Men on the Outside
The Image of Christianity as Un-masculine
Maybe it is because my own initial encounter with vibrant Christianity, and then early formation in the faith, was in a distinctly masculine setting that I have always been a bit puzzled by the prevailing perception that Christian believing has little or nothing to do with red-blooded men. The conventional “wisdom” is that the faith is designed primarily for women and children, or is a spiritual crutch for weaklings – wimps who are incapable of standing on their own two feet in such a demanding world. To me the Christian faith has always seemed the ultimate masculine adventure perhaps because I was introduced to Jesus Christ by some of the finest male role models. Besides, what could be more challenging than giving my all back in the service of him who sacrificed his all for me?
My mentors made sure that my earliest Christian heroes were “muscular” Christians. I was told the tough stories of pioneer missionaries, or men like Eric Liddell, the Scottish runner immortalized in the 1980s movie, Chariots of Fire, because he was prepared to pass up the opportunity to win an Olympic gold medal rather than contravene deeply-held Christian principles. It also caught my imagination that he died in an internment camp in
Yet my sense that Christianity has a distinctly masculine flavor is light years from the image that the faith has within our culture. The general rule-of-thumb that has been evolving for a dozen generations is that only the weak and effete are ever going to get excited about that kind of stuff. I am all too familiar with this way of thinking because it was the mindset of my father, most of the males in my extended family, and the circle of friends with whom I grew up. Oh, there might have been a measure of respect for the church, but high commitment and heavy involvement was not something you would expect of a man who is worth his salt. One of my father’s greatest disappointments was my ordination, and I sense that he kicked himself for the remainder of his life that he had not provided me with more direction when I had been searching around for a career.
This perception that Christianity is somehow un-masculine has been intensifying, and perhaps in the last few years has reached its zenith. From the media to the sports bar the prevailing opinion is that real men not only don’t eat quiche, but they don’t go to church either. What this implies is that if you dig down deep, then at least half the human race should be congenitally non-religious or unspiritual. This is patently untrue. For example, Islam has a strongly masculine flavor, while, as a female friend of mine puts it, Orthodoxy is “very much a guy thing.”
Yet, here in the
I spent getting on for twenty years visiting churches throughout
This gender imbalance pertains not just to worship attendance, but to the whole spectrum of church activities. Around the turn of the millennium I was at a successful and relatively new congregation in
A week or two after this experience I was attending a diocesan convention where an excellent Power Point presentation was boasting the advances congregations were making in youth ministry. Encouraging as this was, the pictures thrown up onto the screen of a number of burgeoning young groups suggested that only about 1/3 of their active young people were male. This is the next generation, and does not auger well for the future as far as males are concerned.
The statistics, backed up by impressionistic observations like these, suggest that as we look at ministry among males we are facing a monumental crisis that grows more pressing and unmanageable with each rising generation. The blunt truth is that men are melting away, very often because they sense that they are unwelcome, or because the subliminal message has been that they are unwanted. The ambivalence that so many males have about God (and the church) seems to have been hardening, and now they, with the help of prevailing attitudes within churches, have convinced themselves that they do not fit.
I spent several months looking at these incontrovertible facts, and they raised all sorts of question. Most of all, I found myself asking is whether it has always been like this, or whether this is something relatively new.
Exaggeration and Statistics
The only way to answer such a question was to do a bit of amateur sleuthing. I wanted to get my mind around the history behind this phenomenon, because if we are able to understand its origins we might be able to develop a series of strategies that would help us reverse the trend. While my research and question-asking has been far from exhaustive, there does seem to have been a time when things were more fairly balanced, but we have to go back several centuries.
As I dug around and asked a cavalcade of questions I found myself being pushed steadily backward, and it wasn’t too long before I had gone four hundred years to the Reformation. During that era the great Anglican divine, Richard Hooker, observed that women appeared to have a greater propensity to holiness than men. Did this mean that they were just more naturally pious, or were there more women in church than men? It is hard to tell from the context of Hooker’s statement.
It would be a fascinating and extremely valuable research project for a historian to try to discover precisely when it was that men started excusing themselves from the life of the church, and what it is that did the turning off. Was it during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation? Did it have something to do with changing perceptions of the world and manhood at that time or later? Did it have anything to do with the explosion of education that burst in upon the western world with the arrival of moveable type and the printed word? Or was it something else? Right now we can play around with ideas, but otherwise have to surmise.
They did not worry too much about counting numbers and gathering statistics during the 16th Century, so the first observations that might have some vague basis in measured reality start to appear in the 17th Century. By the time Massachusetts had been settled for a generation or two, the Puritan leader, Cotton Mather, was complaining, “I have seen it without going a mile from home, that in a church of three or four hundred communicants, there are but few more than one hundred men, all the rest are women.”
