Why don’t men go to church?

41L02RYY9BLI am feeling very nervous about posting on this particular gender-related issue. I know I will get lots of flak from all corners for making gross generalisations and such. But here’s the thing: a religious movement, started by a man, with a predominance of male leaders from the beginning, and in which some groups are struggling very hard to let go of male hegemony, has, for at least 600 years (in the West at least) been dominated as a movement by the presence of women. I’m not suggesting that this is a Bad Thing, but, by any measure, it is a Big Thing. For a start, it is a real paradox. For another, it is just very odd in the context of thinking about religious movements. I don’t think any other global religious movement exhibits the same phenomenon. Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, Islam are all controlled by men and appeal to men. Not so with Christian faith. So anyone interested or involved in Christian ministry, in whatever form, needs to consider it.

A basic observation about this relates to what might be called the ‘offer’ of Christian faith. From the first century and across the Roman Empire, Christian faith was very attractive to those who were oppressed and longed for hope and liberation, and so (by most estimates) had a disproportionate appeal amongst the poor and the underclass. (We can see a first hint of this in 1 Cor 1.26, though clearly the body of believers in Corinth also included the wealthy.) And there is no doubt that it is women, much more than men, who as a gender have felt in need of hope and liberation. If you don’t believe me, just listen to the last edition of Woman’s Hour from Radio 4. Men might well be in need of liberation and hope; it is just that they don’t realise it, or don’t see the relevance of the Christian ‘offer’ in the way that women appear to.

But, in the Western church, there is also a large number of other, circumstantial and cultural, issues at play. For one thing, the public profile of male Christian leaders hasn’t been exactly inspiring. Men wearing dresses, whose leaders wear daft hats that make them look dafter, and even (until fairly recently) gaiters, together contribute to identifying clergy as a kind of middle sex. It is not the kind of thing the inspires men, certainly not working men. You might want to protest that this is superficial, but in our media age impressions count. It still seems almost impossible for the media to depict bishops in anything other than pointy hats and wearing carpets. How else could you tell they were bishops?

51YMBRMXZ8LPerhaps a deeper issue behind the impression is a deep-seated aspect of Christian spirituality. Generally speaking, the Christian response to external events is to reflect and contemplate, rather than to respond and act. When I think about my dealings with the working men (in business, building, gardening and printing industries) this seems like a very difficult way of thinking for them to relate to. Allied to this is something profound in the way we construe our relation to God. Leon Podles in his fascinating The Church Impotent: the feminization of Christianity traces this back to Bernard of Clairvaux, whose bridal imagery in mysticism had a profound effect on Western spirituality.

At a more immediate level, there are numerous aspects of practical issues which make men feel less comfortable than women in your typical Western church. Men’s fat fingers don’t cope well with fiddly service books, points out my friend John Leach. Most patterns of Christian discipleship expect a level of verbal fluency at which women excel over men. Family churches are often adorned with artefacts produced by women, notes David Murrow in his popular Why Men Hate Going to ChurchAnd the jobs on offer in most churches again are geared to things that have traditionally been the domain of women—arranging flowers, sorting rotas, looking after children and the like. One good reason for putting a new projection and sound system into your church building is that it typically creates a lot of jobs for the men in your congregation—and even some jobs for men you would like to draw in.

My reason for writing this post is the large number of animated responses to Murrow’s own blog post on men and singing in church. The move away from familiar, rhythmic, structure songs to more unpredictable, emotive and interiorising songs again appears to have a differentiated appeal to men and women, and Murrow does not think this is helpful. One of the first comments was from Mark Broomhead, who leads a fresh expression called The Order of the Black Sheep, which is aimed at those involved in heavy metal music:

We don’t have congregational sung worship at all at the moment, and have a fast growing congregation with a higher than usual proportion of men. Not to say that we will not in the future, but in a mission/seeker orientated setting it appears appropriate at the moment.

Another early commentator, Jennie, questions:

This should be titled ‘The secret that keeps US from singing in worship.’ It doesn’t answer the question why, when faced with an unknown song, do women attempt to sing and men don’t?

