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Why the church is losing men and boys and why it matters

By Ronald E. Keener

In the early 1950s, attendance in Protestant churches in the U.S. mirrored the postwar population: 52 percent female, 48 percent male. Today the typical U.S. worship service draws an adult crowd that’s 61 percent female. Many mainline congregations are two-thirds women. No other religion suffers such a huge gender disparity.

David Murrow [churchformen.org] has studied the gender gap and written his findings in a book titled Why Men Hate Going to Church (Nelson, 2005). The book has become a Christian bestseller with more than 100,000 copies in print. His second book is How Women Help Men Find God. Murrow describes himself as “not a pastor, professor or theologian. I’m just a guy in the pews who noticed a disturbing trend: churches are losing their men and boys.” He spoke with Church Executive about his research and book.

Is the gender gap a U.S. phenomenon or is it worldwide?

It’s a global problem. I recently met with the pastor of a church in Tehran, Iran. Even in this persecuted country, 70 percent of his parishioners are women. I just got an e-mail message from a pastor in the Philippines whose congregation draws 90 percent women.

Why is the gender gap growing?

Today’s church is a warm, nurturing, sweet and accepting place. Rules are out — relationships are in. Congregations bend over backward to be welcoming, open and loving. There’s a heavy emphasis on emotions and personal expression. Christians are expected to read, speak, sing and study. As you look over that list of expectations, you’ll notice that women tend to excel in these areas while men lag. So the modern church offers women what they crave (and what they’re good at) while it fails to offer men the things that resonate with their hearts. In fact, traditionally male traits such as aggression, goal setting, hierarchy and efficiency are often dismissed as sinful or unspiritual. Is it any wonder men and boys take a pass?

Can you cite any specific examples of this?

One obvious shift is the way we offer praise to God. Worship music used to convey respect (A mighty fortress is our God) but now it expresses a tender, almost romantic love (I’m desperate for you, I’m lost without you). We describe the Gospel as “a personal relationship with Jesus” even though that term never appears in scripture. We increasingly focus on the softer, more relational aspects of the gospel while Christ’s demanding call to mission gets scant attention.

Why did you write a book for women?

Almost every Christian woman is praying for at least one man (father, husband, brother, son, uncle, etc.) who needs a closer walk with Christ. These women want to know why their men are so disinterested in church and what they can do about it.

What can women do about it?

First, women must understand that men’s hesitancy is not entirely their fault. Second, they must band together to bring about change in their congregations. (Many pastors would love to make their churches more man-friendly, but they fear the backlash that might result.) Finally, women need a better grasp of how men think, in order to sharpen their witness.

What do you mean?

Women often try to talk men into the Kingdom, when the scriptures recommend a silent witness (1 Peter 3). Women run most of the lay ministries in the church, so they program according to their needs. They decorate the sanctuary with flowers, quilts and lace. They ask boys to hold hands or they have a time where men are supposed to sit in a circle and share their feelings. I wrote this book so women would begin to support small cultural changes that will keep their men and boys engaged in church.

What impact are the high profile church sex scandals having on men’s participation?

They give some marginally religious men another excuse to put faith on the back burner. I don’t think men are staying away from church out of fear that they’ll be abused themselves, but it’s certainly sowed a seed of doubt. For example, there has been a marked decline in attendance at men’s overnight retreats in the past decade.

Why should pastors put extra emphasis on reaching men?

Here’s the “holy” answer: Because Jesus did. Now here’s the selfish answer: Men are the secret to a growing, healthy congregation.

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