Are churches 'too feminized' for men?


By Robin Russell

United Methodist Reporter

Author David Murrow says a typical guy feels as comfortable in church as Tom Sawyer in Aunt Polly’s parlor.


“He must watch his language, mind his manners and be extra polite,” Murrow writes in his popular 2005 book, Why Men Hate Going to Church. That’s because the altar flowers and felt banners, mostly female Sunday school teachers and blue-haired ladies playing the organ all make church feel like a “woman’s thing.” And unless a man enjoys serving on a committee or passing out bulletins, he may feel there’s not much for him to do, so he steers clear.


Today’s contemporary worship services aren’t much better: Their soft praise-and-worship songs and emphasis on relational needs are better suited to the needs of women than men, says Murrow, who is a member at a nondenominational church in Anchorage, Alaska.


“If church was a place where men could be real and not religious, you’d see a lot more of them,” he concludes.


United Methodists may not see completely eye-to-eye with Murrow, but statistics on American church life seem to bear him out.

More than 90 percent of American men believe in God, and 5 of 6 call themselves Christian, according to the Barna Research Group, a Christian research firm based in Ventura, Calif. But only 2 of 6 attend church on a given Sunday.


Church attendance is roughly one-third male and two-thirds female. Nearly a quarter of married women attend church alone while their husbands sleep in, mow the lawn or play golf.


It’s not that men are less religious than women, Murrow says, because other religions have little trouble drawing males. His theory is that Judaism, Buddhism and Islam offer more “uniquely masculine” experiences for men.


‘Feminized’ church

The notion of each person as essentially feminine before God is evident in today’s praise-and-worship songs that are “love songs to Jesus,” Murrow says.

That doesn’t bother Art Brucks, who helped launch the men’s ministry at First United Methodist Church, Mansfield, Texas. He sings in the church’s praise choir and lifts his hands during worship. But he draws the line at holding hands when praying or sharing feelings in a mixed group. He also doesn’t like feminine touches during worship, like when 12-year-old girls in pink flowing dresses “slit up to the hip” performed a liturgical dance on a recent Sunday morning.


“I about got sick. I had to keep my head down and just read Scripture,” Brucks said. “I think a guy is looking for Christ in a way that he can identify with in a church. My pastor nails it 90 percent of the time, so I can’t complain.”

It helps that his pastor, who leads the men’s ministry, is “a real man, a 50-year-old guy who is physically fit, plays basketball with the guys every Sunday night after preaching four services and can still bench-press 350 pounds.”

Muscular Christianity

That kind of masculine approach has been part of historical church efforts to reach men, including the “muscular Christianity” movement of the late 19th century that extolled manliness and, in the last few decades, the popularity of Promise Keepers. More recently, John Eldredge’s best-selling Wild at Heart has spawned a number of wilderness retreats and Bible studies for men.

Rob Renfroe, minister of discipleship at The Woodlands (Texas) United Methodist Church, leads a Quest men’s breakfast that was inspired by Eldredge’s work and draws 300 men.


“Men can talk in different ways to other men. We talk about real-life issues that matter to them,” he said. Men want to hear, for instance, about workplace issues, their responsibilities to their wives and families and the need for healthy male friendships. The Quest group has spawned 15 small groups that meet throughout the year.


In spite of such efforts, the only golden age in American male church attendance to date, according to Murrow, was during the 1950s and 1960s when church construction was also booming. Attendance then mirrored the adult population (53 percent female and 47 percent male).


“But once the paint dried, men began to get bored. There was nothing for them to do,” he says in his book. Upstart churches still tend to draw more men than denominational congregations that have been around awhile. That’s because newer churches use the kinds of skills men bring to the table, Murrow explained.

Larry Malone, director of United Methodist Men’s Ministries, thinks church today is “feminized to a degree” because a disproportionate number of women are present as the power players and because there’s been a “distinct absence of the right kind of male leadership.”


