On May 24th, 1738, John Wesley had his famous Aldersgate experience. Frustrated with the emotional iciness of the Church of England, Wesley sought refuge at evening worship with some Moravians who were reading Martin Luther’s preface to Paul’s epistle to the Romans. Describing the night in his journal, Wesley wrote:

About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.

Wesley probably didn’t realize it, but it was arguably in this moment when he invented modern evangelicalism.

Too often, when we talk about “attracting men” to church, what we mean is tricking men into walking in the door by baptizing whatever infantilized conceptions of masculinity the broader culture has invented.Evangelicalism, after all, is a weird, modern, mutant form of Christianity, much as it might like to pretend to be its definitive form. As Molly Worthen writes in Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in Modern American Evangelicalismevangelicals “are the children of estranged parents — Pietism and Enlightenment — but behave like orphans.” The tradition is an awkward marriage of experiential knowledge and personal piety, resulting in the sort of emotionalism Wesley advocated, frequently to the denigration of almost everything else. Only in the evangelical sphere do we place such a high premium on things like “letting Jesus into your heart,” “seeking God’s will,” and the like.

I acknowledge this reality, but not to advocate for its destruction; I am not here to tear down evangelicalism. I dohowever, want to make the argument that when we look at our contemporary problems we ought to consider the possibility that the seeds were sown at our beginning. Consider, for instance, the much-heralded problem of men leaving the Church.

The dominant narrative at the moment is that, while church attendance is down across the board, men in particular are staying home on Sunday mornings (some stats here). And while there has been much hand-wringing over this reality, there has, to my knowledge, been very little serious introspection over it.

I remember once, during my college years, having a conversation with a fellow parishioner of the Presbyterian Church in America, an evangelical denomination that at the time was my de facto home sect. She lamented how hard it was to get men to come to church or campus events, and I asked her why she thought that was.

“I think because it’s so relational,” she said, matter-of-factly.

I was struck by how casually she had made that declaration, as if it were obvious that the essence of Christianity was the Pietist-style Bible study — a huddle of believers, each clutching their NIVs to their chests and sharing what a particular Psalm “means to me.” The corollary of this attitude, presumably, is that if we want to bring men (or, I suppose, less-people-oriented women) back into the Church, we need to teach them to be more relational. Is it really true that Christ built a Church only capable of appealing to a certain kind of person (mainly women)? That seems unlikely.

It’s possible to acknowledge that there is value in an emotional and relational approach to Christianity without treating it as the be-all and end-all of the faith. In fact, the broad spectrum of the ancient faith has both a strong material component (that is, the sacraments) and a strong intellectual component as well. (My Presbyterian friend in particular should have been aware of the latter at least, being that the Westminster Confession, Presbyterianism’s foundational document, is among Christianity’s most intellectually rigorous theological explications.)

In other words, it’s possible, at least in theory, for Christianity to be appealing to people who like ideas and things as much as people who like people and emotions. So the real question we ought to be asking ourselves is, why is that not the case?

Unfortunately, for most evangelicals, when we talk about attracting people — men or otherwise — to church, we talk more like marketers trying to make Big Macs cool again to the 18-to-34 crowd than people who sincerely believe in the power of the Gospel and want to genuinely disciple others. (Saving a soul, after all, is less akin to making a one-time sale and more like raising a child to adulthood. It’s a lifetime commitment.) Too often, when we talk about “attracting men” to church, what we mean is tricking men to walk in the door by baptizing whatever infantilized conceptions of masculinity the broader culture has invented. At best, we give away free steaks and guns; at worst, we hire pastors who curse and play grab-ass with waitresses. Like a marketing campaign for Big Macs, these tend to grab attention and make “sales” for a few years, at most. Which is fine if you imagine that Jesus is a product to be sold but less okay if you believe that to be in the Church is a deep commitment and a lifelong struggle.

Part of the solution is embodied in the work of Jules Evans, author of Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situationswho was in the media a few months ago to talk about his experience teaching classical philosophy to professional rugby players. He’s something of a full-time advisor to Saracens, one of the U.K.’s premier rugby clubs, and on PRI’s show To the Best of Our Knowledge he lamented the separation of philosophy and psychology as disciplines.