I think the simple answer is that, whilst men enjoy taking risks and adventure, what they do not like is risking looking foolish in front of others, and attempting to sing something you don’t know does just this.

My own view is that another major issue relates to preaching in our churches. By and large, the preaching style in most churches assumes that the congregation is happy to learn passively, by sitting and listening. As Murrow points out in his chapter on boys and faith, boys and men are much more often kinaesthetic learners—they need to be actively involved in their learning. A long, verbal monologue is often just the wrong thing for them—though this can be considerably helped by the use of images in preaching, since men remember what they see more than what they read or hear. When leading all-age services in church, I have always been struck by the response of men, and often older men—they have really engaged in the interactive, kinaesthetic style of good all-age communication, which has made me wonder why we ever do anything else!

I also wonder whether what we preach on makes a difference. I suspect men are much more engaged by preaching which has specific, practical outcomes, and perhaps therefore enjoy hearing preaching on Old Testament narratives, with their ‘action heroes.’ It might be that focussing on the conceptual complexities of Pauline theology does not suit men’s learning styles. Although conservative, ‘reformed’ churches that focus on Paul do attract men, my observation is that they are often highly educated professionals. The more earthy spirituality and preaching of the (so-called) New Churches appears to be more suited to working men.

All this touches on key questions about the shape of our theology. In his chapter on ‘Getting the Big Story Right’, Murrow contrasts the two kinds of film plot.

Men’s movies: a hero saves the world against impossible odds

Women’s movies: a woman finds a relationship with a wonderful man.

In today’s church, the gospel is no longer about saving the world against impossible odds. It’s about finding a happy relationship with a wonderful man.

If the point of going to church is to pursue a relationship, you will draw more women than men. The End. Roll credits.

Murrow’s book has the distinct disadvantage that it carries a commendation from Mark ‘muscular Jesus’ Driscoll. But he asks some important questions, and in fact is not uncritical of the megachurch agenda, even though they are clearly doing some things which attract men—including telling the story more along the ‘men’s movies’ line.

We are now moving from the ‘offer’ of Christian faith to the ‘ask.’ I have been struck that one of the central pieces of teaching in the OT, the Ten Commandments (properly, ‘The Ten Words’) does not include the command to ‘love God’ but to act in certain ways. Although the command to ‘love’ in Deut 6.5 uses a quite general word ahav for love, elsewhere (for example in Hosea 6.6) the term is the rather different hesed (from which we get the term ‘Hasidim’). This is more often translated ‘loving faithfulness’ and has much more of a sense of a gritty determination to stick with God, possibly against the odds. This kind of practical grittiness is much more evident in the language of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew than the reflective/affective understanding of ‘loving God’ that we read out of John’s gospel. I wonder what difference it would make if we understood the central demand of faith in terms of gritty determination rather than the affective, emotive sense that ‘love’ carries in our contemporary world.

I am quite sure that some of you reading this will have spent the last couple of minutes screaming to your screen ‘These generalisations are absurd! I am a man/woman and I don’t think like that!’ But these generalisations are just that—generalisations. There are certain things that appear to work well for many women, and other things that appear to work better for many men. And all the evidence points to the fact that in the West, the church is doing more of the former and not enough of the latter. The supreme irony of this is in our ‘mission aware’ context is that there is further evidence to consider: draw in women, and the men often do not come. But draw in men, and the whole family often follows.

I’ve stuck my head above the parapet. Please take careful aim before you pull your trigger!

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44 thoughts on “Why don’t men go to church?”

  1. Come to my little Mennonite church, Ian. We have a severe shortage of women at the moment. When a North American couple who have been with us for five years leave soon, there will be just four women who attend regularly. Clearly we’re doing something right for men. Perhaps it’s the Anabaptst notion that faith really is about saving the world against impossible odds?

