Where Are All the Men? Exploring the Gender Gap in Church

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Have you ever walked into a church and silently asked yourself: Where are all the men? Although the majority of religious congregations in America identify their pastor or religious leader as male, you’re not imagining that shortage of men in the pews.

gender gap in church

According to Cathy Grossman of USA Today, “Women outnumber men in attendance in every major Christian denomination, and they are 20% to 25% more likely to attend worship at least weekly.” The 2001 U.S. Congregational Life Survey (USCLS) reinforces this data. This survey revealed that an average American congregation is roughly 61% female and 39% male.  

Why does this matter, and what are the far-reaching consequences of a shortage of churched men? Ross Sawyers, pastor of 121 Community Church, answers this question in stark terms. Sawyers argues that families are 90% more likely to attend church if the man of the household attends. This means that, with a minority of men as significant as the one described by Grossman and the USCLS, the church risks losing the majority of its congregation (both male and female) over time.

The good news is that the number of unchurched men has gone down from 60% in 2003 to 54% in 2014. But a Barna study conducted in 2007 showed that roughly 75% of mothers said that faith was important in their lives, while only around 66% of fathers agreed. What’s even more thought-provoking is the fact that 5 out of 6 men consider themselves Christian and profess faith in God, but only a fraction of this number actually go to church. This data point would seem to suggest that it’s not that men are less inclined to be believers, they’re just less inclined to go to church. Why?

Why Is the Church Losing Men?

In order to answer this question, we have to go back in history a few hundred years. Nancy Pearcey, the author of Total Truth: Liberating Christianity From Its Cultural Captivity, says in her book that the gender gap in Christianity may have begun as long ago as the dawn of the Industrial Age.

Pearcey argues that the Industrial Revolution drove men away from the home and into the more distant workplace. She thinks that this move may have driven a wedge between the work and private lives of men, leaving the women at home to take care of matters such as child-rearing and religion.

While this may be true, David Murrow, author of Why Men Hate Going to Church, says that it is the modern feminization of the church that is driving men away.  Murrow argues that the church has “wrapped the Gospel in this man-repellent package” by presenting the church as a “relational” and “nurturing” congregation. He thinks that this warm presentation of the church is alienating to more “goal-driven” and “competitive” men.

Now, clearly this stereotype of the rugged, adventurous individual is a hypermasculinized view of man, but Murrow’s point is that by becoming a place dominated by women, the church has come to place a positive emphasis on traits that are more stereotypically attributed to women (emotional expression of feelings, nurturing, physical touch, etc.) which make some men uncomfortable. Some pastors agree with Murrow and believe that men need to face the epic struggle of following Jesus, a struggle that is often overshadowed by the affirming, safe, and inviting atmosphere fostered by many churches.

Steve Sonderman offers another possible reason for the decline in male church attendance in an article for Charisma News. Citing a survey from 2013, Sonderman says that 92% of men have never heard a sermon that discussed the topic of work, a subject that would hold meaning and relevance for most men. Although it’s true that the number of female primary breadwinners in America is on the rise, recent data from Pew Research indicates that sixty percent of breadwinners are still male, suggesting that the topic of work would be relevant to the majority of men. Sonderman’s point is that men don’t find sermons to be relevant to their lives. “Most men in our society today do not see the value of going to church,” he says. “It is not speaking their language, and it is not addressing the issues they face.”

To make matters worse, the decline in male attendance in church creates a vicious cycle, with more men tempted to view church as an all-girls club where they would not be welcome or comfortable.

The Solution:

So what is the church going to do? How does the church attract men?

Music:

One theory posited by Dr. Barry Liesch states that a shift in the kind of worship music used in church might make men feel more welcome. Liesch points out that much modern worship music uses romantic and sometimes even erotic language to describe the relationship between man and God. Steve Craig, the director of Yorba Linda Friend Church’s men’s ministry, says that his church is trying to re-imagine worship with men in mind by replacing “flowery songs… with the warrior-type lyrics and more masculine things that men identify with.” Again, this hypermasculine portrayal of men may lack nuance and risks stereotyping. However, perhaps more churches should follow Craig’s lead and re-evaluate the lyrics of their worship music.   

Men’s Ministry:

Another possible cause for the gender gap in America’s churches lies in the shortage of men’s ministries. I did an unscientific survey of churches in Northern Virginia, and out of the nineteen churches whose websites I visited (nine Catholic, ten Protestant), only nine had explicitly male-oriented fellowship groups (excludes service groups, like the Knights of Columbus). Thirteen churches had explicitly female groups, and six had non-gender-specific fellowship groups.

Although mine was a crude survey, the results reflect a trend described by Holly Pivec: One of the reasons why churches have a hard time attracting men as attendees is that many churches offer Bible studies, books clubs, and mother’s circles for female attendees, while men sometimes only get the occasional or yearly retreat. Perhaps one way for churches to attract more men would be to re-vamp their men’s ministries.

Re-design:

Some churches, like 121 Community Church, are making a drastic move and are re-designing their worship spaces and websites as part of an initiative to bring men back to the church. Expect interiors that are more rugged or lodge-like in an effort to cater towards a more masculine audience. As part of this initiative, some churches are offering their male attendees a way to actively participate in fellowship with more “manly” activities, such as hunting, outdoor adventures, and Beast Feasts. Have you thought about re-designing any aspects of your church’s interior or activities in order to make men feel welcome?