About a century ago, philosophy, ethics, and psychology were kind of one discipline — and it was kind of a tragedy, in a way, that philosophy and psychology split apart in about 1900 and became separate academic disciplines, jealously guarding their own respective territories.

There’s a huge amount of attention paid to athletes’ bodies, said Evans, but their mental health often goes completely neglected — a big problem for them, since the unforgiving world of professional sports often leaves them unemployed and penniless (as many former NFL players can confirm). Psychotherapy, though, which many of them would benefit from, tends to focus on emotions — leaving it unfortunately stigmatized for men. Evans continues:

Philosophy, I think, sometimes works better for men [than psychology], because men are more comfortable talking about ideas than talking about their feelings. So if you teach them about some ideas which are actually connected to their feelings, that’s a good way to get them talking about their inner life and their experiences.

Women will, I suppose, decide for themselves whether this is an offensive claim to make, but it strikes me as accurate. Most men, in my experience, prefer to access their emotions through ideas, while most women prefer to access their ideas through emotions. This is not a claim that one approach is “superior” to the other — obviously, both feelings and ideas are indispensable to our humanity — but just that they are different, and, for whatever reason, evangelicalism tends to favor the “female” approach.

I wonder, if we are serious about attracting men to church, if the solution is less to infantilize them by waving steaks and guns in front of their noses and more to challenge them by teaching the rich ideas and contentious debates from the Christian tradition. Clearly there’s no shortage of important questions to be debated. Is human nature as corrupt as Calvin claimed? Is the will as free as Wesley taught? Is God as transcendent as Aquinas believed? Are the Law and the Gospel as separate as Luther wanted them to be? Is Christ as fully present in the Eucharist as Iranaeus argued?

It goes without saying that the various evangelical denominations will prefer different answers to these and other questions, but the issue is less one of providing the “right” answers and more of taking the questions themselves seriously. In other words, teach your congregation what you “believe, teach, and confess” (to use the old formulation from the Lutheran confessions), why you believe it, and why the debate exists in the first place. The riches of Church history and Christian theology are almost endless; there is always more catechesis to conduct, even for lifelong believers.

I am not a pastor or teacher myself; I’m only a layman engaging in a bit of speculation. However, many of our contributors here at Christ and Pop Culture are in ministry and education, and many confirmed my theories.

From David Dunham, a Baptist pastor in Detroit:

We launched what we call our “Free Seminary” program last year and of those who participate the majority are men and most of them are men who have not participated in any other thing at church. I was shocked to see some of these guys come out for twelve week intensive studies with homework. It seems to me that there may be some real weight to the idea that men connect to their feelings through ideas.

From Nate Claiborne, who teaches Bible classes in central Florida:

I’ll second that. I’ve consistently been able to get college guys from church who have a full load of classes to carve out time to read something John Frame’s systematic theology and talk about it once a week.

It makes sense that treating people — both men and women — seriously on an intellectual level is a better way to get them to return week after week than to “bribe” them with steaks and guns. What this looks like, of course, will vary from congregation to congregation. For some, it might mean more intellectually rigorous sermons on Sunday morning, while for others, more catechetical instruction during the week. The essence though, is this: meet people’s needs — including their need to be challenged intellectually — instead of merely seeking to fulfill their desires. Take their minds as seriously as you do their souls and their growth as seriously as you do their salvation.


26 Comments

  1. I suspect it has nothing whatever to do with intellect versus emotion. Women like philosophy as much as men, and men are as emotional as women. The whole idea that churches are havens for emotional people sounds like something my atheists friends would say, and of course some christian writers/ministers often end up saying stuff that atheists say in a “spiritual” way. God’s spirit works teaching, healing, discernment, prophesy in both sexes and all these gifts are above emotion and philosophy. Men don’t go to church because church doesn’t give men stuff to do. Women are good at visiting the sick, witnessing to strangers by building relationships with them, taking care of children, knitting, cooking, baking. Churches should have groups where men build houses for the poor, share and give their work expertise to fellow congregants.

