The exodus of men from the church
Last year my husband and I visited a church where the minister gave a short sermon on the topic of ‘Why we are all like the Virgin Mary’. This struck me as an odd thing for the men present to be hearing.
After all, if I was to listen to a sermon entitled, ‘Why we are all like Samson’ or ‘Why we are all like King David in battle’, I might start to feel that I was not the speaker’s target audience.
I looked around the congregation to see what reaction the men there were giving, but then realised the only man present was my husband! I started to wonder whether there is truth in the notion some have that church exists predominantly for women; and, also, whether many churches unconsciously deter men from attending.
Research shows that only five per cent of men in Britain attend church, equating to a ratio of one Christian man to every three Christian women. Furthermore, the number of men in churches has roughly halved in the last 20 years.
In a sense, this is difficult to reconcile with my personal church-going experience, as in the last ten years I have attended Bible-teaching, evangelical churches where, although there may be a slight prevalence of women over men, the general make up of the church family includes roughly equal numbers.
But could it be that a feminised church environment is something that men feel they have to overcome in order to attend church? Despite our best efforts, are churches alienating non-Christian men and making it harder for them to come and hear the gospel?
In recent years there have been numerous books written about this issue. Churches can make aesthetic changes to their services and buildings, or can seek to emphasise the masculinity of God. Some advocate the retelling of Bible stories in a way that will capture men’s imaginations. While these approaches may sometimes be helpful, the gospel should always be at the heart of Christian ministry and church life.
So what should our response be to the problem?
Authors such as John Eldredge (Wild at heart) and David Murrow (Why men hate going to church) are quick to point out that the relationship between men and church is hampered by western society’s general suppression of masculinity.
Eldredge argues that society at large can’t make up its mind about men. Having spent the last thirty years redefining masculinity into something more sensitive, safe, manageable and, well, feminine, it now berates men for not being men (pp.6-7).
He feels that men should be encouraged to embrace their masculinity rather than apologise for it. Murrow, an American business consultant, offers plenty of insight into this problem and suggests a number of solutions. He comments: ‘Many sanctuaries are painted a soft pink, eggshell white, or lavender, with cushiony pews and neutral carpet.
‘The altar features fresh flowers while the walls are adorned with quilts or felt banners. Honestly, how do we expect men to connect with a masculine God in a space that feels so feminine?’ (p.190).
This problem was resolved in his experience by allowing men to redecorate the church in order to make the space more masculine. The result? ‘They stripped the place and put up swords, shields, Celtic banners and tomahawks!’
Although this approach may demonstrate that there are ways that churches can be made more welcoming to men (regardless of your stance on tomahawks!), it seems superficial to expect such outward changes to bring about a revolution in our churches. After all, where does the gospel feature in all of this?
Blood and guts
In an attempt to encourage men to engage with Scripture, Dave Hopwood has rewritten several stories from the Old and New Testaments in his book, The bloke’s Bible. He comments that he wanted to ‘tap into’ the more graphic and violent stories of the Bible to arouse men’s interest.
This is clear in his chapter on Ezekiel 16:’Abandoned children kicking about in their own blood, naked women lying in a field, a prostitute who pays to sleep with as many customers as possible?
‘This isn’t exactly sweet Corinthian love, or gentle Galatian fruit, is it? But then neither is Daniel in the lion’s den, or David hacking off Goliath’s head. They never were U-rated stories, we just put pretty pictures to them and made them that way’ (p.200).
While this may appeal more to men than the depiction of Jesus as a ‘tender, sweet man in a shining, white dress’, it is undeniable that it also misses the mark. Our goal isn’t for men to just be reading the Bible to experience the gruesome details of the Old Testament.
Ultimately, we want them to be reading the Bible because they want to know the God who reveals himself in its pages, through the person of Jesus Christ.
If men are to be won by the gospel, the Bible must be taught faithfully and systematically in a church context they can feel comfortable in. American Pastor Mark Driscoll has been successful in reaching men in his community, and is open about his own search for a church as a young Christian.
He describes it in the following way: ‘We finally settled into a large suburban church, where I felt at home because it met my criteria. First, the pastor (who looked like Mr T) had been an NFL linebacker and knew how to kill people in self-defence. Second, he taught the Bible verse by verse in a real way, one that enabled me to have a relationship with Jesus that did not feel like he was my lifelong prom date’.
Clearly Driscoll advocates a church environment that is man-friendly, yet central to his approach is the need for heart-change in men stemming from faithful gospel teaching.
He rightly argues that it is this which will lead to more men becoming actively involved in churches, and in leading their families. The important thing is not just getting men through the door, but enabling their genuine conversion to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
So, how can our churches become more man-friendly? Yes, there is some wisdom in the suggestions Murrow and others make, and some value in considering how men can feel more at home in our churches.
Picture a man you know who does not attend church regularly. Put yourself in his shoes. Does he like flower displays? Does he like standing around after the service chatting to members of the congregation? Does he feel comfortable singing about how much in love with Jesus he is?
Among Murrow’s suggestions, these stand out – encourage husbands to be servant-leaders and their wives to be helpmates; encourage men to study the Bible and pray together in groups; ensure that church life is designed to meet the needs of everyone in the congregation, not just women and children; encourage both men and women to be involved, but neither gender dominating serving opportunities or committees; don’t encourage a church theology in which individual members are ‘brides of Christ’, with an atmosphere of almost romantic love for Jesus.
All these are helpful suggestions, but most important of all is regular, faithful gospel teaching applied to the lives of men. However neat the gender balance of our churches becomes, if there is a lack of genuine repentance and faith from men andwomen, we are building the Lord’s house in vain.
Winning men for Christ needs to be central to any evangelistic strategy. A research survey conducted in 1994 showed that the faith of fathers was the single most influential factor in determining whether children would grow up attending church or not.
In families where the father did not attend church, just two per cent of children went on to attend themselves, but in families where the father was involved in church, the proportion of children involved shot up to 38 per cent. Meanwhile, the attendance of mothers had almost no impact on these figures.
So what is the answer to the exodus of men from our churches? We shouldn’t just throw our hands up and say ‘there’s nothing for men in the church today’, but should consider how we ‘do’ church and whether we might be unconsciously discouraging men from attending or becoming involved.
Irrespective of gender, this is a challenge to us as individuals. Am I dominating serving opportunities in my church? Am I involved in so many activities that others are prevented from serving? For women, are we preventing men from serving by being ‘too efficient’? For men, are you allowing the women in your church family to share the work?
Our ultimate aim isn’t to have full churches with demographically balanced congregations, but to glorify Christ by teaching his Word faithfully and striving to live in obedience to it.