Where did all the men go (again)?

church impotentThere are some news stories that simply cannot be written in 600 to 1,000 words.

Take, for example the Religion News Service report that The Washington Post ran titled “Empty Pews: Where Did All The Men Go? Gender Gap Threatens Churches’ Future.” (By the way, should that headline be “Churches’ Futures” or even “Church’s Future”?) The article was written by reporters Kristen Campbell and Adelle M. Banks, the latter of whom is a friend and has spoken many times in the journalism program that I lead at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities.

The gender gap in American pews is, in fact, a big story and one that has been written many times. Click here for an example in The Wall Street Journal. The RNS piece begins with the work of David Murrow, author of the book Why Men Hate Going to Church. He notes that when it comes to working with men, many American churches simply cannot seem to get the job done.

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.”

The article goes on to talk about the rise of the Promise Keepers movement and other mainstream attempts to reach out to men. What the article does not do — perhaps due to reasons of length — is ask questions about why this trend affects some churches more than others. In other words, are there cultural and even doctrinal issues hidden in this gender-gap story?

Like what kinds of issues? That is where the controversial work of author Leon J. Podles kicks in, including his controversial (yes, I used that word twice) book The Church Impotent: The Feminization of Christianity. Click here to read an essay that states his basic thesis, taken from the ecumenical journal Touchstone.

Church attendance in the United States is about 60 percent female and 40 percent male. The more liberal the denomination, the higher the percentage of females. Fundamentalists are almost evenly divided, but the only religions that sometimes show a majority of men are Eastern Orthodoxy, Orthodox Judaism, Islam, and Eastern religions such as Buddhism. Men say they believe in God as much as women do, but the more Christian a practice or belief becomes, the fewer men will own up to it. Men go to church less than women do, they pray far less than women do, and they believe in the afterlife and heaven and hell far less than women do.

MurrowI should, at this point, stress that Podles is a traditional Roman Catholic. I say that for a simple reason: Many readers of this blog know that I am Eastern Orthodox and might assume that this bias makes me favor his work. Frankly, that is one reason I started paying attention to what he had to say. But I soon realized that he had larger fish to fry, fish linked to news stories other than the gender-gap trend.

Podles is convinced that something has gone wrong with Christianity in the West — period. Although he is a Roman Catholic, his questions about trends in his own church are, at times, brutally honest. Hang on to something as you read this:

Western Christianity has become part of the feminine world from which men feel they must distance themselves to attain masculinity. That is why men stay away from church, especially when they see that the men involved in church tend to be less masculine. The most religious denominations, those that have the most external display, have the worst reputation. Anglo-Catholics were lambasted in the Victorian press as unmanly because they devoted themselves to lace and plaster statues (in some cases, this criticism was justified). Psychological studies have detected a connection between femininity in men and interest in religion. There may even be a physical difference.

External display? So why do some churches heavy on incense, candles and liturgy attract men (Eastern Orthodoxy), while others (think high-church Anglicanism and some Roman parishes) seem to drive men away? Why are African American churches 80 percent female? What can churches do to draw men to activities on days other than Sunday? Are the factors Podles worried about linked, somehow, to the declining number of Roman Catholic priests? The questions go on and on.

Like I said: This is a big story or the hook for many big stories. Very few of them fit neatly into 1,000 words. This may be a job for The New Yorker or The Atlantic Monthly.

P.S. Amy Welborn and Rod Dreher are blogging on the same topic today.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Javier

    Well, instead of asking the Church to change its principles which are based on Jesus, perhaps men are the problem. Perhaps men need to get over their insecurity and disdain for femininity. Jesus said that in order to enter the Kingdom of Heaven one must become as a child, meek and humble. THat is a fact that men obsessed with outdated notions of masculinity will have to face either now or later.

  • Steve

    The problem with the Church is that we no longer view the truth of the Gospel as objective truth, but as an emotional experience. Emotionalism in many American churches has replaced the historic forms of worship. We love our “praise” music which are more like love songs for Jesus and the traditional hymns which convey the truthes of the faith that the Chruch has confessed over the centuries.

    BTW, Jesus was a man’s man. He provided for other, he defended the weak, he was willing to confront the merchants in the temple, and he accepted the suffering on the cross for my sin. Jesus said that we are to take up our crosses and how him.

  • David

    It appears that only the christian fundamentalists are as balanced as the population as a whole?

  • Susan

    Yet Megachurches, Pentacostals and fundamentalists churches–the segment of American Christianity that are actually growing–attract men even with praise music and rock bands. We have to get out of this Orthodox-Catholic dichotomy as if they are the only churches and traditions that matter. Until we do, we will just be mired in the liturgical petty infighting that infects these traditions over when to ring the bells, when to kneel, and when women are actually allowed to speak.