    1. I think you make a fair point, Carole. Women tend to engage relationally, while men tend to engage by “doing stuff” (I’m clearly the exception here, since I’m easily the least handy person I know, but that’s neither here nor there).

      I think you’re on the right track with regard to service; as I allude to in the article, though, our worship needs to be more oriented around “things” as well. Too many churches have downgraded the Eucharist, making it monthly and treating it as less than holy — when in fact, it’s the exact sort of tactile experience that men in particular respond to. (What dude doesn’t love eating?)

    2. and all these gifts are above emotion and philosophy.

      And that’s just false. Anti-intellectualism at work. Well meaning but wrong men maligning God, the Scriptures, church history and the rest. Yet another rotten fruit we see in the church today.

  2. Thanks Luke!

    Since the book came out, I’ve been exploring Christianity here in London – did the Alpha course at Holy Trinity Brompton, which I thought was amazing at creating social bonding and spiritual experience, though not so satisfying intellectually. I then did a theology intro course at St Mellitus theology school, which again I found just not very satisfying intellectually.

    I also run a Philosophy Club, where philosophers come and speak, and the strange thing is I don’t always find it that satisfying emotionally! Ie it sometimes feels a bit flat and dry, and I find myself missing the music, the worship, the prayer, and the emotional vulnerability one gets in church.

    I recently met a great philosopher, Peter Vardy, who spoke of the weakness at the moment of the intellectual side of Christianity – and one could add, the contemplative side. He’s spoken of setting up a more intellectually rigorous Alpha-type course (we’ll see). Heres the interview I did with him:

    http://philosophyforlife.org/a-good-atheist-is-closer-to-god-than-most-the-real-enemy-is-indifference/

    Where I’m exploring at the moment, for what it’s worth, is the messy spaces in between faith, agnosticism and secularism – creating meeting spaces for discussions of ideas which bring in theology, contemplation, psychotherapy and philosophy, and where Christians and non-Christians come together. Saracens, by the by, ran a philosophy club one week where the team’s chaplain came and spoke. So I think philosophy is also an interesting way to bring men into these sorts of faith areas – without any hard sell.

    Anyway, thanks for the article and that’s very interesting about your friends’ similar experience with ideas as a way into men’s inner lives.

    All best

    Jules

    1. Honored to have you here, Jules. Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing your thoughts.

      I appreciate that interview as well — and I agree with Vardy’s line about being pro-atheist. The real challenge is to get people to think about religious questions *at all*, rather than find our preferred answers to them.

    2. Similiar to Alpha but with fairly different content you could try out Christianity Explored, that will probably be more intellectually rigorous than Alpha although it’ll depend on who runs it!

  3. Clearly there’s no shortage of important questions to be debated. Is human nature as corrupt as Calvin claimed? Is the will as free as Wesley taught? Is God as transcendent as Aquinas believed? Are the Law and the Gospel as separate as Luther wanted them to be? Is Christ as fully present in the Eucharist as Iranaeus argued?

    All of which will get you kicked out of a church if you come to a conclusion other than the one you are told is correct. Too much risk in having an opinion, so best not to have one…or if you can’t help it, leave.

    Anti-intellectualism is a serious problem in the church, but in many circles increased intellectualism isn’t the answer. That’s how you get things like the Westminster Confession (great document, some false ideas, and entirely too binding to too many), the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy, and pastors who will preach through an entire book of the Bible in a year or more.

    Yes, it has a lot to do with intellect vs emotion. Emotionalism has ruined the church, just as Pietism and Revivalism did before hand. All fake, all artificial, all for show.

    Look at the major movements of Christianity from the 19th century on. You’ll clearly start to see what has ruined the church in America. We are living with it’s fruit.

  4. What about the data for the premise?. Both Barna and a Catholic research study in 2011/2012 found that there has not been a loss of men recently, but a loss of women so that now women attend at slightly higher rates than men. If the initial assumption is wrong we will not solve any problems.

  5. I personally have never been bribed by a gun, steak or a cussing preacher. Could it be that the modern church has embraced feminism and therefore men either aren’t allowed to fulfill their biblical role as leaders in the family and church or that they feel the church is hypocritical while preaching one way and operating in other ways.