  2. Geoff took part for several years in the Walk of a Thousand Men mission initiative, and has been interested in evangelism amongst men for a long time. I know it’s not PC to make these generalisations, but frankly, a bit of honest observation will bear out most of them. It’s true that men hate being embarrassed. Interestingly I was talking to a couple after a baptism recently and they said they had enjoyed it more than most. When I asked why, the man said that it was better with guitars – people didn’t feel so self-conscious about making mistakes when they sung. And it’s self-evident that men are much more comfortable doing something practical (on the whole).

    In our first parish we discovered that it was no use preaching like Paul. Nobody got it and it was a man who told Geoff so. I said we should preach more like Jesus – stories taken from every day, with practical applications.

    It made a lot of difference and men started taking an interest and bringing others …

    … here you are, you might need this tin hat 😉

  3. It’s a complicated subject that I have grappled with for a while and is almost impossible to discuss without making generalisations. But is it possible that it’s actually more simple than we thought?
    In my experience the free churches aren’t experiencing the same issues here, they seem to have men and women in equal measures. The Anglican church (and I’d go as far to say the Methodists and Baptists) aren’t losing men once they’ve been so much as are not able to get them through the church doors in the first place. Maybe the ‘not wanting to look foolish’ is the key here. In a generation that have grown up with no church input at all then the idea of going into a church and not knowing what is expected of them, even when to stand up and sit down, is just too much of a big ask.

  4. Ok to be blunt, the church has become seen as a club for middle aged women by most men. Who often respect and like what the church wants to do socially. Many men will help with practical things but not feel the need to come on sundays, in my last church I told the youth group to ask if parents would come and help next saturday paint the church (it had been out of use for a long time) and lots of men turned up with kit and painted a large 60s barn of a church (walls only but they were 40feet high) within a day and when I went to buy the promised chips most made a donation (we made a small profit). Amazing good will, we had other activities going on banner making, community art etc but it was the men that struck me each of them believed in some way but really did not want to come to church. Sorry rant over

  5. Paul and Gill, I guess the challenge then is how to incorporate the practical as part of discipleship without losing the other aspects of discipleship like growing in understanding and faith…

  6. Is it only me, or does the title “The Church Impotent: the Feminization of Christianity” not sound misogynist? A predominance of the female implies impotence!? A horrible thought.

    But I agree with Veronica: characterising Christianity as contemplative is a myopic, post-Enlightenment European depiction that ignores many other forms of Christianity. Among others the Anabaptists have revived the political and social challenge of the Jesus of the Gospels.

  7. Well, I think it could be understood in that way, though the text does not support that. I suspect ‘feminization’ could be seen as the opposite of being both masculine and feminine.

    Interesting that you ascribe the key problem to that of being contemplative…

  8. Charles that is very interesting…but it suggests that men are attracted to something which is rigidly institutional, resistant to change and in some sense fundamentally irrational..?

  9. You make generalisations, at great risk, but they play out as mostly true in my context. The disconnect for so many men from church culture is so vast. In our small church in a working class area, our congregation is predominately older ladies and women with children. Our main regular ministries are coffee morning and playgroup. Connection?

    As a man and lover of music, I find many worship songs frankly embarrassing to sing in a small room without mood lighting and the anonymity of a crowd. I am frequently embarrassed by the OxBridge-style pomposity of many clergy who believe ‘taking it seriously’ means either being scarily black & white or esoterically out of this world. But they can’t play football or talk to a young person.

    I wish I had a solution. I wish my ministry wasn’t so taken up with women and children. Please help me. Said Jesus.

  10. Thanks for writing Ian. Your observation is realistic and reasonable. To make more very broad generalisations (and to risk getting MY head blown off!)…. The churches with a wider appeal to men are actually the ones where there is more care for the individual and an avoidance of “worm theology”. This generally makes people come out of church feeling worse than when they went in. It is an easy trap to fall into and many leaders fall into it unawares. The men are the first (again very broadly speaking) to challenge the preaching (if they are aware of what is happening) and/or to leave when things don’t change).

  11. Kevin, in introducing any change, there is a real question as to whether it is possible to make graduated change from the present to the desired future, or whether you need to start something quite distinct. In your case, is it possible to change things so that more men might come, or would you be better starting some men’s meetings, which are later integrated some way down the track?

