Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Church of the Hunting Lodge

Why don't American men go to church?

This article takes a look at the question:
Churches nationwide are fretting and sweating to reel men into their sanctuaries on Sundays.

Women outnumber men in attendance in every major Christian denomination, and they are 20% to 25% more likely to attend worship at least weekly.

Unfortunately, the solution that's being recommended is a little---well--:
Although every soul matters, many pastors say they need to power up on reaching men if the next generation of believers, the children, will find the way to faith. So hundreds of churches are going for a "guy church" vibe, programming for a stereotypical man's man. [...]

One church, 121 Community Church in Grapevine, Texas, outside Dallas, was even designed with dudes in mind, from the worship center's stone floor, hunter-green and amber decor and rustic-beam ceilings to woodsy scenes on the church website.

No pastels. No flowers. No sweet music. No sit-with-your-hands-folded mood. Women are welcome, but the tone is intentionally "guy church" for a reason, says Ross Sawyers, founder and pastor of 121. [...]

If you've got a minute, read the whole thing; it's interesting, to say the least.

Interesting, but ultimately misguided.

For one thing, the notion that men always used to go to church every Sunday with the family until the very recent past is not really accurate. For Catholics, where Sunday Mass attendance isn't optional, the percentage of men at Mass may have been a bit higher in the past than the percentage of non-Catholic Christian men at their services. But a psychological survey I once saw from about the 1930s or 40s gave a different appearance to the "men at church" notion, the idea that until practically yesterday men went with their families to Sunday worship as a matter of course.

The survey was designed for marriage counseling, and women were asked questions about whether they attended church and took the children to Sunday school--good qualities in a wife. But the women were also asked whether they understood their husband's need for rest on Sunday mornings, and let him sleep in while they attended to the family's spiritual needs on their own! A man's obligation was simply to arrange for his family to get to church, and not to stop them from attending--there was no particular notion that he needed to go, himself.

So the problem of men not going to church goes back farther into our nation's habits and practices than we like to think. The earliest Americans took worship obligations seriously, and even Pa Ingalls seemed to be involved with his family's Sunday services, whether a church was available to him or not--but just how soon after the late nineteenth or early twentieth century this cohesion started to fall apart might surprise us, accustomed as we are to thinking that the world was roughly perfect until sometime between 1949 and 1970, give or take.

But if the problem of men at church goes back as far as it does, we might want to rethink the notion that it's pastels and flowers and sweet music that drove them away (not that sweet music isn't a problem, but that's a subject for another day).

It is very true that men's spirituality is different from women's. Certain devotions and practices, even in Catholicism, have always appealed more to a woman's notion of spirituality than a man's. But sometimes I can't help but think that devotions which are perfectly manly in themselves end up being falsely labeled "girly" or looked at with suspicion by the man's man.

Take the rosary, for one. There's nothing especially feminine about praying the prayers and reflecting on the mysteries. There's nothing particularly girlish about the structure or arrangement of the beads, and if one can find pastel rosaries, one can also find wood or hematite or other manly materials being employed in their manufacture. (My sister who is a nun once met some religious brothers with truly awesome fifteen decade rosaries swinging from their habits; when asked, they enthusiastically shared that the beads were made from wooden dowel ends purchased at Home Depot.) The men fighting at Lepanto went into battle with their rosaries wrapped around their arms--so why do so many people think of the rosary as not only a woman's prayer, but the prayer of a rather elderly woman at that?

I think the problem goes way beyond what is or isn't feminine, and speaks to the heart of a deeper problem that gets in between men and God, sometimes, especially in America.

Prayer and worship, no matter what the church, are always acts of humility and submission.

I'm certainly not going to say that women have an easier time with either of these concepts, or are "better" at them (how can one be "better" at humility?). But what makes these concepts particularly difficult for men is that they are traditionally the ones who have the authority, not only in society and so forth, but also within the family. Even today a traditional family understands the role of the husband as being one of both authority and protection, and while I've written before on the difference between accepting one's husband's lawful authority and being a doormat, I'd still say that most healthy families have some agreement with the concept.

At one time, a man understood that his authority within the family worked in concert with his willingness to do two things: accept all of his responsibilities in regard to his family, and himself submit to those in authority over him. His failure to do either one of those things was going to lead to a breakdown of his authority over his family, and he knew it.

In a democratic society, especially one as broken as ours, the "submission to lawful authority" side of the equation begins to falter. It's not uncommon for some traditional men to see the government as an enemy and a rival for their authority in the family--and to be fair, in this day and age, they're often right about that. But the less a man has to accept any restraints on his behavior, whether those restraints come from law or culture or society or even religion, which demands less and less of him, the less he is comfortable in the need to enter into the proper spirit of humility and submission from which all true worship of God will flow.

In fact, he may start to see both humility and submission as essentially feminine qualities, which have nothing to do with him. After all, he's a man! Why should he do all that bowing and kneeling and hand-folding? He should be thumping his chest and chanting war-chants! Onward Christian Soldiers!

Real soldiers, though, tend to get the notion of authority. It's not demeaning to salute one's commanding officer, after all. It's not demeaning to march in parade or take orders without question. It's not demeaning to obey--and it can save your life. Or your soul.

Building some giant "Church of the Hunting Lodge" and equipping every seat with symbolic remotes, or hosting parking lot barbecues which give a wholly different meaning to "Game Night," might be a tempting idea to attract men back to church. But when the problem has its roots in the unfamiliarity for the modern man of submitting to the authority of God in all things, these methods will only work to the extent that they are novel, and will fail in that they are ultimately unsound.


Matilda said...

Excellent post! If only I could get my dad to read this.

freddy said...

I wonder if this is part of something that goes back to the Enlightenment and the social upheaval that bred democracy and other, less savory forms of self-rule.

Prior to all that even men were imbued, for good or ill, that they, too were part of a hierarchy requiring submission and obedience, from peasant to lord to king to God.

Even among Catholic men, particularly older men, I've run across a certain egalitarian attitude between them and God. Almost as if they're saying, "I do my part (whatever they conceive that to be) and You do yours: answer my prayers & get me into heaven." It's a sort of business arrangement; everything else is fluff.

Just a thought.