On Getting & Keeping Masculine Men in Church

On Getting & Keeping Masculine Men in Church January 29, 2018


I recall, years ago, sitting in a class at Harvard Divinity School, and across from me sat an Indian woman–you know, from India–and she, in her words, was the pastor of a congregational church, (United Church of Christ, naturally).

She was a graduate of HDS and she had come back to school to take a few classes from her favorite professor. Her favorite was mine as well, Ralph Potter, a man who didn’t follow the fads, but instead taught classes that drew upon the riches of the Western tradition in a way that was welcoming and anything but strident. We read Montaigne, and Aristotle, and Gracian, even Augustine.

Her remark in class that day was one that made a real impression on me. It was something like this: “My education prepared me to confront patriarchy. I wish I had some patriarchs in my church. The most controlling people in my church are old women.”

I confess, my thought at that moment (which I didn’t vocalize) was, “Good luck with that, sister.”

One of the things I’m grateful for over my 30 plus years of ministry is I’ve had a lot of good men in my churches. Getting them into church and keeping them there hasn’t been a big problem for me. I’d say my congregations have been roughly split, 50/50 between men and women.

From all I’ve seen and heard, that’s unusual. And it isn’t just the result of belonging to a particular denomination, or holding to a particular theology. In two of the churches I formerly served my successors managed to drive the men out and return the ratios to something more like the norm–70/30 favoring women.

So, what’s my secret?

What follows are some bits of advice rooted mostly in common sense. Nothing terribly profound, although a few of them will likely trigger the feminists among my readers (if there are any of those among my readers).

First, if you want to reach men, it helps to be a man.

Now, I’m talking about reaching men who self-identify as men. This may be a shrinking demographic. If males of this sort do entirely die out I suppose this advice will be worthless. But I doubt that this will ever happen, utopian dreams of a gender-fluid world notwithstanding.

Let me add this caveat. You don’t need to be the most masculine man around. I’m of average height and build. I don’t talk incessantly about sports, or hunting, or even conservative politics. I have been a home improvement contractor and that does help, especially when it comes to relating to blue collar guys. But I don’t think that sort of thing is required.

You can’t be effeminate, though. That’s a real turn off to masculine men. Effeminate guys give masculine guys the creeps. If you have a feminine voice, or an effeminate manner, sorry, Jack, but you are unlikely to get masculine men into church.

Don’t get goofy about it.

This may seem counter-intuitive, but you shouldn’t make reaching men the focus of your church. The focus should be the truth of the gospel and living in obedience to it.

I’ve seen some guys who unintentionally make a caricature of masculinity by focusing on superficial markers of it. You know, sports, hunting, guns, that stuff. All those things are great, and I enjoy them. But men can also enjoy fine art, wine, even dancing.

Masculinity is more about stepping up to certain responsibilities as men, responsibilities often shared by women. But men do those things in ways that are in accord with manliness. But I think that comes somewhat naturally, without a lot of fanfare. Manliness isn’t a preening thing. It may even be characterized as a sort of disregard for appearances.

Reach out.

Over the years I’ve made a point of reaching out to men. That may seem like I’m contradicting my first point. But I don’t think so. I try to reach out to everyone. But being a man myself, there is a basis for contact that just doesn’t exist with other people.

Here’s what I mean. I usually make a point of getting together with a new guy to the church for lunch. Usually I wait for the guy to come to church a few times before I make that offer. Obviously, something like that doesn’t work with women or children. Furthermore, I do believe men have gifts and responsibilities that are unique to our sex. So being a man myself, I have a basis for speaking about those things with other men. I may not jump right to those things in this “getting to know you” lunch. But once the connection has been made and a measure of trust and openness is evident, I can do that.

Now for a few things that may seem superficial but I think send signals that men tend to read.

Have a firm, dry handshake, and look a guy in the eye.

This communicates frankness, but also reliability. I suspect that physical strength is being communicated subtlety in this way, too. (By the way, ladies, this won’t work for you. If you’re trying to reach men, better to be feminine. A woman who tries to match a man when it comes to strength, or frankness, is also creepy. Don’t like that? See my earlier point about utopian dreams.)

Ditch the emotional manipulation.

I’m thinking mostly about mawkish music and teary-eyed stories, and the like. I think those are like candy. They may get an emotional rise out of everyone, men included. But over time the law of diminishing returns seems to set in. And for men that comes quick.

Please, no hand holding, or any of that. And generally speaking the word “love” should be reserved for when you really mean it.

Refrain from touching another man’s wife or kids.

Touching doesn’t just communicate affection, it communicates ownership. There is something primal at work here, and it is politically incorrect to think in these terms, I know. Nevertheless reality is not politically correct. And you can be politically correct and turn your church into a women’s club, or you can submit to the facts and stop touching the members of another man’s family.

When you refrain from touching another man’s stuff, you subtlety communicate your respect for him. Now here’s how I do it. After service (or before) when I’m greeting people, I always reach out to shake the man’s hand first. If this is not practical, I don’t make an issue about it. But if the wife comes first, I wait for her to extend her hand to me. Then I respectfully shake her hand, taking something off the the grip. I never, ever move to hug her. If she leans in towards me to embrace, I will. But I do so briefly, and respectfully, but always–and I can’t stress this enough–always, with my eye turned toward the husband.

When the kids come by, I do the same thing. I always pay my respect to their father as I touch them.

This is not difficult. And it is all quite natural. I’ve never had anyone even remark about how I conduct myself. I just know that other men are at ease around me because I show proper regard for them.

That’s enough for now. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.

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