    1. to fulfill their biblical role as leaders in the family and church

      Or maybe that’s why some are leaving, they realize that what the church calls “biblical” really isn’t. So, hypocritical it may be. Quit preaching one way and start preaching the way things truly are.

  6. The Church Impotent: The Feminization of Christianity by Leon Podles provides much needed insight and historical perspective. Mr. Podles is a Catholic but his work makes pithy points that are applicable to Protestants, too. The book can be read online for free at: http://podles.org/church-impotent.htm

    I am a recent convert — Protestant to Catholic. Unfortunately the Catholic Mass, after Vatican II, is as reductive and sentimentalized as the evangelical church I left behind. Fortunately beauty and transcendence may till be found by attending the Latin Mass.

    For more insights on men and the church from a Catholic perspective visit Joseph Shaw’s blog at LMS Chairman:
    http://www.lmschairman.org/2015/01/patrick-arnold-on-masculine-liturgy.html

    From an Anglican perspective see two posts from Alistair Roberts blog: https://alastairadversaria.wordpress.com/2014/11/12/rescuing-christian-masculinity/

    https://alastairadversaria.wordpress.com/2014/08/30/why-a-masculine-priesthood-is-essential/

  7. I’m not buying it, and I think your friend had it more right than you care to admit. Church is too relational for many American men. And I don’t think that is the church’s fault. Let’s face it: Jesus Christ– friend of prostitutes, lepers and sinners– who shared an intimate meal with and washed the feet of 12 MEN, was a pretty relational person. All across our culture, you see men less interested in relationship and more interested in passive entertainment. You can see it in dating and marriage statistics, men who video game and watch porn and use electronic media, but cannot be bothered with a face to face relationship. I think the Church is just another casualty, and not even the biggest casualty, of our self-centered society.

    1. I’d humbly suggest that church has become a passive entertainment experience, no matter how emotional or intellectual it is.

  8. Incidentally, i’m involved with a group of self-proclaimed evangelical churches that have swung to the other end of the spectrum of (over emphasis?) on intellect and denigration of emotional responses. And the result is also highly unfavorable:

    There are a lot of men in these church services, numerous men that are active participants in the services and contributors to the worship. However, my observations bring me to the conclusion that this environment tends only breeds a certain type of man: Typically men of at least some college-level education in the mid-to-high socio-economic class that tend to love deep intellectual discussions, a majority of whom are physicians, professors, engineers, and businessmen. However, there are far less men in the pews with lower levels of education/intellectual capacity and income, and very few of them are employed in the vocations typically associated with more emotive individuals (e.g., artists, writers, musicians, etc.). And this is based on personal observations of dozens of these associated congregations that have the same views on intellectualism vs. emotionalism.

    So, a swing in the other end of the pendulum may increase numbers of males, but not necessarily those of a homogenous demographic. i appreciate that your article had balance to say that both the intellectual and emotive aspects of males (and females) constitute humanity as a whole. The false dichotomy that pits intellect vs. emotions brings great harm to Christ’s Body. Jesus was an intellect, and Jesus wept… At first, it seemed that your article was pitting the two against each other, but further reading indicates you advocate for balance…

  9. I would be strongly in favor of churches focusing on intellectual development, and if that helps keep men in the church, great. But women like thinking about ideas, too. If Christianity was just a way to make us feel good, I’d have abandoned the faith years ago. So, I agree with your solution but think it’s broader than the problem you’re addressing.

  10. Interesting insights. It’s always dangerous to generalize, but there may be two very different views that men may view their involvement with organized church.

    Some view it as consumers, who the organization’s offering as what they receive (i.e. the worship service, the fellowship, the return received for their donation of money, time, and loyalty). Not that all are demanding, in fact many are passive with their dissatisfaction in the interests of brand-loyalty and avoiding conflict, glad to let others lead or innovate at their own risk.

    Others see the organization as presenting a challenge or a battle to fight. They feel needed to innovate and make things happen and they have to contribute or it simply won’t happen. This may be why some church start-ups are attractive to some men.

