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Manhood in the Church

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Men In The Church

Why has there always been a lack of men at church?

I never really thought about it. Where are they?

Historically, it’s always been a problem. While we could cite statistics ad nauseum, you know it. Perhaps not YOUR church, but that may say something about the men in your church, too. The gender ratio in churches (especially western churches) slants to women. It always has. This is a real problem.

Historically, it’s been addressed before by the church. During the turn of the 20th century, muscular Christianity was actually ‘a thing’. While it leaned into the ratio concerns, it was probably more about the nature of the men that were attending church. They were not “The Marlboro Man”. The YMCA came out of this movement.

Men are not only less likely to attend church, they are also less likely to participate in their faith in other ways. According to Pew Research, Christian women are 7% more likely than men to say religion is important to them. And as David Murrow records in his book, Why Men Hate Going to Church, research conducted by George Barna found that women are far more likely to be involved with their church and faith on nearly every level, to the tune of:

  • 57 percent more likely to participate in adult Sunday school

  • 56 percent more likely to hold a leadership position at a church (not including the role of pastor)

  • 54 percent more likely to participate in a small group

  • 46 percent more likely to disciple others

  • 39 percent more likely to have a devotional time or quiet time

  • 33 percent more likely to volunteer for a church

  • 29 percent more likely to read the Bible

  • 29 percent more likely to share faith with others

  • 23 percent more likely to donate to a church

  • 16 percent more likely to pray

Barna summed up his findings this way:

“Women are the backbone of the Christian congregations in America.”

This is NOT generally true of other religions like Hinduism, Buddhism, Orthodox Judaism and Islam. There is no gender gap with these. So, what is that drives a wedge between Christianity and masculinity?

Churches should be concerned. What are we missing?

For several years, I was involved as a guest instructor/artist at a “Worship Arts” conference. I’ll leave the details of the denomination and the locations out. It was very organized with planning meetings that started well in advance of the conference. I was invited to participate a year to sixteen months in advance. There were planning meetings. In the three times I attended this conference, the worship ‘designers’ were always women. Of course, everyone was an artist of some type. As they introduced themes and began to plan out the worship services for the general assembly, I cringed: There wasn’t a man that I knew that would sit through any of this on a Sunday morning. It may have been aesthetic and artistic, but it was not masculine. And I appreciate good artistic expression! You may think that the design of a service liturgy in church isn’t gender related. That would be one of the reasons that you don’t have men and subsequently boys in your church.

Before even considering the liturgy, think environments. Red carpet? Icons and Christian symbols like a man hanging on a cross? Cushions? Maybe there’s a coffee bar outside in the lobby. Very millennial. Donuts. Definitely donuts. I always liked the picture that hung in almost every Methodist church I ever attended of Jesus that had backlighting on his long, silky hair and casting just the right shadow over that perfect olive skin. And I haven’t even started on the worship songs about the longing to be with a man who loves us more than anyone.

“As the deer panteth for the water”.


Are we talking about deer now? Are we going hunting?

Now, you’ve got their attention.

It sometimes feels like the softer our culture becomes and the ‘easier’ it is to go to church, the less attractive it becomes to men.

This was NOT the case when it all began. First of all, Jesus was a real man. He was a man’s man. While Isaiah 53:2 indicates that he wasn’t much to look at, you can be sure that he was wildly interesting to be around. And he was a dynamic and charismatic leader. Once he entered his public ministry, crowds followed him everywhere; some for the wrong reasons and some for the right. But, he was still the hottest ticket in town, which is why his enemies wanted him dead. His call to ‘follow me’ is the very essence of adventure and manhood. His disciples were a diverse group for sure, but there wasn’t one among them who wasn’t up for the task at hand. One of the great truths and triumphs of the gospel is that Jesus took these twelve men and they turned the world upside down. To say that he led a revolution is embarrassingly understated. He changed everything. All of them, except John the Beloved, died a martyr’s death. And they tried more than once to kill John too. Once, in boiling oil! These are men who stood up for his beliefs under the very imminent threat of death.

The early church, like the persecuted churches throughout history, lived life on the front lines of a fiercely fought spiritual battle and sacrificed everything for what they believed. Whatever their stature, they were giants in their faith. They were NOT the men of what the church has become.

For the first time in history, with perhaps the exception of “The Passion of the Christ”, Jesus is being depicted in film as a man’s man. In the television series, “The Chosen”, depicting the ministry life of Jesus, we finally have a thoughtful, and more realistic expression of who I think the real Jesus was like. How do I know this? My first thought after every episode is “I want to be with THAT guy”. Jesus was THAT guy. While he transcended masculinity and gender, he was very much a man in human form and he portrayed the qualities that every man should aspire to. So, why does an institution with a headship like Jesus struggle to attract men?

