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Church, a ‘man-free zone’?

By Alan Palmer.

A young man was late for church. After the service the vicar greeted him and enquired as to why he had been late for worship. With a little hesitation the young man said that he was going to go fishing until his dad told him no. Although disappointed that that the young lad would even consider going fishing instead of coming to church, the vicar affirmed his father’s wise choice. Then asked, “Where’s dad?” the young man answered quickly, “Dad said that there wasn’t enough bait for us both to go fishing – so he went alone!”

In the UK, men it seems want to be somewhere, anywhere on Sunday except in Church.  Church attendance by men has been steadily falling.  Many men if asked what their denomination is will reply, “I’m a Seventh Day Absentist!”

The TearFund UK report published online in January 2011 shows that, in the last twenty years, 49% of men less than 30 years of age left the church! This may well have been via personal choice, demographic changes or natural attrition. However, the main point here is that in recent years the Church at large has not been able to recruit or retain younger men. 

At the current rate of loss, it is predicted that by 2028 men will have all but disappeared from the Church in the UK.  Carl Beech, Director General of Christian Vision for Men (CVM) notes that the Church in the UK is facing a two-pronged crisis: believing men are leaving the church in large numbers and we are failing to attract those men who are seeking answers to life’s big questions to our local churches. Also, because of the absence of men in our churches there is growing gender gap in the Christian community.

Mind the gap?

Again, the Tearfund report shows that in the UK the ratio of women to men in church is 65% to 35%. So while men still dominate the priesthood, statistics show that 2/3 of the church membership are women and, if you look at programmes run within the church, a much higher percentage of them are led by women than men. The details of attendance by gender show fewer men (11%) than women (19%) attending Church, but more men (7%) than women (6%) attending places of worship in other religions. If you look at this in the same way as we looked at the Christian Church, this would be 54% for men and 46% for women (TearFund).

This trend is substantially the same in the USA according to David Murrow in his book Why Men Hate Going to Church (Thomas Nelson, 2005). Furthermore, this gender gap has tended to exacerbate the problem of the church reaching and retaining men. Men don’t want to be a part of an organisation that they believe is mainly geared to meet the needs of women.

I believe that the root cause of this malaise is that the Church has failed to follow Jesus’ approach to evangelism - to target men with a gospel that is full of adventure and challenge.  This is not the place to advance simplistic answers or to engage in advanced ‘ecclesiastical navel gazing’. However, here are three fundamental issues to think about:

1. Is the image of Jesus presented by the Church deterring men from following Christ?

The Church seems to have contributed to the image of a ‘feminised Jesus’ in the popular male consciousness. We appear to have given the impression that principle characteristics of Jesus are that he was ‘gentle, meek and mild’?  Has this ‘ecclesiastical stereotype’ of Jesus been of a kind that men can’t relate to? The author David Murrow believes this to be the case. He attempts to show how Jesus has been feminized by the Church and this is a serious hindrance in our attempts to reach and retain men. Murrow says that this process started happening in Sunday school with pictures of Jesus as the gentle, meek saviour, well groomed and tidy. Christ is depicted as a man wearing a shiny white dress and gently taps on a door asking nicely to come in. This Jesus is depicted as playing with children and cuddling fluffy lambs. Christ is often portrayed by the Church as a ‘bearded lady’, he says. Dorothy Sayers, writing of this domestication, if not trivialisation of Christ, says that the Church has “very efficiently pared the claws of the Lion of Judah, making Him a fitting household pet for pale curates and pious old ladies”. Ouch!

However, Jesus was no pale faced altar boy, hair parted down the middle. He is a robust character that any man should be able to indentify with. A cursory reading of the Gospels dispels this false caricature of Christ. He was not the gentle Jesus meek and mild of popular Sunday School myth. In Matthew 12.12, we see Jesus aggressively and forcefully removing the religious merchandisers and trinket peddlers from the Temple. His Father’s House was not going to be turned into a religious version of a Tesco’s superstore! Jesus speaks brusquely to Peter when he suggested avoiding the way of the Cross, saying “get behind me you Satan”.  In what is called the ‘Seven Woes’ (Matthew 23), Jesus took on a direct, in your face approach with the religious leaders of his day. He calls them fools and hypocrites, blind guides and even children of Hell! Christ was compassionate to those who recognised their need, but was ruthless with those who wanted to play religious games and those he considered to be ‘religious posers’.

Jesus fits well Walter Bruggeman’s description of God; he was “Wild, dangerous, unfettered and free”.  Jesus, like C S Lewis’ Aslan in The Narnia Chronicles, “isn’t safe but He is good”.  In our preaching, men need to be clearly presented with the Jesus that is true to the gospels, not what could be considered by some to be a toned down and feminised caricature.

2. Is the language which is used by the Church deterring men from following Christ?

Many writers seem to think that the Church is using the wrong approach to language in its attempts to communicate with men. This appears to be the case in our choice of words in both preaching and singing. Research and anecdotal evidence suggests that it’s better not to use words like ‘intimate’ or ‘passionate’ to describe a man’s relationship with God or Jesus. To men these words sound like they refer to a relationship with women. In speaking to men, it’s better to use words like ‘admire’, ‘respect’, ‘in awe of’ when speaking about their relationship with God.  It is more helpful to use words like , ‘encounter’, ‘authentic contact’, ‘friendship’, ‘Jesus as Leader’, and the ‘leadership of Christ’, when referring to how men relate to Jesus.

