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Why Don’t Men Come To Church?

It’s not a new problem, but the Vancouver Sun discovers that the men are getting mighty scarce on Sunday morning. Excerpt: Rev. Nancy Talbot feels like one of the more blessed female clergy. When the North Vancouver minister looks out on the pews on any given Sunday, she feels fortunate her small congregation is slowly […]

It’s not a new problem, but the Vancouver Sun discovers that the men are getting mighty scarce on Sunday morning. Excerpt:

Rev. Nancy Talbot feels like one of the more blessed female clergy. When the North Vancouver minister looks out on the pews on any given Sunday, she feels fortunate her small congregation is slowly growing and that at least men make up roughly three in 10 of those at worship.

The gender imbalance could be far worse. The minister at Mount Seymour United Church is painfully aware men have been quietly, but in huge numbers, streaming away from many of North America’s Christian churches.

“I don’t think many of us have answers to why it’s happening,” says Talbot, who has led Mount Seymour United for eight years while raising two boys in a same-sex relationship with her partner, Brenda.

Men not wanting to put themselves under the spiritual authority of a lesbian pastor raising two kids with her female partner. Wow, who would have imagined that?

But of course it goes far beyond this. The story talks about how men are vanishing from other, ostensibly more conservative churches, like the Roman Catholic church. It’s not really new, either; Leon Podles wrote an entire book in 1999 — it’s now available for free in PDF form on his website — trying to answer the question of why, in the West, more women than men go to church. Excerpt:

In reading about war, I realized that here was something that men took with deadly (both literally and metaphorically) earnestness. War, and the vicarious experience of war in literature and reenactments, as well as the analogues and substitutes for war in dangerous sports and avocations, provide the real center of the emotional, and I would even say the spiritual, life of most men in the modern world. The ideology of masculinity has replaced Christianity as the true religion of men. We live in a society with a female religion and a male religion: Christianity, of various sorts, for women and non-masculine men; and masculinity, especially in the forms of competition and violence that culminate in war, for men.

Again, let me underscore that this is not something that started in the West in the 1960s. Podles says it has long been standard, and that the kind of men who have been more attracted to church typically have been “soft” men — not only homosexuals, but men who do not act in standard masculine ways. Why do “manly men” generally want nothing to do with church? Anecdotally, I remember from my childhood how rarely my father wanted to be in church. It wasn’t that he doubted the existence of God. I don’t know what it was, to be honest, but I remember seeing him sitting in the pews looking tame and miserable, wearing a tie he didn’t want to wear, and stewing in an hour of gentle moral uplift.

Here’s something interesting, though. Both Podles, in his 1999 book, and the Vancouver Sun reporter, looking into contemporary church statistics in Canada, observe that the Orthodox churches, small though they may be, do not have this problem attracting men to services. For my part, one of the first things I noticed about attending Orthodox liturgy was how many men were there. In the opening passage of her memoir Facing East, the Orthodox writer Frederica Mathewes-Green observes this too:

Something about Orthodoxy has immense appeal to men, and it’s something that their wives—especially those used to worshiping in the softer evangelical style—are generally slower to get. The appeal of joining this vast, ancient, rock-solid communion must be something like the appeal of joining the marines. It’s going to demand a hell of a lot out of you, and it’s not going to cater to your individual whims, but when it’s through with you you’re going to be more than you ever knew you could be. It’s going to demand, not death on the battlefield, but death to self in a million painful ways, and God is going to be sovereign. It’s a guy thing. You wouldn’t understand.

When I asked members of our little mission, “Why did you become a member?”, two women (both enthusiastic converts now) used the same words: “My husband dragged me here kicking and screaming.” Several others echoed that it had been their husband’s idea—he’d been swept off his feet and had brought them along willy-nilly. Another woman told how she left Inquirer’s Class each week vowing never to go again, only to have her husband wheedle her into giving it one more try; this lasted right up to the day of her chrismation. I can imagine how her husband looked, because that’s how my Gary looked: blissful, cautious, eager, and with a certain cat-who-ate-the-canary, you’ll-find-out smile.

That night at Vespers a few years ago I was one of those balky wives.

A few years back, Frederica wrote a column based on polling 100 Orthodox males she knew, asking them what it was about Orthodoxy that appealed to them as men. Excerpts:

The term most commonly cited by these men was “challenging.” Orthodoxy is “active and not passive.” “It’s the only church where you are required to adapt to it, rather than it adapting to you.” “The longer you are in it, the more you realize it demands of you.”

The “sheer physicality of Orthodox worship” is part of the appeal. Regular days of fasting from meat and dairy, “standing for hours on end, performing prostrations, going without food and water [before communion]…When you get to the end you feel that you’ve faced down a challenge.” “Orthodoxy appeals to a man’s desire for self-mastery through discipline.”

“In Orthodoxy, the theme of spiritual warfare is ubiquitous; saints, including female saints, are warriors. Warfare requires courage, fortitude, and heroism. We are called to be ‘strugglers’ against sin, to be ‘athletes’ as St. Paul says. And the prize is given to the victor. The fact that you must ‘struggle’ during worship by standing up throughout long services is itself a challenge men are willing to take up.”

A recent convert summed up, “Orthodoxy is serious. It is difficult. It is demanding. It is about mercy, but it’s also about overcoming oneself. I am challenged in a deep way, not to ‘feel good about myself’ but to become holy. It is rigorous, and in that rigor I find liberation. And you know, so does my wife.”

More from the column:

Men also appreciate that this challenge has a goal: union with God. One said that in a previous church “I didn’t feel I was getting anywhere in my spiritual life (or that there was anywhere to get to—I was already there, right?) But something, who knew what, was missing. Isn’t there SOMETHING I should be doing, Lord?”

Another thought: in my 15 or so years as a Roman Catholic, I only rarely worshipped in a parish in which I related to the priest as an authority figure. I believed that his sacramental authority was real, but I’m talking about his pastoral authority. Most of the priests I dealt with struck me as — what’s the word? — is it soft? I wanted and needed a pastor, not a guidance counselor. There was a lack of masculine authority present, and I felt it. I can think of at least five Catholic pastors in my personal experience who did have and exercise spiritual and moral authority in a masculine way, and they were great. They reminded me of my own father: caring, but strong and authoritative.

I’d like to read a thread in which readers talk about the male-female situation in their churches. Is the congregation balanced between men and women, or do women predominate? If it’s the former, what is it about your congregation that bucks the cultural tide among Christians in the West? If it’s the latter, why do you suppose men are staying away — and how might your church change to get them back? Be civil, please.




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