Why a Typical, Traditional Church Will Fail to Reach People

Why a Typical, Traditional Church Will Fail to Reach People

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.
  • Almost 25 percent of the married women who attend Lakeside will do so without their husbands.
  • Lakeside 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 U.S., and around the world. Your church profile is probably similar. Count noses this Sunday – you’ll be surprised. A 60/40 gender gap (or larger) probably affects your worship services, midweek meetings, Bible studies, ministry teams, youth group, etc. In today’s church, women are the participators, men, the spectators.

How did we get here? How did a faith founded by a man and his 12 male disciples become anathema to men? Why do Christian churches around the world experience a chronic shortage of males, when temples and mosques do not? Why are churchgoing men so hesitant to really live their faith, when men of other religions willingly die for theirs?

As a church leader, the lack of male participation may not be one of your top concerns. After all, if you want a smooth running congregation, women are the key. Women keep the ministry machine going. They sing in the choir, care for children, teach classes, cook for potlucks, and serve on committees. George Barna puts it this way: women are the backbone of Christian congregations. Men are like hood ornaments on cars: nice, but not necessary

Over the long term, however, a lack of men will doom a congregation. The gender gap is associated with church decline, according to the latest studies. The denominations with the fewest men (per capita) are also those that have been losing members and shutting churches. On the other hand, churches with robust male participation are generally growing.

If you want a healthy church for the long term, attract men. This was Jesus’ strategy. It still works today.

There’s just one little problem: men hate going to church.

Why men hate going to church

Ninety percent of American men believe in God. Five out of six call themselves Christians. Yet just two in six can be found in church on any given Sunday. Those men who do show up often seem passive, bored or out-of-place. Like the Doobie Brothers, men think Jesus is Just All Right, but the very idea of churchgoing gives them the willies. While some men have had specific, negative church experiences, others simply feel a general unease. 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.”

Why do millions of Lauras feel right at home in church, while millions of Lances feel as out of place as a ham sandwich at a bar mitzvah? Look at it from a sociological perspective. What other behaviors do men avoid? What other venues make men uncomfortable?

The answer is obvious: in our society, men avoid any behavior (or venue) that might call their manhood into question. For example, men 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 women’s thing. Men approach Christianity with the same apathy or discomfort they display when forced to watch a Meg Ryan film. It just doesn’t resonate with them.

You may be thinking, Church is women’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 some congregations remain men-only. But almost every other area of church life is dominated by women. Armies of women.

Like a glove that gradually conforms to the hand of its wearer, Christianity has, over the centuries, subtly conformed to the needs and expectations of its most faithful constituency, women age 40 and older. So instead taking up the epic struggle Jesus promised his disciples, 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 each other. We sing. We instruct children. We comfort the hurting. This lineup is both beneficial and biblical, but these things alone will not galvanize men.

Why not? I think John Eldredge says it best: men are wild at heart. Though men see the goodness of the Christian faith, they are not swept up in it because church life is so soft and sweet. The cautious, sensitive culture of today’s church fails to match the adventurous spirit found in most men. However, women and older folks are more likely to crave the safety and predictability the church provides. They flock to the pews, earning our congregations the dubious reputation as a place for little old ladies of both genders.

The signals we send to men

Every Sunday, without even realizing it, we send subtle signals to guys: you are in feminine territory.

The signals start in Sunday school. 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 Arnold Schwarzenegger, the action hero? 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.

There are signals in the sanctuary. Let’s say a common working stiff named Nick visits your church. What’s the first thing Nick sees? Fresh flowers on the altar. Soft, cushiony pews with boxes of Kleenex underneath. Neutral carpet abutting lavender walls, adorned with quilted banners (or worse: Thomas Kinkade paintings). Honestly, how do we expect Nick to connect with God in a space that feels so feminine?

Nick looks around at the men. Some are obviously there against their will, dragged by a wife or mother. Others are softies. Research finds that men who are interested in Christianity are less masculine than average; seminarians also exhibit more feminine characteristics than the typical male. Even the vocabulary of churchgoing men is softer. Christian men use terms such as precious, share, and relationship, words you’d never hear on the lips of a typical man.

