Missing in Action? Men and Church

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I have spent the last few days at the combined meetings of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature. Both are necessarily committed to supposed objectivity and scholarly, Zen-like indifference to the subject matter. I say "supposed" because, truth be told, the academic world is no more objective than any other world.

But given the avowed values of "the guild" (as we call it), there is almost always some jarring contrast between the agenda of a meeting like this and the way in which the world sees the task of spiritual leadership.

This year, the contrast surfaced quickly on the flight to the meeting. I found myself sitting next to a man in his mid-forties who fought hard and painfully to make his way to the seat alongside me. Wearing a leg brace, I assumed he was dealing with a knee injury and I joked, sympathetically, "Note to God: 'a different design for knees the next time around.'"

That comment prompted a much longer conversation that lasted much of the flight from Dallas to San Francisco. He explained that the problem with his leg and the slight, but noticeable slur in his speech were due to the onset of MS. Married and the father of four children, he noted that he had faced a spiritual choice: "He could have a disease, or his disease could have him." He preferred the former.

Eventually I asked him why he was on his way to San Francisco (after all, travel looked like it was no small endeavor for him). And he explained that, in spite of his illness, he was on the plane along with 30 other men and their pastor who were on their way to Modesto, California, to serve—at their own expense—as counselors and prayer warriors at a weekend long program for 5,000 other men from around the country. Back home in Frisco, Texas, he explained with pride, they are building a worship center occupying 112,000 square feet.

There is a lot about my travel companion's story that would not play well in some congregations: the characterization of men as "warriors," the parachute drops, the focus on men itself, the evangelical and evangelistic focus of their enterprise—all of that invites sophisticated sniggering in the circles I typically travel.

I am also sure that I would have my own differences with his community's approach to church and the Christian life. I differed with him, for example, on men's roles at home and I told him that I thought men could be actively engaged with their families without asserting a power of veto (which he seemed to emphasize). I am also fairly sure that the emphasis I placed on mutuality also reflected a very different understanding of Scripture and the way it functions.

Nonetheless, the fact remains: There were thirty men on that plane flying to a retreat for thousands of men, but at any retreat or program sponsored by most congregations, my guess is that typically less than 10% of the participants are men—and most of the ones who do attend are far older than the 30 and 40-somethings on that flight to San Francisco.

So, it's time to grapple with the disparity and ask the obvious but rarely asked question: Why aren't men more actively engaged in church, if they go at all?

Here is my guess.

One, a substantial number of men are not interested in any spirituality or religion that doesn't answer the question, "So what?" Whatever the reasons—social or genetic—no small number of men (and women as well) are wired to solve problems. And if you can't explain why you should believe something, if you can't name the outcome, then it is not going to command serious attention.

You can label that impulse "Neanderthal" or unenlightened, but—in fact—much of the Christian and biblical tradition is wired to do just that. Paul regularly moves from describing the facts of the faith to outlining what his readers ought to do. It would be easy to defend the notion that Scripture describes a Gospel that requires engagement with life. It would be almost impossible to make the argument that either the Old or the New Testament is interested in a purely speculative conversation about God.

Two, the men who climb on a plane to fly across the country at their own expense also want to know what they can believe. Here, again, it is easy to dismiss the spirituality of men like this by arguing that they want to be told what to believe or to infer that they don't think for themselves. But, in fact, I found that the guy sitting next to me was framing what he heard preached in his own categories and, in his own way, he was thinking about what he was told.