Are Men Anti-Church?

Like chick flicks and nail salons, are churches just not for men?

While some people contend that traditional Christianity is oppressive to women, one could argue that it has not been providing much satisfaction to men either, despite claims of entrenched biblical patriarchy. In fact, a recent survey reports that men have all but abandoned the churches of America, Australia, the United Kingdom and New Zealand.

The aim of the International Congregational Life Survey was to determine what could be considered typical in the life of an average church congregation. A broad range of denominations in the four countries participated, and nondenominational megachurches and small independent groups were also represented. One of the survey’s most interesting findings is that while women may be seen in church fairly regularly and in respectable numbers, men are a much rarer commodity. The Presbyterian Church, which conducted the American version of the study, says it can’t explain the wide gap between male and female attendance, though it rules out the influence of women’s longer life spans because results are consistent in all age categories and do not correspond with population statistics.

The absence of men in churches is not a new phenomenon, nor is it confined to a few English-speaking nations. The trend has been commonly observed and accepted as unremarkable throughout the Western world. But why? Are men just less “religious” than women? Less easily persuaded? More logically minded and therefore less easily convinced?

Because the survey responses came from those who were in the pews (that is, mostly women), they were unable to explain the absence of men. But several scholars and church leaders have noticed and addressed the trend.

One of these is Jawanza Kunjufu, a popular if sometimes controversial lecturer and educator whose focus is the African-American community. Considered by some to be an expert on the black male, he has authored many books on the subject, including Adam! Where Are You? Why Most Black Men Don’t Go to Church (1994). Kunjufu relates that in his experience, African-American men see religion as being for women: too passive, and too soft and emotional. Drawing from his own surveys, Kunjufu offers additional reasons for the poor showing of men at church: not wanting to dress up; not wanting to give their household authority over to a pastor; and for many, the heavy influence of sports in their lives.

While such factors could be seen to apply to white men as well, Kunjufu also offers the Euro-centricity of American churches as a major reason for the absence of black men. But this is clearly not a stumbling block for white men. So why are they absent as well?

Feminizing Religion

According to Leon Podles, the origins of the problem go back much farther than most people suspect. Author of The Church Impotent: The Feminization of Christianity (1999), Podles theorizes that religion has lost some important traits that, if regained, would give men much more to identify with and would perhaps precipitate their return.

One of the most important of these things is comradeship and friendship,” Podles recently told Vision. “In the Middle Ages, romantic love became the ideal of human love, and also the ideal between God and man. Erotic love became the highest type of love. But prior to that, friendship was the highest type of love.”

By friendship Podles does not mean the casual golf-partner variety but “friends in the sense that involves battle, suffering, and the redemption of the world. Not an emotional, squishy relationship. Not erotic love, transports, emotional ecstasy, but rather a true friendship that could be sealed ultimately in blood. Most male friendships in our society are very shallow; they’re not really what the classical world and the Bible mean by friendships.”

According to Podles, contemporary Christianity has lost this masculine sense of a struggle against the forces within oneself, having been watered down to passionate feelings and emotional ecstasies that men find difficult to identify with. “Since the laity are mostly women,” he says, “the clergy—even though they have been men, in most cases, until very recently—have adapted their message to women. And men and women have different characteristics in our culture and have had for centuries. Women are more conciliatory; they try to maintain bonds; they try to avoid conflict—and all these feminine tendencies have affected both the way churches operate and what is taught in them.

But it’s not a contest between men and women,” he continues. “For the first millennium, the ideal of Christian life was a struggle, or warfare, and this was true for both women and men. Women developed independence and courage, and many female names were held up as models for their ‘masculine virtues’—that is, they were as courageous as men; they were independent of men.”

Despite the intellectual understanding that New Testament teaching offers equal salvation to male, female, black, white, slave and free, it can be difficult to avoid seeing issues such as this in terms of race or gender. But the masculine traits Podles asks the churches to restore would, in his view, make Christian belief more fulfilling for women and men of all races because they would apply to all people as followers of Christ.

Separation and Sacrifice

In addition to the ideal of Christian life as a struggle, Podles introduces the masculine experience of separation and sacrifice. At a certain point in a boy’s life, he goes through a separation period from his mother in which he turns to other models for imitation so he can learn to be a responsible male and support a family. Later, he reconnects with women by marrying and becoming a father. Podles compares this to the Bible’s “leave and cleave” message given to men in the Genesis account of the first marriage. He also points out that Christ provided the ultimate model of sacrifice in His death for humanity.

The early Church, having far more in common with Judaism than with modern Christianity, was similarly marked by separation and sacrifice. The separation from wrong ways of life, originally required of ancient Israel, was now opened to gentiles, and men and women of all races participated in this freedom to be separated from lives of sin. It also meant sacrificing old ways of living. But over time this message was changed.

Podles dates the most important catalyst of the change to the Middle Ages. And he puts it in the hands of Bernard of Clairvaux, an influential 12th-century French monk. There is reason to suspect, however, that the foundations were actually laid much earlier, possibly in the first few centuries of the Christian era.

In recent years, respected Bible scholars have begun to recognize the “Jewishness” of the early Church as regards their beliefs and practices. By the time of the emperor Constantine, however, the resemblances between Jewish and Christian practice had all but disappeared. It was during this time that the foundations were laid for substantial changes in approach. Origen of Alexandria was a philosopher and theologian whose commentary on the biblical Song of Solomon was the likely inspiration for a work by Bernard of Clairvaux. The two works were in fact so similar that at least one of Bernard’s contemporaries accused him of plagiarism. Many of Origen’s works had been translated into Latin as early as the fourth century, and Bernard had assembled several of these in the library at Clairvaux—a fact that argues, if not for plagiarism, then at least for a connection of ideas.