The signals keep coming during the service. Nick may be asked to hold hands with his neighbor. He may be asked to sing a love song to Christ, such as, “Lord, You’re Beautiful,” or “Jesus, I am so in love with You.” Someone may weep. Then Nick will have his male attention span put to the test by a monologue sermon. When this torture test is finally over, Nick is invited to have a personal relationship with Jesus.

Let’s spend a moment on that last one: a personal relationship with Jesus. That phrase never appears in the Bible. Yet in the past 50 years it’s become the number one way the evangelical church describes the Christian walk. It’s turned the gospel into a puzzle for men, because most guys don’t think in terms of relationships. Let’s say Lenny approaches Nick and says, “Nick, would you like to have a personal relationship with me?” Yuck! Men don’t talk or think like this, yet we’ve wrapped the gospel in this man-repellent package.

The signals keep coming: Nick comes alive outdoors, but 99% 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.

Let’s say Nick makes it through this minefield and decides to volunteer. The typical church needs people to care for infants, to teach children and youth, to sing, to cook meals, to serve on committees and to usher. Given that list, where do you think Nick will sign up? Somewhere in church history, most of the masculine roles were discarded (or assigned to professional clergy), while roles for laywomen multiplied. Today, Christian service revolves around tasks that women have traditionally performed. Men want to serve God, but many feel ill-prepared or even emasculated by the ministry opportunities we’re offering them.

Bottom line: today’s church is no longer designed to do what Jesus did: reach men with the good news. To borrow a term from advertising: women are the target audience of the modern church. The feminine atmosphere in our churches causes women to feel loved and nurtured, but men to feel hesitant and restrained. The only men who can function in this feminine milieu are those who happen to be particularly sensitive, verbal, dutiful or studious. The more masculine the man, the more alienated he feels in the modern congregation.

How do we turn things around?

In my book, Why Men Hate Going to Church, I offer more than 60 pages of practical, proven suggestions for making your church more man-friendly. Here are just a few:

Stop sending Nick signals that church is for women. From the moment he walks into the sanctuary, Nick must sense that this is something for him, not just something for his grandma, his wife and his kids. Examine everything about your church: the décor, the vocabulary you use, the songs you sing, the behaviors you expect. Men will respond if you meet them halfway.

Become students of men. Please don’t be offended by this, but the truth is many pastors have built their ministries on their ability to interact with women. Because men are so unneeded for church work, ministers have had little incentive to go after them. This must change. I challenge every pastor in America to become a student of men. A good place to start: read John Eldredge’s bestseller, Wild at Heart.

Men need great leadership. Men are drawn by vision and purpose, by 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. Church leaders, I encourage you to dream big in the coming year. Ask God for a Big Hairy Audacious Goal that can only be accomplished by His power. However, expect resistance in the flock – from the rams as well as the ewes. Courageous leadership always involves change, and one researcher found that 85% of Christians have change-resistant personalities. Great leadership stirs up opposition, but over the long term it stirs hope in the hearts of men.

Help men learn. Men’s brains are less verbal than women’s, so they require a different approach. Men have been trained to focus for 6 to 8 minutes (the length between TV commercials). The lengthy monologue sermon, so effective in the Victorian era, fails to reach today’s men. Rick Warren of the Purpose Driven Church may have an answer: he frequently breaks his sermons into 5 to 7 minute chunks, with a video, drama or song between each segment. And object lessons are essential: never take the pulpit without an object in hand. Jesus called these parables, and they survive to this day because men remembered them. Effective pastors and teachers draw metaphors and illustrations from the realms of sports, business, battle and survival.

Help men worship. With men, 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 songs feature lovey-dovey words set to a romantic tune. Nick may feel uncomfortable singing these words to Jesus, a man who lives today. Also, whenever possible, move men outside for worship. There’s nothing like a bonfire and a starry night to connect a man and his Maker.

Help men serve. Roger from Ohio says, “If serving in the church was more about pounding nails and less about wiping runny noses, I’d probably be interested.” 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 church parking lot. Our congregation started doing this twice a year; the event attracts more than fifty guys who give up a Saturday morning to serve God. What’s more remarkable, we almost always get a few nonreligious husbands of churchgoing wives.

Meeting men’s deepest needs

However, men’s deepest spiritual hunger cannot be satisfied with any of these things. Making our Sunday services male friendly will help, but if we want men to come truly alive, we must recover two ancient roles that the founders of our faith understood, but we have lost. Men need spiritual fathers and a band of brothers.

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