  12. • Sunday schools stop around 14 at which point children are expected to sit through services that adults often find incomprehensible and boring. There is a huge drop out at this point but probably more girls continue, partly because girls tend to be more mature than boys, so are more firmly routed in their faith (at this stage) and partly because girls tend to be less physically active than boys so find it easier to sit. Therefore, men remember church as boring and irrelevant.
    • Inadvertently churches present the image that full and part time Christian work is better than secular jobs: this is done through presentations on missionary work and prayers that concentrate on the ministry team. Secular work is marginalised to the point where people in secular jobs find it hard to identify with what happens at church. (I also wonder if a number of professionals feel that to be accepted they need to renounce their day job and enter the ministry).
    • Fundamental to all faiths (excluding Christianity) is the need for action as an expression of faith; Christianity is unique in its claim that you are put right through faith alone. But I have heard that very often in the Bible the word faithful has been mistranslated as faith (probably as a throwback to the reformation wanting to escape the chains of penance, pilgrimage, indulgent, tithing etc. which were seen as essential actions to gain entrance to heaven). In the process we have lost James take on faith that it is proved by actions. Other faiths attract men because they are actioned centred; Christianity needs to refind the practical expression of Faith.

  13. Ian,

    Interesting Ian, but just one minor correction; some forms of Hinduism are male-focused but other forms are intensely female-orientated. Kali, the powerful female goddess, for instance. If you watch Bollywood movies you will notice that it is the women who are religious, pray, & go to the temple. Further, Bakhti Hinduism focus on the individual’s love relationship with the god (usually womanising Krishna). Dance, love, & focus on the beautiful image of the god/goddess & even erotic expressions of worship are central to some women’s experience of the divine in some expressions of Hinduism. As usual with Hinduism it is very hard to generalize about all forms of Hinduism.

  14. Ian – re J Fehr comment – actually “feminization” just says to me “American, not UK English”! So not at all surprised by the title nor interested in the book.

    I wonder (in a null-PC way) whether men are also put off by having women in charge – like the couple’s response in Last Tango in Halifax “I hope he isn’t a woman” and inevitably the minister was female.

    • Gary, as an American woman Christian, I agree with your assessment of J Fehr’s comment.

      As a woman I greatly prefer working for a man, and I refuse to attend a church that’s decided to place a woman in spiritual headship as preacher. American culture and American Christian culture seems to be intentionally destroying masculinity, and that’s more than just a shame.

  15. Gary I think you should be interested in the book! I think it gives the best explanation of the root theological reason behind this—the bridal imagery for Christian spirituality.

    I also think there is some quite good evidence around that men are *not* put off by having a woman in charge. Didn’t seem to affect Margaret Thatcher…

    • Margaret Thatcher was supremely qualified, and though she was a woman and certainly feminine, she understood the ways a woman leader must lead men differently. She was exceptional, and not representative of female leaders at all.

  16. Tim, I think you are right in highlighting these systemic issues, all of which need addressing in their different ways. The point about losing the theology of James is an echo of the comment I make about Matthew v John; the parallels to Jesus’ teaching in James are most closely similar to Jesus’ sayings in Matthew of all the gospels.

  17. Maggi Dawn commented on FB: I think it has everything to do with the male-female dichotomy in envisioning CHurch as female, except for those who represent the authority of Christ (who may be male). The “feminization” of the Church is thus not caused by sharing power with women, but insisting that being a church-goer/follower/attender is fundamentally feminine. (Viz., for instance, Bernard of Clairvaux.)

  18. I thought this article very thorough, though I struggled with what seemed a bit of a hasty dismissal of contemporary church practice (nearly a tradition in its own right). What I mean is, that many people had good reasons for contracting the Christian faith in the way you criticise.

    It would be better to ask why, and whether those reasons are still justified.

    As you pointed out, yes I did cringe at some of the generalisations. However I’d like to respond more positively: It seems that there is no critique of contemporary images of masculinity. We are made aware of these ideas in order to employ them into our marketing. But what if these images are bound up with sexist, classist social mechanisms? Do we risk importing these into our churches as well?