The Church then, needs to invite men into a ‘real’ –‘full –on’, ‘no holds barred’ friendship with Jesus. It should try to use words that men can understand and relate to. Men need word-pictures that enable them to see Jesus as, their ‘Leader’, their ‘Sensei’ (Marshall Arts Concept), and their ‘Commander in Chief’. Our words have to depict Jesus as totally awesome and ultimately worth following, because that is exactly what He is!

The pastor and author Gordon Macdonald notes that words like ‘precious’, ‘tender’, and ‘gentle’ are nice words, but are not typical in masculine conversation. However, many modern Christian songs are filled with these kinds of words. Murrow believes that much of the music used in churches is too feminine. That the words of praise songs a ‘quiet romantic’. Men never call each other ‘beautiful’, ‘lovely’, and ‘wonderful’. Singing about ‘being in love with Jesus’ is not where most men are at!

A teaching colleague of mine, an ex-military type, has told me that he considers most of the modern Christian songs we sing in assemblies to be ‘insipid and soft’. He for one longs for the older and more robust hymns of the faith. In light of this, the Church needs to tap into its undoubted resources of very talented musicians and song writers to pen new songs with more masculine words. Maybe our modern church song writers could adopt and adapt some of the secular music available to use in worship, especially when men are present. When appealing to men we need more songs in our services that have adventure, daring, risk, danger and esprit de corps as their themes.

3. Is the perception that the Church is risk-averse deterring men from faith?

In her controversial book Toxic Childhood, Sue Palmer (Orion, 2007) says that there is a preponderance of female teachers in primary education in the UK. Indeed, the Times Educational Supplement (TES Friday 2nd September 2011) states that “One in four primary schools has no male teachers registered with the GTC (General Teachers Council)”. Sue Palmer believes that this lack of male role models has resulted in boys being encouraged to conform to feminine values by being encouraged to be less aggressive and not taking risks. Perhaps the church here is working toward a similar feminising and risk-averse agenda. However, if the Church downplays risk, danger and adventure in its approach to faith, it will dissuade men from joining.

John Eldridge is the director of the Ransomed Heart organisation in Colorado Springs. In his book, Wild at Heart-Discovering the Secret of a Man’s Soul (Thomas Nelson, 2010), he says that men long for adventure. He writes, “Adventure, with all its requisite danger and wildness, is a deeply spiritual longing written into the soul of a man”. Men need to know that the Christian faith is an adventure with Christ. It is tough, challenging and can call for big sacrifices. Men will not respond to a faith that avoids all semblance of risk.  Murrow writes in regard to Church culture that it is not what will attract men: “because it values safety over risk, stability over change, preservation over expansion and predictability over adventure”.

In our presentation of the gospel to men, we have to shape our words in terms of taking on a lifetime of challenge when they meet Christ. Men have to be informed that they are signing up to something that is bigger than them, something that requires them to take risks for Christ’s sake. After all, as John Wimber used to say, “faith should be spelled R-I-S-K.”

There are many other aspects of modern Church life that make it a challenge to recruit and retain men, enough for a series of articles. However, let me finish with words of challenge from the pen of David Murrow. He writes that “for years we have called men back to church. Now it’s time to call the church back to men”.

The author would welcome feed back and can be contacted at:


A short and slightly provocative editorial!

On reading the above article in the process of editing it for this edition of Ministry Today UK, my overwhelming reaction, speaking as priest of a parish where the male attendance level is around 15% of the total churchgoing population, is that if only it were that simple!

My experience tells me that it is not. Yes, by all means we need to present a more realistic picture of Jesus; change the language of our songs and liturgy; and seek to inspire and challenge men rather more than we do at present. Many of us have been trying to do those things for many years. However, it seems to me that there are a host of factors over which we have little or no control.

For example, as long as the media continue to present Christian leaders as mad, bad, pathetic and/or effeminate, there’s not much chance of us even getting a serious hearing from non-church men. Just the other evening, an episode of Lewis included a vicar who was, to put it kindly, peevish and vindictive. Now, of course, some are! But most are not, but a media industry dominated by the necessity to increase viewing figures will always fall back on stereotyping as a way to capture audience attention.

More substantially, I suggest that the absence of men from the church is largely not our fault. It’s the transformation of our wider culture and society from a world in which men knew their place in the world and were self-confident enough to embrace the Christian faith as part of their male leadership role. It was a world in which men danced and sang love songs, without any sense of anxiety about being ridiculed as effeminate. But those days have gone. Women have earned their equality (and rightly so!), but that has happened at the cost of male self-confidence. As a result, we have a couple of generations of men, grown up and still growing up, who are chronically anxious about their image in the eyes of other men. So nowadays, real men don’t sing love songs, but they chant tribal football ‘songs’. They don’t dance unless they’re too drunk to know what they’re doing. And they regard virtues such as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5.22-23) as a threat to their masculinity.

So, for sure, effeminate songs and men in long frocks don’t help, but they’re not the primary problem. The primary issue is that we live in a culture which is undergoing a massive, seismic transformation and until that transformation finds a confident direction, we will struggle to draw men into anything which they perceive as threatening to their fragile ego.

Of course, in the fullness of time, the tide will change. Men will once again feel confident about who and what they are and represent. Meanwhile, let’s take the opportunity to rethink our structures, methods, language and message, but let’s not back off from the gospel just because men don’t like it!

What do you think?

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You are reading Church, a ‘man-free zone’? by Alan Palmer, part of Issue 55 of Ministry Today, published in July 2012.

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