On Men in Church

February 5, 2018
Noah Van Niel
HDS alumnus Rev. Noah Van Niel / Photo: Brian Tortora

Last week, a fellow HDS alumnus, Presbyterian pastor and author C. R. Wiley wrote a piece that appeared on the Christian blog Patheos, under the title “On Getting and Keeping Masculine Men in Church.”

I was interested to read the piece because, as a man and an Episcopal priest, I have noticed what Wiley notices: that on a given Sunday morning, the majority of worshippers in the pews are women.

This is not just anecdotal, the Pew Research Center published a report in 2016 that said, by all measures of religiosity (affiliation, attendance, importance, prayer), across the Christian faith, women are more religious than men. While the United States scores higher than most other Western nations in levels of religiosity, in Christianity they also score higher on the gap between men and women in those same measures.

For example, 50 percent of Christian women in the U.S. report attending services weekly, while only 44 percent of Christian men report the same. This may explain why Wiley and I notice most congregations are predominately female (though they don’t come close to the “70/30” split he says most churches have).  

This Pew report is but the latest in a long line of scholarly debates around the issue of gender and religious involvement. Explanations for why “women are more religious than men” range from the biological to the psychological; to genetics (nature) or cultural factors (nurture) and everything in between.

Suffice it to say there is no agreement. The only thing that is clear is that within the Christian faith, men are outnumbered by women. Recognition of this fact has led to an entire market of materials within Christian circles (though I find most come from an evangelical perspective) that promise to help you “get and keep” men in your church.

Wiley adds the exciting qualifier of helping you “get and keep masculine men” in your church, which alludes to the long standing grievance many conservative Christians decry, which is the “feminization” of religion dating back to the nineteenth century. Part of the story goes that the church started losing men when they started letting women into leadership and ordaining them. This narrative is not based in fact (denominations with only male leadership do not score demonstrably higher in male affiliation than their more egalitarian counterparts) so much as the assumption that men just can’t take women in leadership seriously, or feel so threatened by them encroaching on their terrain, that they give up on the whole endeavor.

It is this narrative that leads Wiley to his first bit of “advice,” which is if you want to attract men to church it’s helpful to be a man. And not an effeminate man, for they “give masculine guys the creeps.” The rest of the article continues in the same vein mixing some basic pastoral common sense (reach out to people; don’t focus superficial gender markers; don’t emotionally manipulate) and inflammatory generalizations (have a firm, dry handshake; don’t touch a man’s family because touch denotes “ownership” and will engage his primal instincts to resist someone touching his “stuff”). Such suggestions do not serve as terribly helpful contributions to the larger conversation about men and the church.

Where the article is helpful is in forcing those of us in the church to ask ourselves a really important question: If we want men (self-identified) to be more religious (to affiliate as Christian, to pray daily, and attend services regularly), should the church play into traditional male stereotypes to appeal to them, or should the church try to articulate and exhibit a different kind of masculinity, founded where all our Christian views should be founded: in Jesus Christ?

Most writing on this subject, including Wiley’s piece, advocates the former. It is often based in a strong conviction that men and women are inherently different species and men have certain needs, roles, and activities they like, and most of those things aren’t very prevalent at church. It’s an ecclesiastical “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” approach. This has led to an explosion of church activities centered around sports or drinking (you know, “guy things”) in an effort to get men involved.

Men are called in to lift things and build things and set things up. Music is changed, décor is redesigned—all of these things have taken place in the past few generations. Attracting and retaining men at church is also one of the reasons some denominations or individual churches elect to have only male leadership—not just clergy, but governing boards—the  thought being that men like being in charge of things and the honor of responsibility will cause them to connect more fully to the church community. (For one example of this, see p. 7 of Upon This Rock by Samuel G. Freedman, which tells the story of life at St. Paul Community Baptist Church, New York.)

There are a number of examples—Wiley purports to be one of them—that seem to support the idea that if you make some concerted effort to make your church more “manly,” men will stay. Mark Driscoll, who founded the enormous Mars Hill Bible Church, a megachurch based in Seattle, Washington, with an intentionally “masculine” aesthetic and approach, embodied this “manly man pastor” ideal all the way down to a public view of gender complementarity that resulted in an explosion of membership (before it resulted in him being forced out for his aggressive management style). So I do not doubt that if your church wants to play into masculine stereotypes they could appeal to and retain men at a higher rate than they currently are.

