Where Have All the Single Christian Men Gone?
- Wednesday, July 07, 2004
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I, too, have noticed the uneven gender split in church singles groups, and I've been curious about what's going on. I don't recall this being nearly as true (or at least as apparent) a generation ago. I agree that Christianity is presented today in predominantly feminine language, and I think the church has come to look as if it's a "women's world," like a hair salon or a garden party. There's a snowball effect, too; the more this is perceived, the more men leave, and the more it becomes true.
It most certainly wasn't always like this. If you look back at the early church, virtually all the important leaders weren't just men, but single men. All important offices were preferentially reserved for single men. I wonder if that wasn't due to a shrewd appreciation of how important it is to "make the men feel useful." Certainly Jesus was sufficiently revolutionary that he could have selected six women and six men as his disciples. But I think there was an important appreciation that men are harder to bring into a social network. Get the men to commit, and the women will come too. Get the women first, and the men will stay home and go fishing. As fewer and fewer leadership positions in the church are specifically reserved for men, that problem will only grow worse. Maybe the gender-skewed church is just the price we have to pay for a more egalitarian leadership structure. Eventually we'll need to decide whether it was worth it. I have mixed feelings myself, but I suspect women will be reluctant to give up their new influence, even if it comes at the cost of a gender gap.
So how do we make men feel useful again in church? Well, the natural problem the church has is that it's a cooperative, relationship-valuing community. Women are, on balance, cooperative and relationship-valuing people. Men are competitive, task-oriented people. They need jobs and duties. They need to be challenged. Make church too easy and friendly, and men will assume it's not worthy of their time. That's why the entire modern approach to outreach—reducing barriers—is making the problem worse. Most men actually want higher barriers to membership—a fence to jump over is a good challenge that can't go unanswered! The church needs to start making serious demands of people, and acting like a more demanding institution. It needs to move to a more intrusive stance and require more personal accountability—and that runs strongly counter to American culture, where we consider freedom and privacy to be innately good. But religious groups that make strong requirements of members—think about the Eastern Orthodox or the Mormons—still do a much better job of obtaining loyalty from men, even in the modern Western world.
Historically, spiritual challenges have taken two forms: Protecting the church from enemies (i.e., opposing false doctrine), and struggling in spiritual warfare against demons (either literally or figuratively). The first requires an appreciation of the importance of academic orthodoxy, of wrestling with difficult theological ideas instead of watering everything down to the lowest common denominator. Some of the sermons preached in previous eras—check out the homilies of Augustine or John Chrysostom—were really intellectually challenging! These days, pastors are afraid to leave anyone behind, and sermons have become an exercise in finding entertaining ways to state the obvious. As someone with a doctoral degree in the hard sciences, I find it impossible to recommend most church services to my (mostly male) friends, because the intellectual engagement seems so juvenile and simplistic. Popular theology (what you'll pick up in the devotional section of a Christian bookstore) just doesn't seem as deep as physics, philosophy, or political science. It's all bones and no meat. That's where you're loosing the educated men who ought to be rising leaders in the church. Parachurch groups such as InterVarsity are probably doing a little better than the church itself at this point, and hopefully some of their influence will eventually migrate over.
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