Men avoid behaviors and venues that might call their manhood into question. For example, men don’t go to baby showers, fabric stores, or “chick flicks.” And many men believe, deep in their hearts, that church is a women’s thing. It just doesn’t resonate with them.
How can men think this? Isn’t church male-dominated? If you’re speaking of professional clergy, then yes, the church is male-dominated. The governing boards of some congregations remain men-only. But almost every other area of church life is dominated by women. Armies of women.
Church is a warm, nurturing environment where the top priority is making everyone feel loved and accepted. We gather. We worship. We love each other. We sing. We instruct children. We comfort the hurting.
Why does this turn off many men? As John Eldredge wrote, men are wild at heart. Though men see the goodness of the Christian faith, they are not swept up in it because church life is so soft and sweet. The cautious, sensitive, relational culture of today’s church fails to match the adventurous spirit found in many men.
It starts early
Think of the pictures of Jesus you saw as a child. Didn’t they suggest a tender, sweet man in a shining white dress? As our boys grow up, whom will they choose as a role model: gentle Jesus, meek and mild, or a muscle-bound action hero? The irony here is that the real Jesus is the ultimate hero, bold and courageous as any man alive, but we portray him as a wimp.
There are signals in the sanctuary. Let’s say a common working stiff named Nick visits your church. What’s the first thing Nick sees? Fresh flowers on the altar. Soft, cushiony pews with boxes of Kleenex underneath. Neutral carpet abutting lavender walls, adorned with quilted banners (or worse: Thomas Kinkade paintings). Honestly, how do we expect Nick to connect with God in a space that feels so feminine?
Nick looks around at other men. Some are obviously there against their will, dragged by a wife or mother. Others are softies. Research finds that men who are interested in Christianity are less masculine than average; seminarians also exhibit more feminine characteristics than the typical male. Even the vocabulary of churchgoing men is softer. Christian men use terms such as precious, share, and relationship, words you’d never hear on the lips of a typical man.
The signals keep coming during the service. Nick may be asked to hold hands with his neighbor. He may be asked to sing a love song to Christ, such as, “Lord, You’re Beautiful,” or “Jesus, I am so in love with You.” Someone may weep. Then Nick will have his male attention span put to the test by a monologue sermon. When this torture test is finally over, Nick is invited to have a personal relationship with Jesus.
Let’s spend a moment on that last one: a personal relationship with Jesus. That phrase never appears in the Bible. Yet in the past 50 years it’s become the number one way the evangelical church describes the Christian walk. It’s turned the gospel into a puzzle for men, because most guys don’t think in terms of relationships. Let’s say Lenny approaches Nick and says, “Nick, would you like to have a personal relationship with me?” Yuck! Men don’t talk or think like this, yet we’ve wrapped the gospel in this man-repellent package.
The signals keep coming: Nick comes alive outdoors, but 99% of church life takes place indoors. Nick was never much of a student, but taking classes, reading the Bible, and studying books are presented as cornerstones of a living faith. He lacks the verbal skills to pray aloud, or to sit in a circle and share his feelings.
Let’s say Nick makes it through this minefield and decides to volunteer. The typical church needs people to care for infants, to teach children and youth, to sing, to cook meals, to serve on committees, and to usher. Given that list, where do you think Nick will sign up? Somewhere in church history, most of the masculine roles were discarded (or assigned to professional clergy), while roles for laywomen multiplied. Today, Christian service revolves around tasks that women have traditionally performed. Men want to serve God, but many feel ill-prepared or even emasculated by the ministry opportunities we’re offering them.
The feminine atmosphere in our churches causes women to feel loved and nurtured, but men to feel hesitant and restrained. The only men who can function in this feminine milieu are those who happen to be particularly sensitive, verbal, dutiful, or studious. The more masculine the man, the more alienated he feels in the modern congregation.
What’s the solution? Make the church more macho? Hand-to-hand combat during the offertory? Hardly.
Instead of painting a masculine veneer on church, challenge the feminized culture that dominates many churches (even those run by men).