Where did all the men go (again)?

church impotentThere are some news stories that simply cannot be written in 600 to 1,000 words. Take, for example the Religion News Service report that The Washington Post ran titled "Empty Pews: Where Did All The Men Go? Gender Gap Threatens Churches' Future." (By the way, should that headline be "Churches' Futures" or even "Church's Future"?) The article was written by reporters Kristen Campbell and Adelle M. Banks, the latter of whom is a friend and has spoken many times in the journalism program that I lead at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities.

The gender gap in American pews is, in fact, a big story and one that has been written many times. Click here for an example in The Wall Street Journal. The RNS piece begins with the work of David Murrow, author of the book Why Men Hate Going to Church. He notes that when it comes to working with men, many American churches simply cannot seem to get the job done.

The gender gap is not a distinctly American one but it is a Christian one, according to Murrow. The theology and practices of Judaism, Buddhism and Islam offer "uniquely masculine" experiences for men, he said.

"Every Muslim man knows that he is locked in a great battle between good and evil, and although that was a prevalent teaching in Christianity until about 100 years ago, today it's primarily about having a relationship with a man who loves you unconditionally," Murrow said. "And if that's the punch line of the Gospel, then you're going to have a lot more women than men taking you up on your offer because women are interested in a personal relationship with a man who loves you unconditionally. Men, generally, are not."

The article goes on to talk about the rise of the Promise Keepers movement and other mainstream attempts to reach out to men. What the article does not do -- perhaps due to reasons of length -- is ask questions about why this trend affects some churches more than others. In other words, are there cultural and even doctrinal issues hidden in this gender-gap story?

Like what kinds of issues? That is where the controversial work of author Leon J. Podles kicks in, including his controversial (yes, I used that word twice) book The Church Impotent: The Feminization of Christianity. Click here to read an essay that states his basic thesis, taken from the ecumenical journal Touchstone.

Church attendance in the United States is about 60 percent female and 40 percent male. The more liberal the denomination, the higher the percentage of females. Fundamentalists are almost evenly divided, but the only religions that sometimes show a majority of men are Eastern Orthodoxy, Orthodox Judaism, Islam, and Eastern religions such as Buddhism. Men say they believe in God as much as women do, but the more Christian a practice or belief becomes, the fewer men will own up to it. Men go to church less than women do, they pray far less than women do, and they believe in the afterlife and heaven and hell far less than women do.

MurrowI should, at this point, stress that Podles is a traditional Roman Catholic. I say that for a simple reason: Many readers of this blog know that I am Eastern Orthodox and might assume that this bias makes me favor his work. Frankly, that is one reason I started paying attention to what he had to say. But I soon realized that he had larger fish to fry, fish linked to news stories other than the gender-gap trend.

Podles is convinced that something has gone wrong with Christianity in the West -- period. Although he is a Roman Catholic, his questions about trends in his own church are, at times, brutally honest. Hang on to something as you read this:

Western Christianity has become part of the feminine world from which men feel they must distance themselves to attain masculinity. That is why men stay away from church, especially when they see that the men involved in church tend to be less masculine. The most religious denominations, those that have the most external display, have the worst reputation. Anglo-Catholics were lambasted in the Victorian press as unmanly because they devoted themselves to lace and plaster statues (in some cases, this criticism was justified). Psychological studies have detected a connection between femininity in men and interest in religion. There may even be a physical difference.

External display? So why do some churches heavy on incense, candles and liturgy attract men (Eastern Orthodoxy), while others (think high-church Anglicanism and some Roman parishes) seem to drive men away? Why are African American churches 80 percent female? What can churches do to draw men to activities on days other than Sunday? Are the factors Podles worried about linked, somehow, to the declining number of Roman Catholic priests? The questions go on and on.

Like I said: This is a big story or the hook for many big stories. Very few of them fit neatly into 1,000 words. This may be a job for The New Yorker or The Atlantic Monthly.

P.S. Amy Welborn and Rod Dreher are blogging on the same topic today.

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