Why Men Hate Going to Church
How did a faith founded by a man and His twelve male disciples become anathema to men? Here is how to restore the balance between the feminine and the masculine in our churches.
By David Murrow
Welcome to Lakeside Church, the statistically average U.S. congregation.
- This week Lakeside will draw an adult congregation that’s 61 percent female, 39 percent male.1
- Almost 25 percent of the married women who attend will do so without their husbands.2
- The church will attract a healthy number of single women but few single men.
- The majority of men who actually show up for Sunday worship are there in body only. Their hearts just aren’t in it. Few will do anything during the week to nurture their faith.
Lakeside is the norm in Christianity — in the United States and around the world. Next time you’re in church, count noses. A 60/40 gender gap (or larger) probably affects your worship services, midweek meetings, Bible studies, ministry teams, youth group, and so on. Overseas congregations often run 80 to 90 percent female.3 In today’s church, women are the participators, and men are the spectators.
How did a faith founded by a man and His twelve male disciples become anathema to men? Why is Christianity the only major religion with a worldwide gender gap? Why are churchgoing men so hesitant to live their faith, when men of other religions willingly die for theirs?
Many church leaders seem unaware of the gender gap — or if they are, they don’t really see it as a problem. After all, if you want a smooth-running congregation, women are the key. They sing in the choir (or the worship team), care for children, teach classes, cook for potlucks, and serve on committees. They’re more pleasant to deal with and more likely to volunteer. Researcher and author George Barna puts it this way: “Women are the backbone of Christian congregations.”4
It would seem that men, on the other hand, are like hood ornaments on cars: nice, but not necessary.
Over the long term, however, a lack of men will doom a congregation. Multiple studies have shown that a lack of men is one of the strongest predictors of church decline.5 Denominations with the fewest men are the same ones that have been losing members and shutting churches. For example, the United Church of Canada, that nation’s largest denomination, is comprised of 80 percent female worshippers — and overall attendance has dropped by half in the past decade.6
But there’s an encouraging flip side to this equation. Churches with robust male participation are generally growing. That’s the secret megachurch planters such as Rick Warren and Bill Hybels learned a generation ago: grow your men, and your church will grow. This was Jesus’ strategy. It still works today.
There’s just one problem. Men hate going to church.
Lance Vs. Laura at Church
While some men have had specific, negative church experiences, others simply feel a general unease with attending. Men like Lance are common: “My wife Laura loves church, but it just doesn’t work for me,” he says. “The whole feel of it just doesn’t connect.”
So why does Laura feel right at home in church, while Lance feels out of place?
In our society, men tend to avoid any behavior (or venue) that might call their manhood into question. They don’t go to baby showers, fabric stores, or “chick flicks.” So it is with church. Men believe, deep in their hearts, that church is “a woman’s thing.”
You may be thinking, Church is a woman’s thing? How can men think this? Haven’t we been told for decades that the church is male-dominated? If you’re speaking of professional clergy, then yes, the church is male-dominated. The governing boards of many congregations remain male-only. But almost every other area of church life is dominated by women, from committees and ministries to the church office and volunteer roles. In many cases, 80 percent of the people running these key organs of the church are female.
Like a glove that slowly conforms to the hand of its wearer, Christianity has subtly conformed to the needs and expectations of its most faithful constituency — married women age 50 and up.
What do I mean? Today’s congregations focus on creating a warm, nurturing environment where the top priority is making everyone feel loved and accepted. We gather. We worship. We love one another. We sing. We instruct children. We comfort the hurting. This lineup is both beneficial and biblical, but these things alone will not get men out of bed on a Sunday morning.
Every Sunday, without even realizing it, we send subtle signals to guys that they are in feminine territory. 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 the action heroes they see in films and video games? The irony here is that the real Jesus is the ultimate hero, bold and courageous as any man alive, but we’ve turned Him into a wimp.
Let’s say a common working stiff named Nick visits your church. What’s the first thing he sees? Fresh flowers on the altar. Soft, cushiony pews with boxes of tissue underneath. Walls adorned with quilted banners or Thomas Kinkade paintings. A lace doily on the communion table. How do we expect Nick to connect with God in a place that feels so feminine?
The signals keep coming during the service. Nick may be asked to hold hands with his neighbor or sing a love song to Christ, such as, “Lord, You’re Beautiful.” Displays of emotion such as weeping, shouting, and swooning are encouraged. Then Nick will have his 8-minute male attention span put to the test by a sermon that can run an hour or more.
When this torture test is finally over, Nick is invited to have “a personal relationship with Jesus.” That phrase never appears in the Bible. Yet in the last 50 years it’s become the No. 1 way the evangelical church describes the Christian walk. When we describe our faith as a personal relationship, we’re using the native language of women.
Nick comes alive outdoors, but 99 percent 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.