  • Fred Slimp

    You haven’t spent much time in the “American” Buddhist context, which is overwhelmingly “liberal” in tone. Frequently a majority of meditators and/or participants in temple ceremonies are women. Women play an equal, if not preponderant, role in American popular Buddhist writing. Women-headed monastic communities and practice centers are more than common. This could be good or bad, but to say Buddhism, at least in its American incarnation, offers a more manly experience, is not accurate. This does not apply, if goes without saying, to more traditional, ethnically based communities.

  • saint

    The mega churches/pentes etc may attract about the same numbers of men and women because they are largely “human potential seminars in gospel drag”. Call it Marketing 101 (or “the Amway model” as we call it in Australia).

    And if the gospel preached in other American churches is “primarily about having a relationship with a man who loves you unconditionally,” as this article asserts …then they’re not preaching the gospel either. In fact I doubt they have even understood it. “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.” No, if that’s the punch line you are going to get the self absorbed emotionally needy women who like “Jesus is my boyfriend” (not much different to those mega church rock songs) and an equal dose of interdependent, and a pile of gays, lesbians, adulterers, fornicators and whoever else likes to be loved unconditionally because they can’t bear the thought that if they ever did meet Christ, they would be have a major existential crisis, while the men who are just as lost, go to football.


    Promise Keepers? Since when do they represent anything that would appeal to real Christian men?

    A few years ago former governor Jesse Ventura stated on the record an interesting revelation about the PK’s when they had their convention in Minneapolis – evidently, topless bars, whore houses, and massage parlors reported record profits from entertaining the PK conventioneers. Is that what anyone would call “Christian”?

  • Rathje

    You ever watch the old movie/play “Life with Father”?

    This isn’t a new trend. Church-going has always been more the province of women than men.

  • Lee Podles

    I haven’t seen specific figures on the mega churches, but I suspect that they follow the evangelical pattern: more men then the liberal churches, but still not 50-50, and many of the men are there because of a wife, mother, girlfriend.

    There are different styles of worship, some very reserved, some very demonstrative, whether through ritual or charismatic praise. Irish and Polish and Hispanic Catholics are quite different in their expressions of worship. But the question is, What is being demonstrated?

    The relationship to Jesus in most Western churches is seen as a love affair, not as friendship with the One who has fought evil even unto death and calls his disciples to learn from Him and follow him.

    I am finishing a book on sex abuse in the Catholic Church (you think the first book was controversial – this one is radioactive).

    The ministry in general attracts narcissists, and Western liturgical churches ( I do not know the Orthodox well enough to say what is happening in them) attract homosexuals with control issues, They find it satisfying to control male youth in the most intimate way (sexually) and have scores of victims because control rather than physical pleasure is their motivation.

    Few things will distance men faster from the church than the suspicion that the priests are after their sons, and the statistics available put to the strong possibility that 10% of priests in the US, and probably world-wide, have sexual relationships with minors, almost all adolescent males.

  • Susan

    The ministry in general attracts narcissists, and Western liturgical churches ( I do not know the Orthodox well enough to say what is happening in them) attract homosexuals with control issues, They find it satisfying to control male youth in the most intimate way (sexually) and have scores of victims because control rather than physical pleasure is their motivation.

    So why do women, who are victims of heterosxuals with control issues, continue to come to church despite the long history of sexual abuse of women by priests, ministers, and rabbis?

    Blaming the lack of men in church on gays is, quite truthfully, one of the oddest things I’ve ever heard.

  • brucerealtor@verizon.net

    Isn’t it interesting. Washington Dignity Service, a romanan catholic service held in an episcopal church is at least 98% men. Many are over the age of 45 and ‘it seems’ a fair number are at least 50.

    The service is for Gay, Lesbian, Bi-sexual [whatever that is] and transgendered catholics, though all are welcomed to both service & communion. It is also for those supportive of these ministries, or even for those who want to attend one of the latest services in Washington, D.C. [6p.m.] — there is one 6:30pm service.

    Those of us who attend, have often wondered why the service is predominantly men, but for the last 15-20 years, it has been that way. And no, lesbians do not die faster of AIDS.

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  • Mark

    The same relative proportion of men to women is increasingly true in undergraduate college education. So is there some ‘problem’with higher education in its ‘failure’ to attract equal numbers of men? Or is the problem with some men whose retrograde vision of masculinity refuses both spiritual and intellectual formation?

  • Dcn. Michael D. Harmon

    Why men don’t go to church (and are increasingly unrepresented in higher education) is neatly encapuslated in this dichotomy: If you’re not feminized (in either institution), you’re “retrograde.” Thanks, but I’ll pick Option C.

    Show me a woman who can get pregnant by herself and I’ll admit the point that feminism and impotence are not joined at the hip (so to speak).

    And citing a worship service aimed at gays and lesbians as attracting “predominantly men” both misses the point – and proves it.