But the more pressing questions is, should they? Should churches be playing into stereotypes of masculinity in the name of being more palatable to men, or should they instead be working to redefine masculinity, or, better yet, re-center it in Jesus, who was, after all, the embodiment of God in a man. He might be a good place to start if one is to think about what being a Christian man really might entail.

And what would one find if they sought a definition of masculinity that was Christo-centric? They would find a man who was strong without being domineering; inspiring without being egotistical; loving without being saccharine; committed without being fanatical; wise without being condescending. They would find a man of purpose and passion but also of patience; one who held strong convictions but invited rather than coerced people into them. He was a man of prayer and worship, as well as of servitude and celebration. A man who formed deep friendships and inspired great loyalty through openness and generosity. A man of compassion and justice, especially for those society had cast aside but also for those whose lives had come between them and God. A man who gave and gave and gave of himself for others. A man of vulnerability and sacrifice. A man who cried. A man who was afraid. A man whose power was made perfect in weakness. A man of faith and hope. The list goes on and with it grows the irony that the majority of the attributes of the Son of God are not attributes we celebrate as “manly” today.

The problem with churches playing into those traditionally masculine stereotypes—even if you think those stereotypes are true—is that they depart starkly from the example of masculinity put forth in Jesus Christ and from the fact that the kind of “traditional” masculinity it fosters is inadequate for the twenty-first century.

The masculinity most often being touted as “Christian” is toxic, it is patriarchal, and it is failing. It is failing women, it is failing society, and it is failing men themselves. For the latest example we need look no further than the courageous #metoo movement.

While #metoo rightly seeks to call attention to the prevalence of sexual harassment and abuse, what it also represents is a redefinition of the behavior of men in sexual situations and relationships. What is being called for is more equality and less manipulation or abuse of power—physical or otherwise. And what is needed for that to happen is a new cultural understanding of sexual interactions that is more egalitarian and less prone to exploitation or abuse.

The #metoo movement is just the latest in a string of crises of masculinity that have emerged as our traditional model of manhood struggles to adapt to a changing world. In the past generation, traditional “masculinity” has been falling behind in the educational, economic, and social realms of society. (See Hanna Rosin’s article, “The End of Men,” from The Atlantic July/August Issue of 2010.)

But instead of seeking out new ways of conceiving of manhood, there has been an impulse to double down on “manliness.” Concepts of what it means to be a man have been getting narrower, not broader. One needs look no further than our last election to see a resurgence of “manliness” appealing to a large swath of voters. Over and again, our Commander in Chief is lauded by his supporters for being “tough,” for never apologizing, for belittling others, and commandeering his female conquests.

In this cultural moment the church needs to make a decision. If the church really wants to help men and not just “get and keep” them, we’d do well to focus less on making our churches more “manly” and more on making them Christian. For following the masculine ideal embodied in Jesus Christ men would be given the tools they needed to succeed in adapting to the requirements of the twenty-first century without the insecurity and anxiety that has characterized the panicked move to “make men great again.”

I should note that Jesus's attributes are hardly only good for men to cultivate, but in this day and age they are especially good ones for men to cultivate, not only because, for Christians, we see in Jesus the fullest revelation of the nature of God and therefore should strive to emulate such characteristics in our daily life, but because they are the kind of virtues that still have a place in today's society and will give men the strength and flexibility to adapt to the new gender dynamics of this age.

What men need now is a different way to conceive of being a man. They need something new because the old way isn’t working. What we do not need is a retrenchment of old attitudes of what constitutes a "man" that treat our gender as little more evolved than our ape ancestors; wild animals only somewhat civilized, liable at any moment to lunge after our prey in lust or war (especially if someone tries to “touch our stuff”).

We may be animals, but that doesn't mean we have to act like them, nor does God seem to want that for us. In fact, my reading of salvation history is a series of events where God calls us to transcend our primal impulses for self-preservation and procreation in the name of a higher state of being that is embodied in the person of Jesus Christ.

In Jesus, God is calling us to be more than animals, and through the example of his life, death, and resurrection, God has given us the tools to do it. As men, and as followers of Jesus, we should proceed with the confidence and grace that comes from faith in him, and with the knowledge that actually, to thrive in today’s world, Christians need a definition of masculinity that is rooted in the place where all our lives as Christians should be based: not in old societal norms, but in the timeless truth of Jesus Christ.

I don’t know if that will solve the problem of getting more men to come to church, but it will save them all the same.

—The Rev. Noah Van Niel, HDS MDiv ’15