages to their already predominantly female audience, and the ministry itself may be attracting men who exhibit traditionally "feminine" qualities such as gentleness and sensitivity.

I'll confess to not yet having read Murrow's book or any others specifically on the issue. I have mixed feeling-- er, thoughts, yeah, thoughts, on the articles and blogs I have read. I think some points regarding modern worship music are valid, and decor to some extent as well. On the other hand, I've seen some silly stuff trying to show how "manly" Jesus was (mainly by focusing on the confrontation with the money changers and the woes against the Pharisees). And some presentations of the topic appear to be an attempt to repackage the church to target a male demographic, which is another example of the commodification of the Gospel. At any rate, why men say they stay out of church is not necessarily why they actually do. Never underestimate the ability of anyone--particularly men--to rationalize and excuse their behavior. Ask anyone why they stay out of church, and I guarantee you, they'll tell you it's the church's fault.

What disturbs me most of all is the stereotype of masculinity that much of this stuff promotes. I reject categorically the idea that such qualities as kindness and nuturing are inherently "female" and such qualities as aggressiveness and competition are inherently "male." I imagine that the movie Mean Girls (though I haven't seen it) should quell all such ideas. Besides, I'd assert that men are, for example, nurturing--but there is a specifically masculine way to express nurturing. For mothers, it may be kissing boo-boos; for fathers, it's protectiveness and provision. What's more nurturing than providing for a family?

An excellent adverse response to this trend is given by Sean Michael Lucas, who notes that "throughout the history of Christianity from the very beginning, women have had key places in the church and tended to outnumber the men," and asks the very pertinent question,
Could it be that Christianity preaches a Gospel that requires people to view themselves as weak, forsaken, helpless, abandoned, destitute? Could it be that such a message is a stumbling block to males who believe they have strength in themselves to save themselves?
In other words, it might not be how we're presenting Christianity, but Christianity itself that tends to put off men (as it tends to put off the powerful, the intellectual, the aristocratic--cf. 1 Corinthians 1:20-21, 26-29). Lucas also points to the intellectual vacuity of the church (what Pivec calls "touchy-feely pastors giving touchy-feely sermons"). A primarily emotional gospel that is light in intellectual rigor is, on average, going to attract more women than men. (Yes, yes, there are intellectually tough women and emotionally motivated men--I realize this is an extremely broad generalization--but it might help account for a fourteen-percent gap.)

Lucas finally brings home a telling point:
I think another reason some men "hate going to church" is, ironically enough, most of our churches have failed to preach the Gospel. I don't mean the Gospel of "Jesus dying for my sins." But I mean the Gospel--an all-encompassing vision of God's invasion into the world to bring his reign to bear on every aspect of life.
Men are more motivated by mission than by the idea that Jesus really loves you and wants to wrap his arms all around you.


  1. The last sentence of your blog is a primary point in the book Why Men Hate Going To Church. I've recently finished it, and I've found it quite fascinating. While it may tend to skew toward stereotypes (as any book on such a topic would), I think Murrow makes some valid points.

    Generalizations are by definition imprecise, but they are necessary to the study of any sociological condition. Personally, I think the 57% women figure is probably low. It's one thing to call yourself an evangelical, it's another thing to be actively involved in your faith.

    We all have our own perception of what "masculinity" is. You make the argument that kindness and nurturning aren't inherently feminine. I'd agree with the first, question the second. Then you go on to say that "kissing boo-boos" is feminine while "protectiveness" is masculine. Again, I might agree with the first but question the second. Honestly, I think as men we like to simply define "masculine" as whatever we are, for ego purposes.

    There is truth to the stereotypical "man's man" in our society, and we cannot ignore their need for the gospel. That's not to say that we should drop everything and build a church just for men, but I do think we need to recognize where the pendulum has swung too far. Every church (whether they admit it or not) has a "target audience" and makes accomodations to reach that audience, just as any good missionary would. That's not
    "commodifying the gospel," that's simply trying to communicate to a specific culture.

  2. Interesting! (Of course, you realize that I was, in part, trying to goad you into more interaction than, Yeah, me too!) :-)

    You're right that masculinity is a slippery concept. This is actually part of my point: some who are saying that the church is "overly feminized" have unarticulated preconceptions of what masculinity and femininity are. Those preconceptions need to be articulated. We need to make sure that our conception of masculinity is accurate--that our "target audience" is who we think they are--before we start trying to make adjustments to accomodate them.

    I think what pushed my buttons is what this implies about men who are already involved in church. I mean, David Wayne's post is entitled, "The Church of the Girly-Man, Ya!" for goodness sake! One sub-heading in Holly Podles's article is "Girly-Men Pastors." I don't like the implication that men who are involved in the church are somehow less masculine--which they must be if they aren't turned off by church as it is now.

  3. The definition of masculine and feminine is a moving target for most people, although books like Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus have brought some of the academic definitions to the masses. I know I'm not the prototypical "manly man" to begin with, but I also know that being raised in the church has caused me to accept some of the feminine biases in the church as normal. Murrow's book was helpful in helping me reevaluate some of those things, even if it was a little uncomfortable to read at times.

    I think one of his strongest points (at least, it hit me strongly) was his argument against the traditional "kid's first" ministry focus of most churches, particularly when it comes to outreach. He makes a good point that there's absolutely no biblical support for this ministry focus. The more I think about it, the more I agree with him. We (the church) have implicitly told men "you don't need to be the spiritual head of your family anymore, we've got it covered."

    Needless to say, that one point makes me question many things I've said and directions I've lead for years. I'm not sure where my questions will take me, but I'm asking them.

    I'll be interested in hearing your thoughts once you've actually read his book. I'll loan it to you once Lori is through.

    I consider my self effectively goaded. :-) Now that VBS is over (see above) I hope to be blogging and commenting more.

  4. I think we're not so much disagreeing as looking at different facets of the issue and responding in different ways. I will need to read Morrow's book before having much more constructive to say (I was responding more to the overall "buzz").

    I have read the "Mars and Venus" books, and like them quite a lot. And some "kids first" ministries (like bus ministries, for example) I've questioned myself.