Even a cursory look around the sanctuary on Sunday morning will make clear that far more women attend church than men. In 2004 David Murrow wrote a book about this called Why Men Hate Going to Church in which he surveyed the contemporary scene. His findings made for depressing reading.
Women comprise more than 60 percent of the typical adult church attendance on any given Sunday. At least one-fifth of married women regularly worship without their husbands. There are quite a few single churchgoing women but hardly any single men in today’s churches. Every day it gets harder for single Christian women to find men for romance or marriage. This gender gap places a strain on churchgoers.
Murrow points out that this heavy female skew is unique to Christianity. Other religions such as Islam and Judaism do not show this effect.
If anything, the active practice of Islam and Judaism appears to be primarily male-driven, with many male-only rituals that are widely participated in. This divide is particularly acute in the black community. Morrow notes, “The African-American community faces the prospect of separate religions for each gender: Christianity for women, Islam for men.” Something specific to Christianity or Christian practice today does not attract – or even actively repels – men.
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Murrow’s thesis is that Christianity became stylistically feminized to cater to a female audience.
In effect, it targeted a female customer segment, then branded and marketed itself accordingly. For example, he cites the love-songs-to-Jesus style – “the greatest of all romance” as one Hillsong tune puts it – that dominates contemporary Christian worship music. But beyond Sunday morning service, the entire infrastructure of Christian culture targets women:
Women are more likely than men to shop at a Christian bookstore, watch a Christian TV station, or listen to Christian music. Christian retailers and media executives know this. They market and sell their products accordingly. In every Christian bookstore in America, the women’s section is bigger than the men’s section-usually three to four times bigger…. Not only do women read most of the Christian books; they write most of them as well. Although many of the blockbuster titles are still written by men, there are far more women writing for the church market. I recently attended a Christian writers’ conference that attracted sixty-five women and five men…. Radio listeners, in general, are an exact replica of the population: 51.7 percent female, 48.3 percent male. But Christian AC radio (the format playing on most contemporary Christian music stations today) draws an audience that’s 63 percent female and 37 percent male. Christian stations garner, on average, 21 percent more women listeners than mainstream stations…. K-Love, America’s largest syndicated Christian music radio service, with affiliates in 189 cities and towns, 12 targets its programming at eighteen- to forty-five-year-old women.
He even implies this has bled into theology. He notes creating two columns of characteristics and asking people which one best represented Jesus Christ. These weren’t biblically derived lists but were instead compilations of masculine and feminine traits taken from the book Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. People overwhelmingly said the list of feminine characteristics best described Christ.
I am hardly the first to point out that the church itself has long been feminized and hostile to men and masculinity who are often risk-takers. As a recent Wall Street Journal article pointed out, concerns about a loss of masculinity are a longstanding feature of our society. This was recognized pretty much all along the way, and various strategies have been employed to try to deal with it. All without success, obviously.
One of them was the so-called “muscular Christianity” movement of the 19th and early 20th centuries. A great overview of this movement is available in the final resource I’ll present for researching this problem. That resource is an installment in a multi-part in-depth series on masculinity and Christianity from Art of Manliness, the site I mentioned in my last newsletter. Author Brett McKay is a Mormon as I noted, but this is a very fair series, one that gives a more in-depth précis of the material I presented here. The installment on muscular Christianity is a great overview of the movement.
If the feminization of Christianity was rooted in the faith’s lack of physicality, the solution was obvious: to connect the faith to the body. And not just any kind of body — a strong and vigorous one…. Adherents of the [Muscular Christianity] movement sought to make the Christian faith more muscular both literally and metaphorically — strengthening the physical bodies of the faithful while pushing the church’s culture and ethos in a more vigorous, practical, challenging, and action-oriented direction.
Among the key players here were the YMCA and the Boy Scouts, and also preachers like Billy Sunday. There were also attempts to create a more masculine hymnal and Christian art. They tried to sell a type of church for men product. A men’s ministry that embodied a masculine spirit. The attempt was to kindle a man-friendly discipleship to Jesus Christ. However, there are two things worth noting about the Muscular Christianity movement.
First, it failed. Secondly, it actually helped undermine Christianity through the development and promotion of an idea that contributed towards pushing the mainline denominations away from orthodox beliefs, namely the Social Gospel:
Muscular Christians were frequently big proponents of embracing what was known as the “Social Gospel.” This movement, which emerged at the turn of the 20th century, charged Christians with applying the obligations and ethics found in the gospels to issues related to health, corruption, economic disparities, and social justice, including but not limited to, poverty, alcoholism, crime, unemployment, child labor, unsafe foods/water, and inadequate schools. The Social Gospel movement was considered to be the religious wing of the Progressive movement, which aimed to marshal the tools of science, technology, and economics to alleviate suffering and improve the human condition.
The Social Gospel, which tended towards a complete immanentization of the Kingdom of God, was one of the forces (though certainly not the only one) that fostered the decline of the mainline Protestant denominations.
It’s important for us to study the history of men, women, and the Christian church, and the ways in which the church has tended to respond to gender issues in the past, as we try to develop approaches going forward. It’s a lesson church leaders would do well to learn.
Analysts like Murrow, who simply survey the present-day scene, are mistaken. He assumes the modern church gender gap is simply an outcome of modern customer segmentation and marketing techniques. He does call out some of the history but fails to use it to inform his analysis.
It’s very easy for people like me to fall into a trap and think we are the first people to discover this problem, and propose some solutions to it. Almost certainly anything we come up with will have already been tried and been found wanting by the marketplace (i.e., it failed). One modern man-friendly ministry is Promise Keepers, it’ll be interesting to see how their ministry continues.
I personally want to study the muscular Christianity movement and other responses to the lack of men in the church in more detail to understand their theory of change and what went wrong.
Most critically, we can easily find ourselves, with the best of motives, actually making things worse. The Social Gospel movement, for all its good intent and even accomplishments, helped to undermine the faith in mainline Protestantism. It is interesting that megachurches, however, seems to have a more robust attendance among male churchgoers.
As I said, I don’t pretend to have all the answers. I can say that from what I’ve seen – and I’ve done a lot of study on this already – the real reasons men don’t like going to church is the Christian church has had a long significant tendency to demonize men and pedestalize women. And I’m convinced this view is both false and destructive. The average man doesn’t want to go to his local church service and be demonized.
I don’t argue instead that men are perfect and women are evil.
Rather, it’s that we’ve forgotten that we all Fallen creatures – and that a vast potentiality for sin lies within every human heart. Both men and women have an equally immense capacity for depravity.
This post was put together and inspired by what was written in Masculinist #3.