I conducted what turned out to be an interesting experiment the other day.
I asked a group of men to give me words that described a real man. Quickly, they came up with about a dozen terms including: strong, courageous and macho. I then asked them to give me terms that described a real Christian. This time I got words like: compliant, fearful and faithful. There was little similarity between the two lists. My immediate reaction was, “No wonder men don’t attend church anymore.”
The 20th century witnessed the wussification of the church. It seems “real men” neither eat quiche nor go to church — the church has become the province of women. Once strong in attendance and leadership, men systematically have relinquished their position to women. It was as if men viewed participation in church to be a zero-sum game: As women assumed their rightful places as church leaders, men abdicated theirs. Rather than welcome women as co-leaders, men left the playing field.
The statistics are stark. In the U.S., the population in the 15- to 64-year-old age group is evenly divided between men and women. Our churches do not reflect that. About 43 percent of our adult population are considered to be regular church attendees, and those who attend church are divided not 50-50 but 61-39 in favor of women. What these statistics tell us is that fewer than 17 percent of men attend church with any regularity. Even worse, 31 percent of men say that they never go to church.
This trend is not unique to the U.S.; in most Western nations the trend is the same. The old rule of thumb is that 48 percent of people in the U.S. attend church, 24 percent of Canadians, 12 percent of British, and 6 percent of continental Europeans. With male attendance in Europe similar to that in the U.S., this means that only 2 percent of European men attend church.
Given that men continue to dominate some occupational groups — such as law enforcement, justice, politics and the military — this should give us pause. Certainly it is possible to develop a loving, caring ethic outside the walls of the church or synagogue, but a spiritually grounded ethic has a dimension that is missing from other approaches. Putting non-churchgoing men who do not intentionally live under the influence of the God of peace in places in which force, strength and conflict are the norm only can lead us down a risky path.
Why no men? Surveys show the church is perceived to be a place of softness, yielding, submission and safety — all “female” characteristics. Men, who spend the first 25 years of their lives attempting to develop their masculinity, view this as precisely a nonmale environment, and one that they don’t need.
What should we do? Install a bar in the church basement? Schedule church activities around sports game times. Have a big screen TV in the church lounge? As long as the environment remains predominantly female, these will make little difference. If we are serious about bringing men back into the church, we have to bring forth examples like Sampson (see Judges 15:9-15; 16:1-3, 23-30); David (I Samuel 17:1-11, 32-37, 45-51); Peter (John 18:10); and Jesus (Mark 11:11, 15-16).
These men had a vision and saw God as a strong leader. We need to instill this perspective in our churches and challenge men to accomplish difficult tasks. We need to help men focus on outcomes as much as relationships. Until we provide opportunities for church men to act like “real men,” it will be golf rather than God on Sundays.
Benjamin G. Davis was executive director of the Religious Coalition for Emergency Human Needs in Frederick from 1996-99, teaches theology at Saint Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore and is president of the University of North America. If you would like to respond to his column, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.