  19. Thanks Ian. I’m not sure I’m particularly critiquing practices of the *contemporary* church. Last time I looked Bernard of Clairvaux didn’t actually attend New Wine! And the comment about men with fat fingers turning pages of books doesn’t apply to churches with projection screens.

    But I think you’re spot on in your comment about contemporary images of masculinity. This is where I think Mark Driscoll has gone completely wrong. He seems to impose a contemporary American understanding of masculinity, and not very reflective one at that, onto his spirituality and on to biblical accounts of Jesus.

    It would be good to reflect more both on biblical assumptions about masculinity, and Jesus’ redefinition of them by his single lifestyle.

  20. I think this may be in part that, generalising of course, men are more likely to look at something critically and say this is not working, than women who tend to be more relational, and will put with the dysfunction to keep the peace/maintain relationship.

    For me, I just can’t relate to just about anything that goes on in church (in particular the songs which I find range from mundane and limp to actually making me want to kiss Richard Dawkins, especially some of the cringe-tastic children’s ‘songs’) and I can’t seem to find any way of shutting out the overwhelming human ‘static noise’ that goes on in church and identify where God may be in all of it. Am planning to try the quakers to see if this is an environment where the silence allows me (forces me) to give GOd space to try to get through to me!

    Also too much of church just seems to be for church’s sake, like Milton Jones’ joke “why are churches like helicopters? People avoid getting too near them because they are afraid they’ll get sucked into the rotas”

  21. James, thanks for your comments, which I think are astute. But the strange thing is that even the Quakers, in their silence, appear also to add human ‘noise’ albeit of a silent kind. Their current position on all sorts of things has moved a long way from the origins, which suggests that even in the silence, we manage to squeeze out the voice of God…

    (Btw I am not sure I like the image you have left me of kissing Richard Dawkins…!)

  22. If part of the problem were a reflective, contemplative approach, we ought to be seeing less men in Buddhism. I agree about the singing and the hands-on participation, but what I think is going on is really very simple. Market analysts have determined that whenever a certain product becomes perceived as being “for women” — such as facial care products, for example– men simply refuse to use them. This is why soft drink companies have developed a new version of low-calorie sodas that they are not calling “diet soda.” Men don’t drink diet soda because in their minds it has become a “girls’ drink.”

    I think, then, that Christianity originally attracted women for the very reason you outline– that Christianity, more than any other religion, is for the marginalized and disenfranchised. But more women than men have been going to church for so long (pretty much the entire history of Christianity, actually), that going to church is seen as a women’s thing, a girly thing, so men don’t want to do it.

    I think we need a two-pronged solution. First, men need to continue to learn to let go of the “female stuff is stupid and sissy” mentality, and to stop holding so hard to a masculine mystique of having to fit certain masculine stereotypes in order to be a “real man.” Women no longer feel the need to strive to be “real women,” and it has been very freeing for us as a sex.

    Second, churches need to emphasize church-for-men activities and a more masculine “feel” in the services– because unlike men, women are not conditioned to avoid anything with a masculine flavor as men are conditioned to avoid anything with a feminine flavor. Once the feminine stigma is gone, churches can move towards a more balanced “feel” that appeals to everyone.

  23. Your comments about the words used for love are important, because people need to be able to mean it when they say they “love God”, and for many people, especially men, it is confusing to be told that it must be an emotional falling in love with God – yes, I’ve heard that taught often enough, but it just does not ring true for many. This then can lead to confusion in worship-expression (songs) which all are expected to sing, but do not always necessarily express what many people feel. This has been described by some as the “Jesus is my boyfriend”-type worship style. Not meant irreverently, but many women can express themselves before God in this way, while many men find it crigeable. Why? Well, please let it not be said because men are always more hung up/proud/inhibited etc, or that they can’t love God so well. They want to be real in their worship, and sung worship forms a large part of many church services.The word “hesed” for love can maybe help people to interpret their relationship to God that is deep and real for them – and yes, it still has to do with relationship and knowing Jesus.
    A good article Ian – just difficult because the church spectrum is so broad.

