Empty Pews: Where Did All The Men Go?

By Kristen Campbell and Adelle M. Banks
Religion News Service
Saturday, June 10, 2006

Men don't need pirates in the pews. Then again, the presence of such swashbucklers might not be the worst thing to happen to a Sunday morning.

So goes the thinking of David Murrow, author of "Why Men Hate Going to Church."

"We don't have to have hand-to-hand combat during the worship service to get men there," Murrow said. "We just have to start speaking [their language], use the metaphors they understand and create an environment that feels masculine to them."

Today's churches, Murrow argued, just aren't cutting it.

"My background is in marketing and advertising, and one day I was sitting in church, and all of a sudden it dawned on me that the target audience of almost everything about church culture was a 50- to 55-year-old woman," said Murrow, a Presbyterian elder who's now a member of a nondenominational congregation in Anchorage.

The gender gap is not a distinctly American one but it is a Christian one, according to Murrow. The theology and practices of Judaism, Buddhism and Islam offer "uniquely masculine" experiences for men, he said.

"Every Muslim man knows that he is locked in a great battle between good and evil, and although that was a prevalent teaching in Christianity until about 100 years ago, today it's primarily about having a relationship with a man who loves you unconditionally," Murrow said.

"And if that's the punch line of the Gospel, then you're going to have a lot more women than men taking you up on your offer because women are interested in a personal relationship with a man who loves you unconditionally. Men, generally, are not."

Concern about the perceived femininization of Christianity-- and the subsequent backlash-- is nothing new.

In the middle of the 19th century, two-thirds of church members in New England were women, said Bret E. Carroll, professor of history at California State University, Stanislaus. Portrayals of Jesus around that time depicted a doe-eyed savior with long, flowing hair and white robes.

Then, around the 1870s and 1880s, came a growing emphasis on making religion attractive to men. The movement known as "muscular Christianity" extolled manliness and had its heyday from 1880 to 1920, according to Clifford Putney, author of the book "Muscular Christianity."

Around the same time, fraternal orders grew exponentially among the urban middle classes, according to an online article by Mark C. Carnes, author of "Secret Ritual and Manhood in Victorian America." Not only did the groups provide men with opportunities to cultivate business connections, Carnes writes, but they appealed to some who "found satisfaction in the exotic rituals, which provided a religious experience antithetical to liberal Protestantism and a masculine 'family' vastly different from the one in which most members had been raised."

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