The Art of Manliness

Before I delve further into this subject, I want to recommend a series of articles from “The Art of Manliness”. This website/organization provides content and resources for men to become better in all areas of their life. They have a four-part series on men and the church that is far more detailed and informative. The series includes:

They also recommend the following books, one of which I referenced above:

The Church Impotent By Leon J. Podles

Muscular Christianity by Clifford Putney

Some speculate that the gender differences in American churches began in the 1960s with feminization and the counter-cultural movements. But the gender gaps were noticeable well before that dating back to perhaps the 1200s. Certainly, historical records show that the gender gap was already in place when the Puritans moved into America

In “The Feminization of Christianity”, by Brett and Kate McKay, they state, “You might be wondering if the gender gap has to do with men traveling for jobs, or dying in war, or simply not living as long as women, but as it has persisted through times of agriculture and industrialization from rural life to urbanization, through wartime and peacetime and in societies where men outnumbered women in the general population, none of these reasons can adequately explain the magnitude of Christianity’s sex ration disparity.

Bridal Mysticism

One of the more interesting theories for this dilemma is known as bridal mysticism. I subtly referred to it in a previous comment about worship songs. Again, quoting from “The Feminization of Christianity”:

In the New Testament, Jesus is compared to a bridegroom who’s going to come for his bride – his followers. The bride symbolizes the church as a whole. But in the Middle Ages, female mystics, following the lead of Catholic thinkers like Bernard of Clairvaux, began developing an interpretation of the bridegroom/bride relationship as representing that which existed not only between Christ and the collective church, but Christ and the individual soul. Jesus became not only a global savior, but a personal lover, whose union with believers was described by Christian mystics with erotic imagery. Drawing on the Old Testament’s Song of Songs, but again, using it as an allegory to describe God’s relationship with an individual, rather than with his entire people (as it had traditionally been interpreted), they developed a new way for the Christian to relate to Christ – one marked by intimate longing.

The notion of Jesus as my Savior has migrated to Jesus as my lover. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the imagery and language common in modern praise and worship songs. Here’s a small sample from some of the more popular songs over the last few years:

And I will call upon Your Name And keep my eyes above the waves When oceans rise My soul will rest in Your embrace For I am Yours and You are mine (Oceans, Hillsong Music) Oh, the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God Oh, it chases me down, fights 'til I'm found, leaves the 99 And I couldn't earn it I don't deserve it, still You give yourself away Oh, the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God (Reckless Love, Cory Asbury) Jesus, lover of my soul Jesus, I will never let You go You've taken me from the miry clay You've set my feet upon the rock And now I know I love you (I love you) I need you (I need you) Though my world may fall I'll never let You go. (Hillsong Worship) I searched the world But it couldn't fill me Man's empty praise And treasures that fade Are never enough Then You came along And put me back together And every desire Is now satisfied Here in Your love (hey) (Graves Into Gardens, Brandon Lake)

I’m not saying these are bad lyrics. They are good and they were quite popular in churches. Obviously, not ALL contemporary praise and worship music is like this, but it is common. Compare that to the hymns of generations ago.

Would you be free from your burden of sin There's power in the blood power in the blood Would you o'er evil a victory win There's wonderful power in the blood There is power, power, wonder working power in the blood of the lamb There is power, power, wonder working power in the precious blood of lamb (Power in the Blood, Robbins)
Onward, Christian soldiers! Marching as to war, With the cross of Jesus Going on before. Christ, the royal Master, Leads against the foe; Forward into battle, See his banners go! ( Onward Christian Soldiers, Barring-Gould) A mighty fortress is our God A bulwark never failing Our helper he amid the flood Of mortal ills prevailing For still our ancient foe Does seek to work us woe. His craft and power are great And armed with cruel hate On earth is not his equal. (A Mighty Fortress is Our God, Luther)

When you consider the aesthetics, the creature comforts, the music, the environments, the content, even the design of liturgy, and you begin to understand why men are not attracted to churches. Add to the that the elements of bridal mysticism inferred above and you can see that church is becoming a hard sell to rugged men.

There are certainly other factors. Consider the men who do GO to church. Does a lack of masculine role models at church negatively affect the recruitment and retention of masculine members? Edwin Starbuck, a prominent psychologist in the early 1900s thought so, positing that “the boy is a hero-worshipper, and his hero can not be found in a Sunday school which is manned by women.” Murrow agrees, citing the research of Dr. Michael Lindsay, who found that:

“Men respect pastors who are properly masculine,” Murrow opines. “They are drawn to men who, like Jesus, embody both lion and lamb.”

As we have mentioned before, the ‘boy crisis’ is a wicked problem. Treign Up is designed to stand with other groups and individuals to help plug the holes of the dam. But being aware of what we are up against is part of understanding how the enemy is working to defeat us.

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