Admittedly Bernard could be said to be responsible for a revival of Origen’s ideas, and his use of sexual allegory in referring to the believer’s relationship to Christ and to Mary, the mother of Jesus, could be considered a turning point in the decline of masculine themes in religious thinking. Bernard expressed the Christian experience as a love affair, with explicitly erotic allegories, and related his own religious fervor in terms of “kisses” and “burning desire.” Such language was very popular with his female followers, but it’s not hard to imagine that men might have had some difficulty picturing themselves in a romantic, erotic relationship with Christ, and that they might rather darken the door of the local tavern than the door of the local church.

It’s not hard to imagine that men might rather darken the door of the local tavern than the door of the local church. 

In fact, Podles believes that men did choose alternative outlets for their masculinity, and that for some men, masculinity itself has become a sort of religion, with the side effect that, in some cultures, violence and sexual promiscuity have become synonymous with manhood. Presumably, if Christianity’s message had been what it was meant to be, the transition to manhood would instead be marked by self-mastery and self-sacrifice.

Kunjufu’s surveys among the African-American community turn up some interesting data that seem to support Podles’s hypothesis. Noting that given a choice between church and sports, his male parishioners show a marked preference for the latter, Kunjufu considers this a problem of priorities. He suggests it might be remedied by scheduling church services around major games, and having fellowship rooms with large-screen TVs so men can watch their favorite sports together after the sermon.

If Podles is right, however, such measures would make little difference to male attendance. Something much more fundamental than the large-screen TV is missing from the churches. “Men naturally crave the opportunity to face and overcome challenges, and to rise above their preconceived limitations,” he says. “This is why sports have replaced religion for a large number of men. Sports provide men with all these things, as well as the comradeship in deep personal struggle that is also a masculine need.” But Christ’s message, interpreted properly, would provide the sense of personal challenge that men may be missing.

The Need to Be Masculine

Islam apparently understands these masculine needs and purportedly is one of the fastest-growing religions in the world, especially among males, and black males in particular. To understand why this might be the case, we return to Kunjufu’s surveys.

He reports that his black male parishioners consider church to be a place for passive wimps and other weak people who need help. He cites the following responses as common: “Men are conquerors and protectors and are supposed to protect their turf”; “I don’t turn the other cheek, and I don’t teach my sons to turn the other cheek. . . . Can you imagine, with all the violence going on in our community, me telling my son to ‘suck it up’?”

Podles muses that, “because they were for so long humiliated by whites, perhaps it’s even more important for black males to be masculine.”

Two distinct strains of Islam—that which sees jihad as a spiritual battle against the evil within individuals, and that which sees it as a physical, literal battle against unbelievers—have stronger masculine messages than today’s Christianity and also have a solid male presence to show for it. But it’s interesting to note that the same can be said of Judaism. Podles points out that “the majority of the practitioners of Judaism in America are men, and there is no sense that the study of Torah is effeminate.”

Then why is the study of the New Testament considered effeminate? What are the messages in modern Christianity that suggest feminine themes? Podles notes that women tend to “avoid conflict,” and have “greater awareness of and loquacity about emotions.” He says, “The religion of the heart flourished in both Protestantism and Catholicism, and the heart has been a feminine one.” Over time, “as the Church became more and more feminized, the predominance of feminine emotions encouraged a subtle change in Christianity to make it conform more to the desires of the feminine heart. A change of emphasis here, a neglect of inconvenient Scripture there, and soon a religion takes a shape that, though difficult to distinguish from the Christianity of the Gospels, somehow has a quite different effect.” Indeed, the struggle for inner change and for eradicating error has all but disappeared from modern Christianity, in favor of a message of universal acceptance that does not require self-mastery.

A change of emphasis here, a neglect of inconvenient Scripture there, and soon a religion takes a shape that, though difficult to distinguish from the Christianity of the Gospels, somehow has a quite different effect.” 

Leon Podles

This also may explain why Kunjufu’s surveys reveal that men consider church too “emotional.” Podles is not surprised. “For a man to talk freely and at length about his emotions sounds feminine. . . . What seems to have happened is that women (in part) constructed an image of Jesus as they wished men were: sensitive, willing to reveal themselves in speech, always ready to talk about their relationship.” Podles says that men do not object to a message of love, but they object to the revelation of that love through words rather than actions.

This may not be something men could or should change. Surely the demonstration of one’s convictions carries more weight than a description of them. Podles insists that men are looking for a way to “escape the shallowness and realize the seriousness of life,” and that Christianity could be the means to channel the more destructive and violent energies of masculinity into a masculine model of self-mastery and self-control. “Carrying forward the traditions of the Jewish people,” Podles told Vision, “the Church converts the sort of ‘unruly male’ into the father of the family, and that’s not an easy thing to do.”

Considering Christianity’s increasing awareness of its Jewish roots, perhaps it isn’t surprising that some churches are becoming more interested in restoring this particular Jewish tradition.

But Christianity can’t reach men to do this in its current state, Podles believes. “Even if men are attracted,” he says, “they will not long stay in a feminized church. The Church must develop a right understanding of the meanings of masculinity and femininity, an understanding that is consistent with human realities and with the data of Scripture. . . . Only then will men return to the Church.”