To combat a growing gender gap, churches reach out to men
November 30, 2013
Photo by Michael Sears
Christ Church in Mequon aims to make men feel welcome. Its 2009 building was designed to look like a North Woods lodge. Many congregations are concerned about the gender gap, with the average congregation in America 60% female, according to a study.
By Annysa Johnson of the Journal Sentinel
Like so many congregations on the American religious landscape, St. John's Lutheran Church in Brookfield is essentially run by women.
Most of the staff are women, as are the Sunday school teachers. Women lead key ministries, from worship and music to community outreach and fundraising. And come Sunday morning, when the Rev. Jennifer Arnold delivers her sermon, most of the faithful in the pews are, well, women.
No one is suggesting that men are absent from faith communities across the country. They still dominate in the pulpit, despite the ordination of women in some denominations. But studies show that men fall well below their female counterparts in church membership and participation. Even in faiths where leadership roles are exclusively male, it's now common to have women working as pastoral associates, liturgy directors and finance managers, running the day-to-day operations.
Many congregations have become increasingly alarmed by the persistent gender gap.
According to the 2006-'07 National Congregations Study by Duke University, the average congregation in America is 60% female. A just-completed update of the study is not expected to yield any significant change in that ratio. For Catholics, the nation's largest denomination, the percentage of women is even higher at 64%, said Mark Gray of the Center for Applied Research into the Apostolate at Georgetown University.
Theories abound as to why. One is the cultural construct of "separate spheres" of influence that emerged in Europe and North America in the late 18th century. It held that men, by their nature, were better suited to the public sphere — business, politics and the like — and women to the private sphere of home and religion.
More recently, critics have blamed what they call the "feminization of religion."
"It's all about emotions and study, sitting in circles and sharing your feelings — all traditionally female gifts," said David Morrow, a Green Bay native whose 2011 book, "Why Men Hate Going to Church," resonated with many clergy. "In the last hundred years, our understanding of what the Gospel is has changed from a dangerous mission to being all about relationships."
'Action, not language'
Some churches, including St. John's, are looking for ways to better engage men and boys in their faith and churches.
"If there's any one demographic that isn't served, whether that's men or children, then we're missing out on the fullness of God's creation," said Arnold, the mother of a 13-year-old son and two younger daughters, whose church is part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's Greater Milwaukee Synod. "When we lose men, we lose their witness, their power, their gifts, and we are not as full."
A group of ELCA congregations is exploring ways to better reach boys and men, after St. John's hosted a presentation last month by the Rev. Tim Wright, author of a new book, "Searching for Tom Sawyer: How Parents and Congregations Can Stop the Exodus of Boys from Church."
"Men want action, not language," Wright said. "Quite honestly, we need to put the testosterone back into Jesus."
Wright contends that for churches to retain men, they must value who they are as people: neither better, nor worse, than women, but different. And, he says, men need to step up to mentor boys to fulfill their roles in the church and society.
"Ultimately, we need to train men for their real mission and that is to be great fathers, husbands, employers, employees and citizens of their communities," said Wright, an ELCA pastor in Peoria, Ariz. "The reality is that the world is stronger, the church is stronger...when we have good men."
There have been concerted efforts over the years to draw more men into the faith realm, notably the Promise Keepers movement that filled arenas with prayerful men in the 1990s. Locally, many churches promote their men's ministries, with varying degrees of success.
When Christ Church built its new building in Mequon in 2009, it was designed to look like a North Woods lodge in an effort to make men feel more comfortable there, said the Rev. Bob Suhr, who has modeled his ELCA church on the nondenominational worship experience.
And once inside, men have plenty of guy-friendly opportunities — canoeing in the Boundary Waters, paintballing and skeet-shooting — to build friendships that, ideally, strengthen their faith and their church.
"The data are pretty clear," said Suhr, whose membership has quadrupled since Christ Church christened its new building. "If you can bring a man into a relevant and meaningful (church) experience, where they're comfortable, you have a greater possibility of having that family continue to worship. And you have a greater impact on that family's life."
St. Leonard Catholic Church in Muskego began trying to get men to connect more with their faith about six years ago, bringing in programs and speakers that target them specifically. The latest? "Crossing the Goal," a video series by Catholic network EWTN that is part Bible study, part halftime sports broadcast.
Elmbrook Church, the nondenominational megachurch that sits across from St. John's on Barker Road, is a national force in the men's ministry movement. It brings thousands of men across southeastern Wisconsin together for weekly small-group discussions of faith, said associate pastor the Rev. Steve Sonderman.
Its annual No Regrets conference, which was streamed to 63 sites last year, is one of the largest gatherings of Christian men in the country.
And Sonderman travels the world speaking to church leaders about how to connect with men.
"Men want to be challenged," said Sonderman, who heads Elmbrook's men's ministry. "They want to get out of the pews; they want to do something — feed the hungry, work with Habitat rebuilding homes."
At times, efforts to promote greater involvement by men and boys have raised concerns. St. Mary Catholic Church in Platteville was in an uproar last year because its newly installed priests, as part of a broad effort to return to more traditional practices, allowed only boys to become altar servers, after allowing girls to participate for years.
The priests hoped the move would foster among the boys an interest in the priesthood, which in the Catholic Church is not open to women.
But for the most part, response to programs aimed at drawing more men into their churches has been positive, pastors say.
"Wives come to me in tears. They're thrilled that their husbands are now coming to church and growing in their faith," said Suhr of Christ Church.
"We're seeing that if you talk to men on men's level and you give them the opportunity to be engaged as a man, they're really open," Suhr said. "They want something more out of their lives, just like anybody else."
That's the goal, said the Rev. Eric Luedtke, associate pastor at St. John's.
"This is not an attempt to take anything away from women and girls," said Luedtke, the father of two daughters ages 3 and 5. "This is not about leaving girls behind. But we need to be more intentional about how we meet the needs of boys."