Where are the men?
The 600 men who attended the fifth Cardiff Men’s Convention in 2008 are still telling us that it was ‘the best convention yet’. Once more the All Nations Centre in Cardiff was filled with men who brought a compassion to worship, a real hunger for truth in the teaching and, maybe most important of all, the encouragement of being with other Christian men.
The title of this year’s convention was ‘Leaving a Legacy’, the central idea being that Christian men have a significant responsibility to create a positive legacy in their churches, their family, their workplace and in the wider community. The teaching was designed to challenge and inspire, but also to equip men to take on that responsibility.
We were so encouraged to see that well over half of the men who attended were under the age of 50, a statistic that does not match what we often see in churches or, indeed, what some of these men see when they go back to their own church. And that is the heart of the problem.
Next Sunday fewer than 2% of the population will attend an evangelical church meeting*. That figure is a pretty depressing one for churches who share, whatever their tradition, a solid commitment to spreading the gospel. 2% is not really a lot of people if we’re serious about reaching the nation.
But here’s another figure, from the same source: less than a third of the people in these meetings (around 31%) will be men. The first figure is bad. I would argue that the second one is a disaster.
But why is it a disaster? How did it happen? How does it affect the evangelical church? More importantly, what can we do about it?
Why is it a disaster?
I would argue that it’s a disaster for four reasons.
First, it’s a disaster for the mission of the church. The church exists to bring people to salvation and disciple them. While the church is seen as a thing mainly for women, half the population (the male half) is going to be harder to reach.
Second, it’s a disaster for families. There is American research that suggests that in a household, if the mother is the first to come to Christ, there is a 17% chance everyone else in the household will follow. If the father is first, there is a 93% probability that everyone else in the house will follow. Anyway you look at it, it says that our failure to reach men is a serious problem. A less obvious aspect of this problem is that there is a serious shortage of young Christian men among whom young Christian women can look for husbands. I am not saying that being single is necessarily wrong but the reality is there are single women who want to get married and are finding it hard to find single Christian men.
Third, it’s a disaster for young men if they do not have around them enough male Christian role models.
Fourth, it’s a disaster for society because, although it’s not for the church to impose its values on everyone else, the fewer men there are living and witnessing to Christian values the more those values are at risk of being eroded.
How did we get here?
There is a strong temptation to hark back at this point to a golden age when the churches were full, families attended worship together and church-going was the norm rather than an eccentric minority activity. It’s nonsense, of course. No such golden age ever existed. There were times — particularly in the 1920s and 30s — when the whole role of the church in the community and society in general was radically different. In those churches men were more at home because they could acquire and hold status, power and the respect of his neighbours.
As the world changed, the social role of the church changed. From being a reasonable, respectable and respected thing to do, churchgoing steadily changed into something that was seen as pretty much on the fringe. Since the Second World War, the shift has been dramatic: from ‘I’m afraid I don’t go to church’ to ‘I’m afraid I do’. Those who attend church are far more likely to have to defend their position than those who don’t.
How did it affect us?
Does that analysis apply to the evangelical church? No it doesn’t — well not entirely. But, among the general population, information about the church is pretty patchy and unbalanced. They see the church as a whole as confused and, frankly, pointless. And men are especially reluctant to associate themselves with failure and put themselves in a place where they may be ridiculed. In that climate even men inside the evangelical church begin to lose confidence and get anxious about sharing their faith.
The result has been that recruitment of men into the evangelical church has fallen away even more rapidly than that of women. And the cultural pressures get stronger. The biblical model of men’s role in the church and in the home has increasingly been seen as out of step with — indeed in open conflict with — some of the fundamental values of society. There is nothing in the Scriptures that attacks equality of opportunity in the professions, in politics, in the workplace. There is a good deal in the Scriptures about the differences between men and women and how they should be acknowledged and celebrated. There is a good deal about the way in which marriage (itself now seen in many places as a lifestyle choice rather than a sacrament) should reflect that. And certainly there is clear guidance there about the different roles of men and women in the church. While that may feel very uncomfortable in the current liberal climate it is all expressed in terms of absolute equality of respect and value.
But no one wants to hear that and as a result, the evangelical church has found itself branded as somehow harking back to a bygone-and-good-riddance age: narrow-minded, prudish, and sexist. To be painfully honest, there are places most of us know where that isn’t a million miles from the truth. But it isn’t scriptural and it isn’t true in most evangelical churches. Unfortunately, mud sticks and nowhere is that more the case than in what most people see as a marginal and optional part of their lives — and I mean the church.
What can we do about it?
I firmly believe that, while the current situation of men in the church is grim, it needs to be seen as a challenge and an opportunity rather than a problem. Meeting that challenge and taking that opportunity could radically transform our churches and through them impact our nation. The question is, are church leaders up for this challenge, because they need to be if they want to play a part in reversing the trend.
David Murrow in his introduction to his bestselling book, Why Men Hate Going to Church, quotes the management guru W. Edwards Deming who said: ‘Your system is perfectly designed to give you the results you get’. If our churches are failing to attract and retain men — that’s what they are set up to do whether we intend it or not — what can we do about it?
Murrow’s book sets out a huge range of ideas from worship styles to the clothes the pastor wears that can influence how comfortable men feel in church and so whether they come and, if they do, stay. Murrow argues very convincingly that changing these things can have a positive effect. But if it were as easy as changing a few outward things like that we wouldn’t have a problem.
The fact is though that it goes much deeper than that.
My work with the other leaders of the Cardiff Men’s Convention over the last five years has thrown up some very powerful lessons. Here are just a few of them. (For details see our web site http://www.cardiffmensconvention.org.uk):
1. The Bible works. The feedback we get from those who come to the Convention is unanimous: men are hungry for solid and straight Bible teaching. Far from putting them off as some might expect, the plain setting out of biblical principles for sexual, marital, financial and ethical conduct has proved exciting and inspiring.
2. Men need other men. Many men already in the church feel isolated and confused about how to grow in their faith and how to share it. They desperately need the fellowship of other men. Sometimes it’s just for the reassurance that they’re not alone — the convention has taught us the importance of that. But men also need others to whom they can talk honestly about their faith and their lives and with whom they can pray. Churches need men’s groups that are focussed on matters of faith rather than just a brief talk about steam engines followed by coffee and a chat.
3. Men of faith are desperate to share it, but they need help. Time and again at the convention we meet men passionate about their faith but often with little or no confidence in their ability to share it. Churches have a real and urgent need to equip their men with sound understanding of the gospel — men like to have the facts straight — but with opportunities and training in how to share it — at home, in the workplace and even on the golf course.
4. Men like things done well. If the teaching is sloppy, or the music/worship dull, the organisation slack, the surroundings uncomfortable or scruffy, men will let you know — they may tell you directly but more likely they just won’t come again. Men take themselves seriously and expect others to do so too. Any effort put into getting the vital details of men’s work right will be a sound investment.
5. Men can make things happen. Given the right teaching, the right support and the right opportunities men can turn from a problem into a powerhouse. If just some of the energy that men are willing to invest in other areas of their lives — like their careers — is transferred to their sharing of the gospel, they look for and they get results.
Doing nothing isn’t an option
I passionately believe that this situation is one the church cannot ignore. We need to do something about it. We can do something about it. I pray for a generation of men who are willing to do something about it.
* There are all sorts of complications about defining what an evangelical church is, but that figure is one provided to me by the Evangelical Alliance which has among its members a huge range of churches in most denominations; so it’s a definition I’m happy to take on trust and I hope that most of those reading this would be willing to accept it.