For all intents and purposes, the Christian Church in America is not growing. George Barna’s organization has been on top of this plateau for years, so the numbers are easily verifiable. There are some that might even argue that the Church is slipping because the number of unchurched adults is up from 21% in 1991 to 34% today. Men comprise 55% of the unchurched, a number that is made worse when we consider that men are less than 50% of the population (49.2% according to Census estimates.) Worse yet, only 38% of those who claim to be “born again Christians” are men .
These are disturbing numbers and demand some analysis. Why is the Church so disproportionately female? I believe that a partial answer to this is that most men are overwhelmed by the demands currently being placed on them by our culture in general, and Christian churches and parachurch organizations specifically.
To start, men are getting many messages from their churches (and parachurch organizations) that simply do not line up with realistic expectations of home, family, and work. It would be no stretch of the imagination to think that the average Christian man is asked to…
1. Be the primary—and optimally sole—breadwinner
2. Set aside time for marriage enrichment (planned dates, marriage enrichment classes, and couple getaways)
3. Set aside important daily growth and development time with his children (often extending to homeschooling)
4. Perform other husband-related duties at home
5. Be part of a coed Bible study or small group with his wife
6. Be part of a men’s Bible study or small group
7. Maintain a community presence by being actively involved in his local government or community affairs
8. Maintain a daily Bible reading/study time
9. Devote a meaningful amount of time to prayer and meditation
10. Volunteer at his church
I’m certain most people reading this will agree that this list of 10 accurately reflects the reality portrayed to Christian men as being the “godly ideal.” A culling of the present message of family-oriented Christian ministries from radio, TV, Christian bestselling family-oriented books, and pulpit messages will find these ideals repeatedly reinforced, often with the not-so-hidden message being, “If you do not do all these things—and do them well—you are not fulfilling your role as a Christian man.”
But when we consider the ways in which the Church and families are operating in this country, is this a realistic expectation?
Depending on which survey you read, the average American is spending between 47 and 49 hours a week at work. Of those varying figures, there is one agreement: Americans work more hours every year. As companies further downsize and ask more of their workers, this trend shows no sign of letting up.
There is also countercultural pressure from within churches and parachurch organizations (such as Focus on the Family) to give their imprimatur to households in which the father works outside the home as the sole breadwinner while the mother stays at home with the children, preferably homeschooling. ( And though I cannot find exact figures to support this assertion numerically, my personal experience of more than a quarter century in the Church has been that this is true—and growing more widely accepted as the norm.)
Given these two factors, it can be projected that the average Christian father will spend more and more time working, with less time devoted to family life (or any of the other nine items on the list.) This situation is simply not being addressed by church groups, even as the picture of what constitutes a “good, Christian father” is continually expanded to include more “must do’s.”
What comes of this contradicting message is that the other items on the list suffer—often greatly. Since the 1990’s, the emphasis has been on marriage and family time, and for the most part, Christian men have responded to this favorably. Faced with the fact that Christians, even those claiming to be “born again,” are divorcing at rates equal to their secular counterparts, churches and parachurch organizations have gone into overdrive preaching the message of hearth and home. No sane person would argue against this need.
But something has to give, and I believe that it is the spiritual life of men that is in decline. The move of churches away from traditionally teaching through the pulpit and adult Sunday School classes, instead preferring small home group teaching (often led by less experienced leaders), means that men are getting their Christian Education from less reliable and less focused sources. Small groups often trade off teaching and study with relationship building. While making stronger relational ties is an admirable goal, the horizontal cannot supplant the vertical. Yet increasingly, this is the case.
Forced to carve time for more outward, visible proofs of Christian devotion (those most rewarded by Christian society currently), private Bible study and prayer time are becoming luxuries to many Christian men. For all we are asked to do, though, how can fifteen minutes a day in private prayer and Bible study ever hope to ground us deep in the Lord, able to meet the day’s demands? There simply is no possibility that an overcoming Church, grounded in spiritually vital men, will arise in our lifetimes if this is the extent of our personal devotion. What rushes in to fill the vacuum left behind by the loss of a powerful, manly Christianity with teeth is a gentle, emotional, feminized version that men find lacking. Faced with this standard, men become disenchanted. Well-described in the phenomenally popular Wild at Heart book that is the backbone of nearly every Christian men’s group, the resulting spiritual malaise becomes an increasing source of an angst that seemingly has few answers. John Eldredge claims a solution in his book, but his response—go hunt bear with nothing but a pointy stick—ultimately misses the fact that men are not communing with God in any helpful amount because they are being torn in too many directions.
None of this is lost on men. As they find themselves rushing to pursue every “all-important” Christian requirement placed on them, God Himself becomes an option. Can anything but burnout result? Men outside the church see this burden—who can escape its omnipresence—and decide they don’t need to stack their days with any more requirements, so they take a pass. Or in the cases where they do attempt to “walk the Christian walk,” they find a To-do list, eventually fail at meeting the list’s demands, and drift away.
In the midst of all this activity, the vital relationship with Christ is being eroded. Devoid of the deep, abiding presence of the Spirit, Christianity instead becomes a series of manmade attempts to live and minister. Failure is assured. No wonder that many men find more reassurance in the glow of the television tube. At least it makes no demands and does not judge when nothing more can be given.
In the future, I hope to devote a closer look to what I believe is the only real solution to this problem: rethinking how Christians work. With work occupying so much of our daily existence, is there any question that something will suffer from our increasingly vanishing free time? Unless the church and parachurch are actively working to help men come to grips with their employment strain, they should not continue to tie heavy burdens around men’s neck, burdens they cannot adequately fulfill.
For now, though, the call to churches and parachurch organizations is to understand that too much is being asked and no means is given to ease the strain. At a time when everyone feels harried by life’s “necessities,” it is no surprise that men have weighed the current message of the Church and found it wanting.
Update! A 4/20/05 follow-up to this issue is available: Another Look at the Church’s Missing Men.