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Friday, March 14, 2008

Rise up, O Men of God!

You may be surprised to see a heading like that from me: Rise up, O Men of God! But recently various religious pundits have been weighing in on the recent Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life (found at which was just issued in late February. The report indicates that almost half of Americans have changed the faith or denomination of their childhood (I would be one of those) or choosing not to affiliate with a faith tradition at all (the "nones" as I call them). The study indicates that religion in the US is "diverse and fluid" as individuals "pick and choose religions that meet their needs."

I listen to a podcast called "Interfaith Voices" with Maureen Fiedler as host each week. Recently (March 6) she had James Twitchell on her show ( who has written a book called, Shopping for God, and he reflected on this Pew Forum study, but focused on men in the big "spiritual brand shifting" of religion in the US. He said some pretty provocative things, not with an axe to grind (i.e. there is a "the feminization of the church" because we have a woman bishop, district superintendent and pastor) but from the perspective that it's just plain hard for men to be comfortable in church with no gender reference in terms of who is the pastor. In fact, he suggests it has more to do with the seating and the singing than who is leading worship.

Women, he says, want to go to church and take their children. Men don't want to go and want to be comfortable in cinema-type seats as opposed to pews; they don't like to sing in public, especially if they can't read music. He said (please don't blast me for his words!): "Men have to be coddled in order to go to church." I thought that was a bit over the top and a grand, sweeping generalization but he did say it!

Most importantly men need groups where they can talk about the Bible with each other, what it means to go through a divorce or what it's like to be misunderstood at work or how to be a father. Often Bible studies are both genders because we're trying so desperately just to get some warm bodies there. I wonder how many of our churches have men's groups. When are they? Are they well-received?

I also know that children are more likely to get the idea that religion is important if their dads are actively involved and if their families (mothers and/or fathers in this case) read the Bible and pray outside of church.

I was challenged by his emphasis on men in light of "spiritual brand switching" and the growing group of religiously unaffiliated.



Jeff Ozanne said...

I think unfortunately there is some truth to this. While I do not have the hard statistical evidence that Twitchell probably did when he made his statements but my limited anecdotal evidence seems to support his claim. On the whole in my congregation women attend more than the men do, despite the fact that 90% of my members are couples, in almost every case the woman has a better attendance record than the man. We are finally getting a men's breakfast group together, but the church has had a UMW basically since it began and the only continuous study group in the church is almost all females. I think that the are barriers that keep men from engaging as fully in their faith. I do not think that it is as simple as pews vs. theater style seats, but I do think that men relate differently to their faith, by doing not by sitting and listening. I object to the notion of coddling, I would rather say that we as the church need to make sure we are meeting the needs of all people, whether they engage by listening, engaging by debating, engage by doing, or whatever. It is not just about reaching out to men, it is about reaching out to everyone and knowing that it takes a variety of styles and formats to do that.

Steven Manskar said...

I certainly agree that men are one of the groups most visibly missing in UM and other mainline churches. I also agree that offering small groups for men to support one another and learn together will help. However, I think the reasons cited by the author are superficial reasons explaining why men don't want to attend worship.

I think a more substantial reason for the exodus of men from our churches is that we expect very little from them. What I mean is that men will more actively participate in organizations that expect something from them and that holds them accountable to living into the expectations.

I experienced this when I was a pastor in Preston & Lanesboro. Most of the men in the Preston church were active in the local chapter of the Lions. They let me know that they'd very much like their pastor to be a member of the Lions with them. So, I accepted their invitation and became a Lion. The expectations of membership were that I pay regular dues, attend regular meetings, and participate in the chapter's fund raising events.

Within the first six months of my membership in the Lions I was elected to serve on a couple of conference committees. These committees required me to attend meetings in the Twin Cities a few times a month. My commitments to the conference therefore prevented me from keeping my commitment to the Lions. To make a long story short, I ended up resigning my Lions membership because I could not live up to the requirements of membership.