“I don’t think this is a master plot or scheme. It’s just how things have evolved. There’s not a bad guy in this,” he said.


In the past, male church leadership has sometimes wrongly reflected a patriarchal mentality that said, “I’m not just the male, I’m the alpha male and I’m in charge around here,” Malone said. “This is the very model that feminism had its rightful stand against. The male leadership that has been absent is servant leadership as modeled by Christ.”


What men want

While the Rev. Mark Winter doesn’t buy into all the “red-meat theology” promoted by some men’s movement authors, he’s learned from leading men’s retreats in Fort Worth, Texas, what men are looking for in a church.


“Men like adventures. Men like challenges. We like in-your-face sermons. We need to be pursuing God on our own, and not expecting the preacher to change our spiritual diaper each Sunday,” he said. “All week long, we’re given projects, goals and challenges by our bosses. We like to sink our teeth into projects. If a pastor can theologize that this is what Jesus did, it stirs men’s hearts. We want to be impacting our world for Christ.”


That’s part of the formula that worked for Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church in Columbia, S.C., a congregation whose men’s group used to consist of a monthly restaurant meal that “had no energy,” said the Rev. Michael Bingham.

The church now recruits men for hands-on service projects instead of committee work. Men repair homes of elderly members. They participate in rebuilding projects on the Gulf Coast. And they’ve gone on service missions trips to Mexico the last two years. The church also launched a popular “Men Cook With Fire” monthly get-together, where the men grill something, eat together and hear inspirational speakers. The gathering is so popular that men have begun inviting their friends, Bingham said.


“Some aren’t members at any church. That’s been the most pleasing,” he said. “It’s come out of hard prayer and trying a few things that didn’t work. Men want to belong to something larger than themselves. They like doing something that matters.”


UM Men responds

Malone agrees that “significance is a huge issue for guys.” Trouble is, he adds, many men haven’t found it at church.


“Our worst fear is getting near the end of our life and just not having mattered. This is deep in the soul of men.In a very real sense, a man wants something that is worth dying for. And if he actually has something that is worth dying for, he can live for it.”


In his work with United Methodist Men, Malone sometimes uses books such as Why Men Hate Going to Church to start discussions on how to more effectively reach men.


“One of the provocative statements in the book that affects our church is that ‘men follow men,’” he said. “Could that be considered true? If our biggest purpose is reaching all of God’s creatures for Christ, what could a female pastor do with the fact that some men are more likely to respond to male leadership?


“The question you have to get past is, ‘Should it be this way?’ Of course it shouldn’t be. Then you move on to the reality that this is how it is with some people.”


Malone said United Methodist clergywomen need to be secure enough in their leadership to be able to engage men who are “on the periphery.”


‘Wesley men’

The church should be helping each man understand “how absolutely crucial his faith walk is” because it affects not just himself, but his marriage and his family, Malone said.


United Methodist Men wants to help men find a place in church, and more importantly, develop a sense of eternal significance, through a new partnership called Wesleyan Building Brothers, a one-year, small-group curriculum that will help move men toward what Malone calls “a full pursuit of God, who is adventuresome, powerful, loving – a Christ who is simply to be worshiped and fallen down before.”


Men will first work on maturing their own faith and growing toward Christ. But it doesn’t stop there. They will go on to become “spiritual fathers” by helping reproduce the Christian faith in someone else, and ultimately help that person reproduce the faith in others.


“Wesleyan Bands of Brothers” will be launched at 70-80 churches in the Tennessee Area and six to eight other areas before 2007. Eventually, some 1,000 men will be trained to help set up teams in every district so that by 2012, all 35,000 United Methodist congregations will have a Wesleyan Band of Brothers influencing their local church.


“This is different than just good, faithful men who attend church,” Malone said. “If it doesn’t take your breath away, if you don’t realize you need God to do this, then you didn’t get it.”


Russell is the managing editor of the “United Methodist Reporter” in Dallas. This story was originally published in the “Reporter.”