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