    The root cause may be is that many leaders, pastors included, are seeking a third type of man, a contributor. Thee want men with the zeal and drive to maintain the arena firmly defined by the leader, but preventing them from individualizing their efforts as the Spirit leads them. I understand that a church family must share the core beliefs, but not embracing a man’s individuality turns your champions into the dissatisfied drones or drive them to another arena.

    I think modern ‘mega-churches’ are great creating consumer satisfaction, but fail at giving men that challenge they need to connect beyond the superficial. Yes, they can have the events with sports jerseys and grilled meat, but do the men still head home with no real connections made? If the next day, they have someone they can turn to after arguing with the wife, drinking to much, or feeling tempted by that website banner ad?

    How leaders can make those connections attractive to men is the root question.

    Locked in room with donuts and a weekly curriculum only appeals to a minority of established men. I agree that putting men shoulder-to-shoulder in accomplishing a shared mission (or hardship) is a better option. Whether it’s a shared home repair project or being stuck outside a dressing room as your wives try on the tenth dress, that is how men form bonds. Sports work even when they are opponents.

    I’d welcome any ideas other churches have found to build these connection between men.

  11. If the data I’ve seen (in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion remain valid, differences in attendance are not a problem in the United States. They are in countries like Sweden with very low participation rates, but even here church-going remains an abnormally integrated voluntary activity. This does not mean that men do not have a different disposition toward the proceedings. In suburban Catholic churches, the aesthetics of it all and the content of the preaching seem often to have been designed for the demographic which fancies greeting cards (and not the joke cards either). That has more of a repulsive effect on men than on women, but it rules out masses of people on both sides of the divide).

    A few years back, I had occasion to hear a homily by a Syracuse priest sent out to fill in for a pastor on retreat. He offers that he’s known three people who really lived out their vocation. One was a women who lay in bed and suffered, another a woman who baked a great many pies, and a third the vocations director who recruited him. Of course, his assessment was absurd, but it did reflect what was actually valued by an old man who’d spent decades locked in the clerical culture. What he says is also indicative of a cultural and institutional problem.

    If you occasionally read Dalrock, you can benefit from his astringent critique of evangelicalism in our time, which he offers has bought in to many of the pathological elements of contemporary girl culture. (He find the movie Fireproof a good illustration of what’s been wrong).

  12. My son is a college student. He has tried every college group in our area and even gone so far as to meet personally with the college pastors-many of who have no interest in helping him get connected. He wants to find a church but feels like the church doesn’t care about college students. The programs start once the big colleges are in session and end when people go home for the summer. He chose to stay local to avoid debt and feels less than by college groups . He tried to get in a small group at one church and they wanted to put him with couples and older singles. While this might be nice for role models, it does nothing for connecting to other college students. He is an introvert and prefers small groups over large parties. He is tired of megachurch and entertainment. I don’t blame him for his frustration.

  13. I dunno…this seems to be the same story that’s been told since at least the 1730s, probably earlier. The supposed declension and feminization of the church (in an American context at least) has been decried for for centuries, and most frequently blamed on emotionalism in worship and a decline in rigorous theology. Women have outnumbered men in Protestant church membership since the early seventeenth century, and this has remained consistent across most (if not all) Protestant denominations, among different races, and in different regions. Now that doesn’t mean that men aren’t leaving the church, it’s just to point out that people have been worrying about men leaving the church since the 1600s. And another way to look at this trend is to say that women’s participation in religion is at an all time high; that is, it’s not so much male absence as it is female presence. I am highly skeptical of any argument that suggests that men are inherently drawn to ideas or are inherently intellectual while women are inherently emotional and somehow less drawn to ideas. (Although the critique of the notion that manliness=steaks and guns is something with which I wholeheartedly agree.) I’m all for injecting theology and tradition into Protestantism, but why does that project have to be a gendered corrective? Check out Ann Braude’s essay “Women’s History Is American Religious History” or the book Southern Cross by Christine Leigh Heyrman. The latter argues that concerns about the supposed decline in the church’s intellectual rigor and increasing feminization not coincidentally come to a head in the late 18th and early 19th centuries when evangelicals began reaching out to both blacks and women and allowing them to preach. For some reason white men found that an unpleasant development and some of them didn’t feel like going to church anymore…

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