Yet Mather was clearly prone to exaggeration because the parish registers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony do not entirely support his words, but it suggests the male drift away from church had begun. Living on the edge of a vast and unexplored continent, the male absence may have had something to do with the struggle to survive in that harsh landscape, but clearly a trend was being established and helped along by the social and intellectual climate. Within a century or so, barely 40% of worshipers in
By the early 19th Century the distinctly American phenomenon of revivals swept the frontiers and pushed their tentacles back into the more settled lands of the East. These were movements of the Spirit, but they were also religious activities that were encouraged along by “marketing.” Not only in those circumstances does it appear that women were more responsive to the message being proclaimed, but the canny preachers and revivalists seemed to deliberately aim their message at females when they realized that they were the ones most likely to respond to the call to penitence and faith. Did this playing upon female sensitivities intensify the feminine image of Christian involvement?
It seems some sort of die had been cast by the beginning of the Victorian era, and patterns of church life have followed a similar trajectory right up until the present. Just as David James and Jay Crouse discovered little in the way of male activities in their parishes on either coast, so the program life of churches the length of breadth of
Neither is the high profile of women in church a distinctly American phenomenon. Both Catholic and Protestant statistics suggest similar patterns are likely to prevail in
The why behind the detective work
Having got this far in my sleuthing, I was not prepared to leave it there. I felt that I had gathered a few historical facts, but wanted to go deeper beneath surface of what had been going on. After poking around for a few more months, mulling over the evidence and testing suppositions, I came up with a theory that at least seems to make sense of the bits and pieces of evidence I managed to gather. Let me hasten to say that what follows are some ideas that may lack solid substantiation, but having tried them out on scores of people I have yet to find anyone who can improve upon them!
It was Podles’ remark about the western church being feminizing that put me onto the trail that I found myself following. It forced me to ask what Christianity in the West has experienced that had so significantly influences every western brand and flavor of the faith, but which had not been experienced either by Islam or Christianity in the East. The only answer I was able to come up with was the Enlightenment, that rationalizing movement that followed on from the Reformation and Counter-Reformation in
Those of us who live four or five hundred years after the bloody religious upheavals of the 16th Century tend to romanticize what happened during those turbulent years, especially those of us who pay particular homage to the Reformation. Yet when we do so we tend to overlook how unsettled and disrupted those times were, and few lives were left untouched by them. War and misery were visited upon the poor and powerless, while godly men and women on both sides of the affair could very well lose their heads or be burned alive if their convictions clashed with those in control, and they proved to be uncooperative.
In the wake of such turmoil thinkers and philosophers found themselves casting around for an under-girding worldview that would provide a measure of stability in such a wobbly and irrational situation, and which would not rely on what they perceived to be the divisiveness of religion. So it was in the second decade of the 17th Century that Frenchman, Rene Descartes, came up with his famous nostrum, “Cogito ergo sum” (“I think, therefore I am”). Other philosophers followed in his wake, and built upon his intellectual foundation worldviews that were thoroughly secular and had no reference at all to the eternal and the divine. In a handful of generations such views had migrated from the academy into the minds of the general population.
For the next several hundred years, reason and scientific deduction rather than faith and belief were the primary organizing principle around which the western thought world would revolve, with religious worldviews increasingly marginalized, ignored, or even despised. Descartes may not have been aware of it at the time, but by coming up with a system of thinking that put an end the religiously-driven feuding, he was also fixing the intellectual
Other great minds followed in Descartes’ footsteps, and a very different kind of worldview that emerged was sharpened and intensified. The writing of John Locke, the 18th Century English philosopher, played a major role in widening the gap in the western mind between faith and reason, a dichotomy that became deeply engrained in the western mentality – and is beneath the ambivalence toward religion in
This might have been a weak thread upon which to base our suppositions about the absence of men if it were only the Enlightenment that had shaped western thinking, but there was much more than that, for it both accompanied and played a part in triggering the Industrial Revolution. If the Enlightenment shook up the way people thought, the Industrial Revolution changed forever the way they would live. Prior to the first stirrings of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th Century,
For centuries the vast majority of Europeans had lived settled lives in small towns and villages, with the clergy and the church playing a key role in all that happened. Then the population exploded as industrialization spawned vast urban sprawls that became the centers of production and commerce, and the church lost its preeminence. The Industrial Revolution was to reshape
When people dwelt in villages, the home was not only the place where people lived, but the hub from which they worked, now, with manufacturing requiring efficiencies of scale, work moving out of the home into offices and factories. Whereas everyone had once known everyone else in the community, and had poked their noses into everyone else’s business, the mushrooming cities were anonymous, often dirty places that for the majority of workers and their loved ones promised far more than they were ever able to deliver. Not only did everyone know everyone else when they lived in villages, but they were very often related, too. These rural communities were, in reality, extended family networks. All these links were severely disrupted when the most entrepreneurial (or the most desperate) headed off to the big city and the bright lights.
