BY DANIEL GARCIA
Wandering around a place like Berkeley for a while, you can get a pretty good survey of the issues people have with Christianity. You hear words like irrational, outdated, imperialistic, unscientific, intolerant, and misogynistic. That last one, though, usually elicits, initially, a particular response. While a lot can (and should) be said about gender and Christianity, my usual first thought is, “Have you ever looked around at a church?” When I look around, it is not women who are leaving in droves. Instead, in my experience, rarely do men ever outnumber women in Christian circles, unless the mission of the group is particularly unique. And this is not just anecdotal: in 2003 the typical US congregation drew an adult crowd that was 61% female, 39% male, and the gap appears in all age categories.<span class=”footnote”>“Key Findings: Who Worships in the U.S.?” U.S. Congregations. 29 October 2003. <www.uscongregations.org/key.htm>. </span>
A curious fact, but it becomes more so when we see some evidence that in some places this gap has been increasing in the last 30 years.<span class=”footnote”>Brierley, Peter. Table 2.21.1. Religious Trends 5, Christian Research. 2005.</span> Why is this happening? I cannot seriously believe that the Fall somehow alienates God more from men than women. Asking around, I’ve heard, “Christianity is about relationship and men are not as relational.” Yes, relationships between men are usually different, displaying emotions and affection through different avenues. Still, we all know of men coming together in friendships, teams, regiments, or through adversity. As guys, we know the friendships that mattered, and how they were formed. Some of us really have felt that “band of brothers” kinship, and it is a desire many of us have. Thus, the real problem is when we assume that men relate with one another as women do, or worse, design our activities with solely that in mind. I was at a recent retreat for the current InterVarsity senior class. It had been a day full of the usual talks, worship, prayer, and seminars put on by alumni in the area. The evening came and the alumni planned on taking the seniors out, and the decision was wisely made to split the group by gender. While the ladies, I’m sure, had a fine evening hanging out and talking at their restaurant, the gentleman were engaged in several epic rounds of dodgeball at a local church gym. If our view of building relationships in our communities focuses only on events like the former, we will fail to engage with many men who need other environments to bond with one another.
Additionally, I have heard, “Men are just more independent, against being tied down.” In this perspective, Christianity or religion in general is seen as a domesticating force. Although the role of culture must be considered, there is certainly something to the need for an element of freedom for many guys. But if we automatically equate independence or unsettledness with a cavalier or immature faith, we are making a mistake. The call of Christ towards faith in Him can be a longer and more circuitous journey than our simple Jesus Prayer models would suggest. And it is from these people that often great wisdom comes, the kind that only one who has truly wandered could have earned. It is then that the remark by C. S. Lewis, “The longest way round is the shortest way home,” could indeed make sense.
Finally, I’ve heard, “Culture portrays men as needing to be more tough-minded and ‘serious’ while women are freer to base decisions on faith.” Now, regardless of what one thinks about the reality or idiocy of the idea, it is worth reflecting on how culture influences us and our idea of men and women. As guys, are we subtly told that “real men” have no need for religion or even spirituality in general? Rather, does maturity become only about the job and being in control of your own destiny? This may be related to another suggestion: “Since our culture is quicker to condemn certain vices in women than in men, men (particularly young men) feel a greater disconnect from an ethics-focused Christianity.” To the extent that these perceptions might be seen as true, our Christian communities must understand that we can be, to borrow from Andy Crouch, “Culture Makers” and not merely “Culture Consumers.” Dr. King perhaps put it best when he famously said that the Church is called to be not a thermometer but a thermostat. In order to do that, we need to know the climate we are in, whether we like it or not. Indeed, this is the difference between theology (understanding the divine) and apologetics (communicating knowledge of the divine).
In light of this issue of culture, as well as the earlier perspectives, I propose that the major issue may be a lack of masculine inspiration and encouragement from our churches and communities compared to a world more than happy to provide its own inspiration. So often, to be masculine is seen in sexual terms, comically chastising underperformers as less manly. This relates to broader themes where freedom and self-reliance are tied to gratification and stature. And if part of this rubs off on us (and you know it does), then Christianity begins to sound stupid because a gospel of losing oneself to save oneself and trusting Christ with your life appears as the antithesis to such a worldview. God becomes a god for the weak-willed, the needy, or the boring. Jesus becomes a smiling sage, holding lambs and children, all meek and mild. Humility is confused with timidity. Faith confused with weakness. Love confused with being “nice.” Some contemporary worship songs put up more feminizing barriers with a “Jesus as lover” perspective that for some guys feels superficial or simply weird. For those who have seen the Lifehouse “Everything” skit, which I still consider quite powerful, ask yourself, could that saved girl at the end dancing with Jesus be replaced with a guy? Perhaps, but for many men, the archetype doesn’t fit.
I encourage my brothers to remember the multifaceted masculinity of Jesus. For myself, with my cultural background and experience, Jesus is a man of strength and courage, decrying hypocrisy and injustice, honoring the Father, recharging out in the wilderness, loving his friends, enduring the sting of betrayal, and walking with boldness to the Cross. A Lion and a Lamb. A Suffering Servant and a Coming King. This Jesus is not just a lover and a comforter. He is my blood Brother, come what may. He is my Captain who I follow through the adventures of life. He is my Master training me in His ways that I may, by grace, be like Him.
Every church, community, and fellowship will have to listen to the Spirit to ascertain the path ahead. But we must remember that whether innately or culturally, men are different, and how they relate to God in Christ is different. And the implications of this are significant. If the church attendance of Christian men continues to fall, there is no reason to believe it will naturally rebound. As Christian groups become more female, a feminizing culture will continue to alienate men, while a lack of male mentors and friends will make connection increasingly difficult. Eventually, women will get frustrated as people stress dating/marriage only within the Christian community. For some single women, it may take an exemplary faith to endure the very real desire for spouse and family. And if one can’t find it in our Christian circles, how could one not expect to look outside? And in family life, the active religious life of fathers may have more influence on the future Christian life of children than mothers’.<span class=”footnote”>“A Man’s Influence.” Evangelicals Now. May 2003. <http://www.e-n.org.uk/2790-A-man%27s-influence.htm>.</span>, <span class=”footnote”>Low, Robbie. “The Truth About Men & Church: On the Importance of Fathers to Churchgoing.” Fish Eaters. <http://www.fisheaters.com/menandchurch.html>.</span> If men do not feel at home in the life of our future churches or Christian communities, we will see it in the next generation. Indeed, are we already seeing it?
Thus, our fellowships need to be proactive with our men’s groups, men’s retreats, team sports, and male role models/disciplers. We need to provide balance to the images of Jesus we portray, lest we slip too far into a solely “Jesus as lover” gospel. We must be willing to ask uncomfortable questions about gender and the perceptions of it. And as Christian men, we need to do our part to mature as men of Christ who understand the culture of the larger world and can provide honest feedback and suggestions if we find our churches or fellowships needlessly alienating men both outside and inside the Christian community.