Do you have more ideas for how to bridge the gender gap in America’s churches? Let me know in the comments below!

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Julia DeCelles-Zwerneman

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Julia DeCelles-Zwerneman is a Software Analyst for Capterra, a company that loves connecting buyers and sellers of business software. She specializes in construction management software. When she’s not covering the industry, you can find her playing piano, reading obsessively and playing volleyball.

Comments

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I tend to agree with David with regards to gender based programs. As a man I tend to resent being recruited in to a men’s club. I feel like people just want to make a male version of the female clubs that are already in place. I want to interact with Christian women in a safe environment.

I also agree with Mark that churches don’t care about single men. Jesus is a single man and I wouldn’t be surprised if he would be rejected by most churches today.

The most important thing for me as a male is truth. Sadly many churches are just a business that is more interested in religious, political, and scientific correctness then what is actually Biblical and real.

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I think its pretty common. I go to church in southern california.. as a female its quite vexing when there are hardly any men, or 95% of them are married by age 20.

I’ve been to numerous churches and there is most always a gender imbalance 65% female, 45% male on sundays..then at small groups its usually more skewed or its mostly married couples.

The “women” are generally told to accept a domestic role, and the men are encouraged to marry young… This usually leads to divorces. Some people aren’t ready for marriage or maybe shouldn’t marry at all, and some women are more educated , making it really hard for anyone to be interested in them.

Case in point I went to a church in a larger more affluent city and i was 1 of 2 people who were getting a graduate degree. The other was a guy. The men in the church were largely uneducated… I think most saw me as overly-educated.

sigh.

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Please google “dalrock blog” & go to his link. He has a well broken-down analysis of reasons.

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I am writing from Brisbane, Australia. There is seems to be a similar gender imbalance situation in churches in Australia – or at least a perception of one.

Now I am writing as man who has not regularly attended church for a long time and I am not likely to do so in the immediate future. However, my one of reasons for staying away is not the ‘feminization.’ Rather, I am tired of gender stereotypes, gender based assumptions and gender segregation. For me, church is becoming too gendered. I find many of the stereotypes in the church, and in this article, to be offensive

Many of Mr Murrow’s sexist ideas concern me. They really belong in the dust bin of history. They do not reflect a contemporary world where the lines between the genders are breaking down.

I am male but I am very much seeking a ‘nurturing’ and ‘relational’ environment over a ‘goal driven’ and ‘competitive ‘one. And how dare anyone tell me what my needs are based on my gender? Also, how dare Mr Murrow or anyone else tell women that they cannot be competitive or goal driven? I deal with very goal driven women all the time and I have benefited so much from knowing them.

Whenever I contact a church and make an enquiry about reconnecting and engaging in the questions, the first thing people usually do is to try to draft me off to gender based (men’s) groups and activities. I resent being categorized by my gender and the assumption that I will have much in common in someone simply because we are of the same sex. I resent people deciding for me that I will like an activity because I am male.

At the end of the day, it is the ‘men’s stuff’ and the ‘Murrow-esque’ agenda driving me further away from church. A church ‘Re-designed’ as this article advocates would be unbearable for a man like me who unashamedly and apologetically does not fit the usual male ‘mould’.

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I read the article and some of it repeated. I agree with much assessment in the article which is true. However, not always because they have not asked us. For instance, the Deaf church I was attending from 1995 to 2002 still remains the same today as I visited. The majority are men my age (I am 51) ever since because we are pretty much Rubella babies generation of mid 1960s. There are about 4 or more men for ever female. Now, the interesting part is that back in 90s, the majority of females were seniors citizens or married women not married to any of us men during the time. The same said is true presently in 2010s.

This is a whole another subject to talk about but from my experience as missionary, SS teacher, and Bible Study host, seeing hearing church, the balance is about the same. Not more females.

Now, about the singles, churches have truly turned way from singles and that turned me off the same in the Deaf ministry because of the female-male ratio in my old church. I run my own tiny church which is more like a cell type of group. Majority is still men! 5 to 1.

While the article is great.. what lacks about the single men. Single men I tell you that they felt ignored in churches because churches are too family oriented and focused on families than singles so then men see that with women there saying, “Wait on the Lord” which quite really mean, “Back off! I am not interested in you.” I know what it really means.. I hate to be frank here.

Men ministry also lacks attention to single men.. Sure, about work but what about dating? What about singlehood? None.

We are supposed to go to church for God, yes. However, because churches are supposed to be where God tells us what we need.. and need to hear. So, yes, churches need to help singles. Loneliness is a sickness as matter of fact because today with rages, with anger, anything bad can happen. We need to balance that. Single men who are Christians quit churches because women do not heed. I mean literally, I have watched.. including myself. So, the article lacks on this point too. So, I am merely adding what else. So, if you want to further comment and discuss with me, that is fine, Julia DeCelles-Zwerneman.

Also the men in churches other than Catholic KOC, Christian men ministry also would love to have a Knight Templar-style ministry. To provide men like what Boy Scouts is to the boys. Boot camps, rigid biblical education and mission training, outfits like campo, dress uniforms, etc. I felt we need this to shape up and this can bring America back. When men do this, they can lead healthy marriage and family lives. That will bring America back. But also we can go witness tougher closed-minded people out there (JW, LDS, INC, Islam, etc).

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