  24. The singing thing, though, doesn’t quite stack up. Men sing hymns on the terraces at sporting events. They even sing soppy emotional songs at stadium gigs and get their lighters out to sway. Go watch Coldplay if you don’t believe me. It must be more about familiarity, context and allowable emotion – so rather than cutting out the singing, the better question would be how to create a Church environment where people (men, whoever) *want* to sing?

  25. I think the problem with the bridal spirituality of Bernard of Clairvaux and the resulting romanticization of love for Christ is a mis-application of the scriptural image of the Church as the Bride of Christ.

    There are things Scripture says about the church which it does not say about the individual believer, and there is a reason for that.

    While Christ relates to his church as a bridegroom does to a bride, he does not relate as a bride to individual believers; in fact, the romantic and sexual aspects of love this tends to remind us of are entirely inappropriate in this context. So are a lot of contemporary “worship songs”.

    Dare I say it? It is actually healthy that not many men can relate to this.

  26. Ian
    I think the all-age style suits many people not just men and is by far and away our best attended service at St James and I too keep asking the question why we don’t just do this all the time. But that aside we have found men engaging in a much simpler way over food. The Men’s Curry Club has attracted many different gentlemen, both young and old, professional and working men and as relationships have formed and embarrasments overcome and trust built then invites to Christianity Explored (also over food) have been accepted and to small discipleship groups. I think for men it’s the building of relationship, which is difficult at best on a Sunday morning, which is key for men.

  27. Dave that’s really interesting. By contrast, a number of people have commented on Facebook that it is all age services which put men off. A lot depends on how it’s done, and in particular whether the service is genuinely all age or whether it’s really just aimed at children.

  28. “So are a lot of contemporary “worship songs”.” – Agreed, Wolf Paul, although they are not nearly as sentimental as Victorian hymns.

    • I believe it may be even simpler than you’ve described. Try this: Men are naturally uninterested in the activities of women. Women are naturally fascinated by the activities of men–we love American football (very masculine, one of the few sports left with masculinity surrounding it), we’ll watch a man work on a car for awhile, we’ll watch a man do carpentry work, I’m sure you can come up with more examples.

      Because Church is currently a feminine enterprise–the singing, the sitting, all the things that are comfy for women but drive men crazy–men are quite naturally uninterested. Men are designed to fight, to struggle, to protect, to come through for us, just the way Christ did. When they are forced in to “learn to let go” of a natural and right tendency to avoid becoming steeped in femininity, why would they find church attractive?

      • Thanks, Kathy, though I have a couple of questions.

        First, most of the women I know are not that interested in the activities of men. Perhaps I mix with the wrong women!

        Secondly, I don’t find in the gospels a description of a ‘fighting’ Christ, at least not in the way that Western culture expresses this kind of masculinity.

        Having said that, I do think there is something in what you say. It is certainly the case that women don’t bring men to church, but men do tend to bring women.

  29. Hi Ian, Glad you are at last catching up with this topic which was the subject of my dissertation in 2009! The image I used was that of a warrior who needs to be accountable to a King. David Murrow wrote in 2010 The Map which charts the male journey from the feminine side of submission to the strong masculine side then back to wisdom and maturity which balances the two. Interestingly he uses Matthew’s Gospel as illustrative of this journey.

    This is a problem for Baptist Churches where the imbalance gap is widening. I am sure that the traditional style of worship is a barrier primarily because it is alien to many but also sport is a greater attraction on a Sunday. I do wonder what rugby church or football church might look like.

    On the question of songs it helps if you do not read the words! Found myself singing ‘My lover’s breath is sweetest wine’ and thinking What?

    • Thanks Tony…er though this is not the first time I have thought about it!

      I am glad to say that I have never come across that song. I could sing it to my wife…but in church??!

  30. I am intrigued by the references to modern worship songs from many contributors and wonder if we could open up that aspect of things more. I feel that recent developments in worship songs, particularly their commercialisation and the fact that some new writers have little or no theological, musical or even solid linguistic background, is resulting in distinct drop in quality. Or am I just revealing my age?


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