The problem with most UM churches is that we have very low expectations of and no accountability for membership. Therefore, many men quickly discern that church membership is not worthy of their time and energy. Men will be more open to giving themselves to something that expects something of them and gives them opportunities to serve and be active in mission.

Brent Olson said...

I don't think men need to be coddled, but I agree that what most churches offer don't really fit what men do need.

There is a clear cultural expectation of what it is to be a man, and to aspire to that can be hard and lonely, yet culturally I see little chance of a group of men getting together to chat about their loneliness and brokenness. To do that would be a violation of the male mores that led to the loneliness in the first place.
What does seem to work is to get men engaged in some sort of physical activity - shingling the parsonage, building desks for Africa...something...manly. And, in the midst of all that testosterone and blisters there will occasionally arise some real communication and maybe even a little healing.

David said...

I appreciate the thoughtful responses already generated to the bishop’s questions, responses offered by real men who are also thoughtful people.

Whenever I hear this discussion about males in the church, and it has been around for awhile, I am reminded of Winston Churchill’s description of the Soviet Union – “a riddle wrapped in mystery inside an enigma.” This is especially true for a man who has spent much of his adult life in the church – and ain’t I a man.

Frankly, I don’t feel very included in many of the descriptions of men in those discussions of what men really want in a church. In the April 3, 2007 edition of The Christian Century a writer reviewed the book Why Men Hate Church and concluded with these words: "Could it be that men are not all the same? And for that matter, women as well? Do we need variety of worship styles not because men are different from women, but because we are all unique and different from one another?... do we need to sit side by side regardless of our differences and struggle to be the body of Christ together?... At its best, the church listens to threats and critiques without compromising its core principles; it changes for the better without opting to offer whatever sells." I think she was on to something.

Yes, we often need to be more action-oriented in the church and offer more hands-on opportunities to our people, perhaps especially to our men. We should offer male-only opportunities, too – retreats, discussion groups, prayer groups, mission teams. There is a deep need for all these activities - Jeff, Steve and Brent make great points. At the same time, it may be helpful to see the limitations in our cultural descriptions of masculinity, limitations that may impair our growth as human persons. Sometimes I really need someone to talk to me and listen to me, not hand me a hammer. And ain’t I a man?

Brent said...

There's a line from a Kris Kristofferson song that goes, "There was a man named Mahatma Ghandhi, he would not bow down, he would not fight..." You can't get much more manly than that.

Ghandhi, Churchill, Hitler, and Rev. James Lawson were all more-or-less contemporaries and certainly all male, yet I would have a hard time fitting them all in the same study group. Characterizing all men as needing the same thing is as wrong, and as bigoted, as trying to stuff people into any particular catagory, whether it be by age, sex, or color.

I think of most of the men in my church, and it is my opinion that where growth in Christianity can coincide with the value they assign to themselves, namely competance in doing real, physical work, it adds another, and badly needed, dimension to worship.

p.s. The title of the Kristofferson song is "My God, They Killed Him!" which just goes to show, it ain't easy being a man.

David said...

I concur, Brent. The church needs to meet people where they are, even if it wants to also move them to some new places. That's true for all people. If low expectations are a part of the problem, let's address that. If we talk too much, let's get down to doing something. When we need to talk, let's find a way to do that. The church needs a sense of adventure, a willingness to try new things, a little creative chaos.


Bishop Sally Dyck said...


Thanks for being bravehearts and responding to this potentially incendiary topic. I'm fascinated that no women weighed in on it. And you've done a great job of helping me prepare for my address and workshop at the Regenerating Worship event on April 11th on how we're all "wired" a little differently for something as personal and spiritual as worship.


Anonymous said...

I wish I would have seen this blog post earlier...

Anyway, my take is this: the church sees a lack of men because a definite "this is what we believe" message is sorely lacking. It reminds me of the message to the Church of Laodicea in Rev. 3.... There is so much about today's church that I'd prefer to simply spit out of my mouth.

Anonymous said...

I think the church has been weakened by violating God's design for men and women. The church needs to repent and be obedient, rather than following the American culture.
1 Timothy 2:11-15

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