"E" - the estrogen factor of American Christianity

I'm intrigued by a study David Murrow did (found here, archives of the Winter 2008 issue) that examined a possible hypothesis regarding the vast percentage difference between the genders when it comes to church attendance. It's about 60/40 in our church, and this is common. This imbalance is unique to Christianity, as Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, and Hindus all display a remarkable gender balance in their faith practices.

One could speculate about the 'why' of this, and such speculations abound, including hypotheses that address the patriarchal bent of other religions ("of course men are in... they carry all the power cards!"), or their cultural mandate ("it's just that everyone's in, unlike our secular society"), but Murrow's hypothesis is the one I find most intriguing.

He asked both Christians and Non-Christians to answer the question: "Which set of values better characterizes Jesus Christ and his true followers?" They chose between:

Set #1
Proving Oneself
Results Objects

Set #2
Loving Cooperation
Personal Expression

95% of those surveyed said list #2 represents the values of Christ. In reality, the lists aren't the values of Christ and/or someone else, but the lists of masculine and feminine values from John Gray's book, "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus". You can debate the merits of this book. You can decry the generalizations and stereotypes. What you can't do is ignore the reality that men don't get involved in faith communities as consistently as women.

The thesis of the surveyor is that American Christianity has been feminized. That's one theory. But those who go down that right tend to simply move the ethos of the church from one imbalanced list to the another. This doesn't seem adequate.

Instead, I'd suggest that men are staying away for a few simple reasons:

1. Men are bored by church. It might be because the sermon's boring, or it might be because there's no compelling vision or venue for involvement. When Christ called his disciples he didn't call them to sit in endless meeting, but to go out and change the world. The school of faith that Jesus ran took place in markets, on walking trails, at sea. Yes, there was teaching, but the teaching was only important to the extent that there was a real thing happening. I'm bored by reading books about the technicalities of mountaineering - unless I'm about to go climbing. Our need to provide a balance of teaching and activity is vital, and addressed here.

2. There's no "vision quest" anymore. My 23 year old son just phoned me from Yosemite Valley in California. He got there by riding his bicycle over 1000 miles, from Seattle, down the Oregon Coast, down the California coast, to San Francisco, and then east to the Sierra Nevada mountains, and into Yosemite. I can tell, just by phone, that he's profoundly changed by doing this. In a sanitized world where even play sets are injury proof, we run the risk of boring our sons to death with Bible stories, Bible ethics, Bible characters, and oh so mellow music, when what might be needed is a week at sea, or a 1000 mile bike trip, or a month in Central America or Africa or... ? You tell me.

3. There's just not enough vision. I don't want to overgeneralize, so I'll say it this way: There are millions of men, and many women as well, who need a mountain to climb; who need a vision that will engage their whole selves; who need to shoot for the moon and the stars when they wake up each day. These people (of both gender) are the ones the church runs the risk of losing if we don't help people see that 'church life' isn't about sitting quietly and singing sweet songs - it's about being spun out (see previous post) of comfort zone, and using our gifts to make the invisible God visible in tangible ways. Doing that will require character qualities from BOTH lists, and both genders.

What do you think? Agree or disagree? Why is there a shortage of men in church?


  1. I completely agree that there is a shortage of men in most churches--especially younger men and men without families to make them go. I can see how church can be boring for men (and women sometimes), but at some point they have to take the initiative to be the leader who changes things. If their church doesn't have a way for them to get involved, either start your own group or find a church that does have that venue. At some point, if these men are really striving for a community of believers that matches their value system of not being bored, then they have to put away their passivity and start changing things themselves.

  2. I think your theories are probably right-on, if for no other reason than the fact that my church happens to have a strong male involvement, and it also counters your 3 points very well.

  3. Is "getting involved" with a local church really gonna change things, though? Not trying to be jaded-pessemist here, but that answer has been given for years and most churches don't want what you present, it seems. They want community centers that make them feel good about themselves.
    And yet my idea of "church" has been radically changed by NOT going to the dog and pony show on Sundays, but spending time with men and women over drinks, dinner, travel together - living life in relationship and dirty and glorious.

  4. A lot of churches are like that, KR, but a lot aren't.

  5. thats how things always are james. almost nothing is this world is absolute. but i think the bulk of churches can be like this. and i think this post was really great. especially the numbered points you made.

  6. I'm fascinated that at the same time studies and books reveal that men see Christianity as overly feminized and emasculated, that many women simultaneously see church as patriachal and a man's game. At its worst moments, church doesn't seem anti-male or anti-female, but anti-human.

    I think its further evidence that we can't distort one set of gender norms without inadvertantly distorting the other.

  7. I've wondered this for awhile and like your suggestions. I was just wondering did this survey include Catholic's and Orthodox? Groups who historically have been far more patriarchal and hierarchical in practice than Protestants and Evangelicals . . . They seem to be more family centered and less sectioned off - i.e. there's no children's church or youth group meeting while the mass is being conducted . . . they appear to be more traditional and communal...that would explain a more equal gender balance. Yet if the numbers aren't equal my questions are nullified.

  8. I'd have to say that the church, as I know it, is not terribly welcoming, transparent - or even safe for most guys.

    I attend church and basically leave as quickly as possible. I'm not really sure what should be done. Our church has tried a variety of "men's ministry" moves that leave me cold.

    Perhaps women find it easier to gather in groups wrapped around study guides or book. Guys want to get stuff done.

    So "what would Jesus do?" certainly not form a committee....