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Bringing men back to church
Go to many churches on a Sunday morning and you'll find something missing: men. One critic says more than 60 percent of people attending weekly worship are female. But some churches are succeeding in bringing men back. - photo by Mark A. Kellner
There's something or, more precisely, someone missing from many churches on Sunday mornings: men.

The latest data from the Pew Research Center says that among those claiming Catholic, evangelical Protestant, historically black Protestant and mainline Protestant affiliations, the majority are women by as much as 59 percent.

Males predominate in American Muslim and Hindu communities, by margins of 65 and 62 percent, respectively, Pew reported, and there are slim majorities of men among Buddhists and Jews. Why Muslim affiliation is predominately male may be an outgrowth of survey methodology, Pew's Greg Smith said. A 2011 survey found Muslim male affiliation at 55 percent.

David Murrow, author of "Why Men Hate Going to Church," says more than 60 percent of those attending weekly worship are women. He says church hasn't been male friendly for decades, citing "romantic" worship songs introduced in the 1990s and the "prayer mushroom" formed when members gather around a man who responded to an evangelistic appeal and walked to the front of a sanctuary in prayer. Being surrounded by people reaching out to touch him is not something men might enjoy, Murrow said.

Some congregations are succeeding in bringing males back to the pews by emphasizing the things in which men are interested, starting with dcor and a liturgy with man-friendly hymns and ending with an emphasis on providing spiritual accountability and opportunities for community service.

"It's not an issue of style. Men don't need a stronger back beat (from the worship band) or a pastor who lifts weights and drinks beer," said sociologist Josh Packard, a University of Northern Colorado professor whose new book, "Church Refugees," tracks those who are disengaging from congregations.

"People don't feel the church is where they find God, that churches are not involved in the community, and are too judgmental," Packard added. "If (churches) focus on (addressing) those things, the gender issues will take care of themselves."

Why men leave

While male participation in churches peaked during the 1950s and 1960s, Murrow said, men "began disappearing" during the 1970s. "The mainline churches did a terrible job of keeping men," he said. "There was just a general retreat in churches from all things masculine, towards a more gender-neutral or even a more feminine way of understanding."

David Delk, CEO of Man in the Mirror Ministries, a men's outreach based near Orlando, Florida, also cited societal factors in why men left. He said there was a time when societal expectations put pressure on men to join a church, and, in the 1950s and 1960s, men responded by joining, whether or not their faith was strong. He called that generation "the joiners," people who participated in churches or social groups such as Kiwanis or Rotary, to become part of a community's fabric.

Since the 1970s, however, the opinion that church is the only place for spiritual insight has diminished, according to sociologist Packard. But in the view of many men, disconnecting from weekly church services doesn't equal a shrugging off of faith altogether, he added.

Packard cited the comments of one survey respondent who said, "I have yet to hear a pastor convince me what value being at his church adds to my life. I can get all the teachings I want online. I can live out my faith in a variety of ways. I don't know what going to his church adds to my life."

This translates, Packard said, to a marketing issue for some congregations.

"I'm not sure we live any more in a time where church is perceived as a place to go and improve your life," he said. "It's certainly not perceived as the only place."

Converting the family

Having more men in church isn't solely a question of balancing gender ratios, however. Murrow said families are best reached when a man is brought into church participation, making the matter a key component of evangelism.

Murrow cited the examples of two megachurch pastors, Bill Hybels of the Willow Creek Community Church, which began in 1975 near Chicago, and Rick Warren's Saddleback Church in Orange County, California, in 1980, as new congregations.

Both pastors, he said, came to the independent conclusion that if they could get men in the pews, the spouses and children would follow.

"When you get the man, you get the family in the deal," Murrow said. "You've got to get the leaders of the church focused on the fact that without men, churches will not grow."

The hypothesis appears to have worked: Willow Creek has 24,000 people attending worship each week, and Saddleback reports 27,000 attending weekly, with a goal of 40,000 weekly attendance by 2020.

Murrow dismissed the notion that he's promoting "male dominance" of congregations.

"It's not about male dominance, it's about male resurgence," Murrow said. For the church to achieve its mission of evangelism and service to others, he said, "we have to have all hands on deck. Right now, most of those hands have nail polish on them."

When Pastor Jen Wilson arrived at Grace United Methodist Church in LaSalle, Illinois, she found a "typical Midwestern" congregation of around 600 members where there were "lots of women in leadership." As a female pastor, the Rev. Wilson said she wanted to have more men in leadership roles "because I wanted strong men to balance" things, as well as create a church that was "very attractive to (entire) families."

Wanting neither to "disrespect the culture" that had been established in the congregation, or move too quickly to displace leaders already involved, the Rev. Wilson said she gradually made changes that created a more welcoming environment for both women and men, particularly those who don't consider themselves spiritual or religious.

"If your daily life does not include anything spiritual, when you walk into some traditional churches, they look comfortable to somebody who is 70 years old," she said. "It looks like grandma's house."

So they redecorated to play off the brick sanctuary's earth tones, for example, and liturgies were written with men in mind, focusing on events of interest to men such as Memorial Day, Veteran's Day and Father's Day. Each fall, the church had a tailgate party in the parking lot on a Sunday, she said, the kind of event that gives "some reason for (men) to come."

Build a team

While the decor played a part in welcoming men back to church, the Rev. Wilson found her greatest success was in adding men to the church's leadership. Showing men the church was "moving in a direction" to serve the community was essential, she said.

A similar link between community service and strong faith is found among the 1.75 million members of the Knights of Columbus, a Roman Catholic fraternal organization. Andrew Walther, communications vice president for the group, said church attendance is nearly universal among its membership, with men "very active" in the group's social service projects.

"I hear routinely from people all over the country how joining the Knights of Columbus made individuals stronger in their faith," Walther said. "For us, the faith component of what we do is inseparable. Faith is the motivator for the charitable action, and the charitable action motivates the faith."

According to men's ministry expert David Delk, "most churches treat each week as the week before, more about keeping the institution going than about some purpose." Men want to be involved in organizations that have a purpose, and will participate in congregations that offer ways to express that purpose.

"The men I know want to believe what they're involved in is going to make a difference," Delk said.

Delk added that enabling men to be accountable for their spiritual lives to each other is another way to boost participation, and he said his group has "seen it over and over again" in working with 13,000 leaders representing 4,300 congregations.

He said this involves creating opportunities for men to find a friend with whom they share their concerns and struggles in faith, and who hold each other accountable in their faith experience. Such relationships, Delk said, help a man see himself as more than just a "cog" in the workaday world.

Instead of merely being viewed as "a paycheck to their spouse and a taxi and boardinghouse for their kids," spiritual accountability shows someone cares about a man's inner life. "That can change the whole feel of the culture of a church," he said.
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