What if Nick should decide to volunteer? The typical church needs people to care for infants, teach children and youth, sing, cook meals, serve on committees, and usher. Men want to serve God, but many feel ill-prepared for the ministry opportunities we’re offering them.
Bottom line: the typical church of about 100 members is no longer designed to do what Jesus did — reach men with the good news. We’ve created the perfect environment for sensitive, soft-hearted people to meet with Jesus. There are more women than men who fit the bill, so we see more of them in church.
Now don’t misunderstand me. A healthy church needs the contributions of both men and women. The answer is not to drive women and femininity out of the church. We don’t need to turn the church into a monster truck rally in order to engage men.
The answer is to make men feel wanted and needed in church again. This is surprisingly easy to do. Small, subtle changes make a huge difference.
Turning the Ship
I once interviewed Mark Driscoll, the pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle. Driscoll has grown a large, influential church that’s full of young men. I asked him, “Does Mars Hill Church have a men’s ministry program?”
Driscoll answered with a chuckle, “Mars Hill Church is a men’s ministry program.”
That’s the key. Instead of starting a men’s ministry program, take what you’re already doing and make it man-friendly. Here are a few ideas:
Men need great leadership. They are drawn by vision and purpose, achievement and power. Churches that attract enthusiastic men do so by taking risks, dreaming big, and bringing a measure of adventure back to the Christian life. Courageous leadership involves change and stirs up opposition, but over the long term it stirs hope in the hearts of men.
Help men learn. With brains less verbally agile than those of women, men require a different approach.7 The lengthy monologue sermon, so effective in the Victorian era, often fails to reach today’s male. Object lessons are essential. Jesus called these parables, and they survive to this day because men remember them. Effective pastors and teachers draw metaphors and illustrations from the realms of sports, business, battle, and survival.
Help men worship. With guys, it’s all about quality. Men appreciate good music from talented musicians, played in their vocal range. When possible, choose songs with masculine lyrics. Many of today’s praise and worship songs feature lovey-dovey words set to a romantic tune. Nick may feel strange singing, “I’m so in love with You,” to a male deity.
Help men serve. Men will gladly serve if we let them do what they’re good at. Why not work on cars? One Illinois church has an on-site, auto repair facility, staffed by volunteers, that benefits single mothers and the working poor. Even a small church can offer free oil changes in the parking lot. Our congregation started doing this twice a year; the event attracts more than 50 men who give up a Saturday morning to serve God. Even more remarkable, we almost always get a few nonreligious husbands of churchgoing wives.
Consider redecorating. Is your church adorned with quilts, ribbons, lace, and felt banners? Are the walls pink or lavender? Such details can make a difference. Men are visual, and if your worship space looks like a ladies’ parlor, men will feel uncomfortable gathering there.
Meet men’s deepest needs. Making our Sunday services male-friendly will help, but if we want men to come truly alive, we must recover two ancient roles the founders of our faith understood, but which we have lost. Men need “spiritual fathers” and a “band of brothers.”
A spiritual father is simply a layman who takes responsibility for bringing other men to maturity in the faith. This idea emerges from the discipleship models of Jesus (Luke 6:12–16) and Paul (1 Corinthians 4:14,15). I recently visited a church in Texas that embraces the concept of spiritual fathering. You cannot imagine the enthusiasm of the men in that church body.
Second, every man needs a band of brothers. Jesus began His ministry by assembling a team. They trained together, worked together, and suffered together. Men cannot succeed as followers of Jesus without a team surrounding them.
Jesus promised to make us fishers of men, but today we catch relatively few. I believe millions of men are ready to walk with their Maker if only we’ll restore the balance between the feminine and the masculine in our churches.
1. “Key Findings: Who Worships in the U.S.?,” U.S. Congregations, “U.S. Congregational Life Survey – Key Findings,” 29 October 2003, www.uscongregations.org/key.htm (See more at: http://churchformen.com/men-and-church/where-are-the-men/#sthash.LB59Gglc.dpuf)
2. I came up with this figure by taking the U.S. Census 2000 numbers for total married adults and overlaying Barna Research’s year 2000 percentages of male vs. female attendance at weekly worship services. The figures suggest at least 24.5 million married women attend church on a given weekend, but only 19 million married men attend. That’s 5.5 million more women, or 22.5 percent. The actual number may be even higher, because married people attend church in much greater numbers than singles.
3. I’m unaware of a worldwide survey of gender distribution in local churches. However, I’ve spoken to numerous missionaries, particularly from Latin America and Southeast Asia who report up to 90 percent female attendance in their worship services.
4. “Women are the Backbone of Christian Congregations in America,” Barna Research Online 6 (March 2000). https://www.barna.org/
5. C. Kirk Hadaway, “FACTs on Growth.”
7. Robin Nixon, “Matters of the Brain: Why Men and Women are So Different,” Live Science 1 (May 2012)