Work ‘til you drop, or shop ‘til you drop
All this profoundly reshaped and reordered the way men and women thought and related to one another. New roles emerged in all the social classes, but it was the way the growing middle class related to one another that most shaped cultural mores. These new roles were being firmed up by the Victorian era. In the 1830s women like Sarah Stickney Ellis could write successful books that codified etiquette and expectations. Just as the theories of the likes of John Locke had separated faith from reason, these new cultural configurations put up a wall between the sort of lives men and women lived.
In this scheme of things, the realm in which a woman was destined to prevail was the private world of hearth and home. Her arena was the family, education, domesticity, and faith. But men were perceived to be tough, and were the modern equivalent of the “hunter-gatherer” going out into a hostile world and providing for their families in the domain of manufacturing or commerce. The household was no longer the focus of the male’s life, but was the nest which women tended in order to care for and nurture their men-folk and children. Men were “wage warriors,” bringing home the money their family needed, while women created the haven to which their “hardened husbands” would return at the end of a demanding day. While I realize this is a gross over-simplification, it does help provide some of the flavor of what was going on.
This was the era during which the notion of the woman as consumer was born. The philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, when writing of the two sexes pronounced, “In their hearts, women think that it is men’s business to earn money and theirs to spend it!” The idea may be a little cheeky, but it got me wondering whether this leading German intellectual might perhaps have been the grandfather of the shopping mall!
If the Enlightenment initiated the way of thinking that set up a barrier in the common mind between faith and reason, the Industrial Revolution provided the geographical and sociological setting in which this approach to living could thrive and prosper. The stage was now set for the development of the world in which we have lived until recently. It shaped the way we thought about communities, families, and work, and provided the arena in which the two genders differentiated themselves from one another.
All this set up an environment in which the Christian church increasingly perceived to be the female domain on the periphery of “the real world.” The churches not only played into this by projecting its self toward women’s sensibilities, but this has intensified as women have moved into a growing share of leadership roles in most denominations. Responding from their gut, men did not need any more convincing that the faith world is marginal and trivial, and they have found little in it which they think will give meaning and significance to their lives. Indeed, many men sense that they are distinctly out of place in church settings – somewhat similar to the way they feel when dragged by their spouse to a women’s dress shop where their presence may be politely tolerated, but they realize that they are not necessarily enthusiastically welcomed.
Viewing this phenomenon in 1988, Robert Wuthnow of Princeton University said in his groundbreaking book, The Restructuring of American Religion, “That women should demonstrate greater commitment, on average, to religion than men do can be interpreted as part of the traditional set of roles which women have played until very recently: mother, housekeeper, guardian of traditional values, participant in voluntary associations, marginal to the labor force, marginal to sources of social status such as education and professional occupations.”
The present situation
Clearly there have been trends within the culture, and patterns of church life, that have made it increasingly difficult for men to feel there is a place for them within the life of the churches. This is a situation that has, perhaps, been intensified in the last two or three generations, as society has moved away from the domestic and work arrangements that were shaped by the Industrial Revolution, and women have started playing a far more prominent role both in the workplace, in the leadership of public life, and, of course, in the churches.
Men have become the outsiders, and as they look in on church life they do not see much that interests them, although the more sensitive among them recognize that all may not be well with their lives. The manner in which the Christian message is presented often does little for the male ego, and neither does it address his needs. Not only has church been honed and shaped by women, the majority of those involved, but it is directed toward them rather than at men’s spiritual yearnings and expectations. Furthermore, the message has often been whittled down by the process of privatization that is rooted in the Enlightenment, and appears trivial to the male psyche. While the Gospel of Jesus Christ is about every facet and demand in God’s world, all that many men are often able to see is something that is merely personal and devotional.
The West African theologian, Lamin Sanneh, who teaches at
Such an approach to believing, it should be pointed out, also leaves a large number of women unsatisfied, but by far the greatest proportion of men have been turned off. As a gender men want to be involved in something that is significant and has a greater meaning, and they do not see this in Christianity. During the last 25-30 years this sense of alienation has, if anything, been deepened, as males have watched female preferences prevail in church life to the extent that in many settings the church has undertaken a radical program of recasting even its most sacred symbols in a more feminine light. Thus, it is hardly surprising that men have voted with their feet in droves.
But something else has been going on among men that is even more sinister. While women have been out there eagerly exploring the new challenges and opportunities that have opened up for them, there are signs that males have become becalmed in a kind of