    Mr. Podles must welcome the verification of his case that these examples provide.

  • http://www.philocrites.com Philocrites

    tmatt, do you have data that show that men are much more drawn to Orthodoxy than to the other high-church traditions?

  • http://www.feyaccompli.com Joanna

    Dcn. Michael D. Harmon-

    “Show me a woman who can get pregnant by herself and I’ll admit the point that feminism and impotence are not joined at the hip (so to speak).”

    Yes, but *The Church* is not trying to impregnate women (as far as I know). Does feminization mean the Church isn’t as effective at converting people? And if a decreased male population makes the Church “impotent,” is it because The Church failed to impregnate the wayward men? My point was that the metaphor is sloppy.

  • http://rightwingnation.com rightwingprof

    Ah, you’re Orthodox!

  • http://www.prochoros.blogspot.com Douglas Ian

    What represents “feminized” worship? It’s hard to know where to draw the line, isn’t it? On the one hand, it can’t be the smells and bells if the Orthodox Church is bringing in the men. On the other hand, it can’t be the touchy-feely praise choruses and the like, if the Evangelicals are bringing in the men.

    What do the Orthodox and the Evangelicals share in common? Both hold to stricter theological and dogmatic positions. I know this is hard to affirm of the Evangelicals, since they’re such a motley tribe, but isn’t it generally so?

    In exploring the issue, it would be enlightening to find answers for these questions:

    Are strict conservative Roman Catholic parishes bringing in the men?

    What about SSPX parishes?

    Are Evangelical churches with a more liberal bent bringing in more women than men?

    Does the presence of women in leadership roles (esp. in ordained, pastoral positions) correspond to more or fewer men in the church or parish?

  • Susan

    Also, is the perceived “masculinity” in the church and the larger number of men related to the fact that it is an oppressive place for women, and therefore they attend less? IOW, is it possible to be “pro-guy” and not be “anti-woman.”?

  • Charles

    I can only speak definitively for myself of course, but I suspect that the problem with the Western Church is that is refusing to throw down.

    What I mean is that there is a widespread assumption that the faith really isn’t serious. Like it’s kinda just a Jungian metaphoric thing, sorta. It’s just about love and community, you know. All that stuff about martyrdom, poverty, fasting, chastity, well, it’s not serious. Wink wink knudge knudge, all that. The Ressurection, multiplication of the loaves, all those sorts of things? Metaphors.. of what, I don’t know.

    That’s what makes my stomach turn. Next time I hear a homily on the miracle of sharing I propose to personally lead a lynch mob to the rectory, tar, feather then run the good padre or bishop up a pole. Enough is enough. Preach the Gospel, for Pete’s sake. Stop apologising for it. Embrace the mystery. Revel in the scandal. Get some b*lls, finally. Or else turn in your freaking collar.

    Be a bloody man. Let’s have solemnity. Let’s have a fast. Then let’s really feast. Let’s embrace the Cross and preach the Ressurection. Let’s talk about sin and salvation. Come on. It’s not that hard.

    The Orthodox still more or less do this. This is why they have men. They are men. Not wussies.

  • Andy


    not a bad idea, but undoing a church’s evolution will be pretty hard for the feely(s) and touchy(s)

    like to see it happen though

  • Richard Barrett

    Speaking as a baptized Evangelical and confirmed Episcopalian who converted to Orthodoxy and who, because of his wife’s family, has spent a fair amount of time in Roman Catholic circles (and to a certain extent, still does)…

    The Christianity represented by what we could loosely call the catholic tradition — and I don’t want it to sound like I’m endorsing branch theory here, because I’m not — that is, Anglicans, Catholics, Orthodox, and non-Chalcedonians, retaining the traditional liturgical forms, Sacraments, the Real Presence, the Saints, apostolic succession, and so on, assume the existence of a very ordered spiritual reality, and that the church and the liturgy are that reality on earth. There are very mystical implications here, and it’s a very different understanding of the world than a strictly materialistic one. As such, it has to be clear to all concerned that this is taken very seriously, and assumed to be true. If this doesn’t happen, a lot of things break down.

    Unfortunately, I’ve seen to many ECUSA and Roman Catholic priests and parishes who apologize for their liturgy in the very manner they present it. It represents a lot of winking at the congregation, as if to say, “We know this is ridiculous, and we know you know it too. We’ll try to cut down on the mumbo-jumbo, get through it as quickly as we can, or at least make it entertaining so it’s not as mind-numbing, so we can get to the sermon quickly, get you your cracker and rose, and we’ll get you out of here.” I can’t speak to this being consistently the practice everywhere, but I’ve seen it consistently in parishes I’ve visited, at diocesan conventions, and so on. Worse yet — I’ve heard it justified by people who don’t realize that’s what they’re doing. “We’ve turned the focus from the mystical act of the priest to the participation of the people,” one person told me, using that to explain why the high altar was still there but never used, and why all of the liturgical music was ’70s-era lounge-style.

    None of that is to say I’ve not had experiences in both RC and ECUSA parishes where that hasn’t been the case; much to the contrary. However, what I describe above has been more the rule than the exception.

    Anecdotal as that may all be, what I can also say is that I’ve never had an experience like that at an Orthodox service, whatever some other failings may have been. The Orthodox parishes I’ve been to — Russian, Antiochian, Greek, and so on — consistently present the Liturgy without winking or apology for content, length or style. The Liturgy is the Liturgy is the Liturgy.

    Speaking as a man, and tying this all back to the masculine vs. effeminate spirituality issue — apologizing for the rough edges of a 2,000 year old faith, trying to make it relevant, trying to make it less spiritual or mystical than it must be, trying to explain it away, trying to make it less threatening, trying to reduce it to essentials or, worse yet, metaphors, and so on are all, to say the least, very unappealing. To the person seeing a parish or priest do these things, it comes across (rightly or wrongly) as though the parish or priest does not, in fact, believe the faith or take it seriously themselves, at least not to the point where they’re willing to challenge people with the unvarnished version.

    I don’t exactly relate to these masculine vs. effeminate constructs, but I suppose if I had to explain what the difference was in my own words, it’s that “effeminate” spirituality seems to back away from challenging people with what the Christian faith has always been. It seems to forget that by Jesus’ own admission, He brought a sword.

    And no, that’s not an exclusively Orthodox trait — I know Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, and even Evangelicals who see it this way as well.

    Make of that what you will.


  • Dcn. Michael D. Harmon

    Hmmm. Having been tried and convicted (in absentia) of offering a sloppy metaphor, let me try a direct statement: Feminism is impotent because it is internally, not externally, focused. Fecundity is produced by one who acts, in conjunction with one who is acted upon. Thus the Church is metaphorically the Bride of Christ because she produces nothing without Him, requires His action to be productive, and is to be joined to Him forever in eternity (at the hip, so to speak). As C.S. Lewis noted, there is a sense in which we all, men and women, are “feminine” in this sense before God. It’s why He self-references Himself in male terms. He is the eternal masculine, which contains the feminine within itself. That’s why the feminist movement wants to change the language regarding male pronouns for God, because they cannot accept that reality of His nature.

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  • Ann

    You can’t get around the fact that Jesus said things like, “turn the other cheek” and urged people to forgive 7 x 70 times. If people want to define these teachings as feminine, and reject them, that’s their own ego-based resistance to God, not a failing of Christianity.

    Jesus said it’s easier for a camel to go through an eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God… people can be rich in other things besides money. If they are rich in their own self-glorifying ego, as uptight macho men often are, then I think they’ll probably have just as hard a time entering the Kingdom of God as someone distracted by their money.

  • Stephen A.

    And what’s the female counterpart to those ‘self-glorifying” “uptight macho men”? Amoral, psycho-babble spouting, tradition-hating, emotion-drenched, self-glorifying womenministers?

  • http://www.myspace.com/eimisokrates David J Hunt

    The orthodox saints of old, these days, have been traded in for theological pragmatism. The St. Augustines and St. Jeromes of the Church have been, seemingly, theologically castrated by the femenist zeitgeist of liberation theologians like Elisabeth Schussler-Fiorenza and Elizabeth A. Johnson. (And any references to something like “sexism,” “cooking,” or “suffrages” is willfully retarded concerning what I wrote.)

  • Ann

    lol, I wouldn’t know if “womenministers” are amoral and “emotion-drenched” since I’m Roman Catholic. One would assume, though, since they’re ministers, that they’re at least attempting to understand the Word of God, instead of staying home and complaining that the Church is not catering to their gender.

  • Stephen A.

    Ann, fair point. I want to clarify that just like ALL male ministers are not “uptight macho men,” my description of some women ministers is not and should not be considered a blanket indictment of them all, though all stereotypes, like this one, tend to have some bases in fact.

    And in the interest of accuracy, I should have addressed female clegy of that type as “womynministers.” ;-)

  • Stephen A.

    BTW, “Mother Jesus.”

    That’s the timely answer to those who have questioned what this “feminized worship” allegation is all about.

  • Chris

    Thus the Church is metaphorically the Bride of Christ because she produces nothing without Him, requires His action to be productive, and is to be joined to Him forever in eternity (at the hip, so to speak).

    Bzzzt. A man cannot produce children without a woman, any more than a woman can do so without a man. One might as well say “the Church is metaphorically the Bridegroom because it produces nothing without Christ, just as a husband can produce nothing without a wife.”

    God is not dependent on the Church to create life. Men are dependent on women to create life. Your explanation for the analogy fails.