Men In The Church

The church has an interesting paradox. With only a couple of denominations as exceptions, church leadership is primarily men. In some, women aren’t even allowed to lead, which is what I’ve been arguing against in this gender roles series of posts. Many of those denominations which allow for female leadership still have more men than women as their practice catches up to what they now allow. Yet when you look out at the pews, which gender is the significant majority? Women. The church is still very heavily oriented toward women, even though a lot of theology would seem to favour men. We have a patriarchy in charge, but other than those leaders, there are few men who really want much to do with the church. When I was a leader of a Campus Alpha last year, our leadership team at one point was 7 women to 2 men. Most of the guests – non-leaders in Alpha language – were also women throughout the couple of years I did it.  I remember when I went on my own Alpha retreat when I was a guest and I got a room to myself because I was the only male guest. Going back even farther, a former youth pastor referred to me as “the token male” in our student group because other than him, the ratio was usually six or seven to one. I’m pretty used to it – raised by my mom, alongside my sisters, and have always been in the church. But should men be used to being the minority? In the same way that I don’t think God wants mostly men in the pulpit, I don’t think God wants mostly women in the pews either. This is a challenge with any cultural shift, or with any theological shift. When one group has been oppressed for a long time and fight against it, there is always a real danger of becoming the oppressors. I’m not saying “oppression” has happened or even that it will happen against men in the church, but it’s a real danger and I do think sometimes we see hints of it.

As one example, consider the issue of inclusive language. Inclusive language often means using “she” instead of “he” for God. I do understand the reasoning for it. Most people have always heard “he” and thus solidified the image of God as only male. By using she, it counteracts that to bring to a bit more of a balance. But what about those who haven’t had an image of God as only male? I grew up always hearing “he” but was often told that God is not male; God is both (or neither, depending on how you look at it). So when I hear “he” for God, I actually imagine ungendered. Then when I hear “she” I’m hearing “not male.” I might be completely alone on that, but just with my own experiences of the language, I find “he” inclusive but “she” exclusive. Since I know most others aren’t like that, I try to use both but it’s a tough issue to have a clear answer to. I still haven’t figured out a solution to this. English doesn’t have a neutral personal pronoun. I won’t use “it” because that strips all relationship out of God and makes him/her just an object. It’s very linguistically inconvenient to use only the word God without ever using a pronoun.And what I’ve settled on for the most part, using he sometimes and she other times, can just be really confusing to know who I’m talking about.

So men, be encouraged that I am wrestling with what it means for us to be equal in the church as well. There are good reasons why so many men hate going to church. Being caught up only in making sure that we have equality in who gets to be the pastor can sometimes leave out making sure we have equality in every other aspect of church life. The book which I just linked to (I have the first edition; that’s the second) has some great examples of this. Churches almost always have women’s groups, but not as commonly men’s groups – usually not as a systematic exclusion but just because not enough men come to church in the first place.Many churches have effectively banned more active songs like “Onward Christian Soldiers” in favour of more reflective songs about our own relationship with Jesus. Nothing wrong with that reflection of course, but ask yourself honestly how many men feel comfortable constantly hearing and saying they’re in a relationship with Jesus. Most men wouldn’t even like that phrase “in a relationship with” to describe their romantic relationships, and definitely would not use it with anybody else. We men on average are wired much more naturally to talk about what we can do for that God we call our Lord. As the inclusive language debate has shown us of the opposite direction, the language of our churches matters. Ask yourself honestly how many men like to sing anything in public for that matter, even if it’s worship of a God they genuinely do love. If you’re interested in more of the specific ideas then I highly recommend that book (although he clearly lacks sensitivity to women’s issues at times). Some things are more natural gender differences that are no better or worse, and sure, some are cultural taboos that men should overcome. But even for the latter, if the church can’t welcome us until we overcome it on our own, that’s not particularly Jesus-like and realistically without community support we never will overcome it enough to be allowed in. I would just like to caution our churches not to forget about men.

Especially the liberal mainline does a great job of fighting for equality for women in leadership and in our theology. I am very thankful for that. But I do sometimes feel as if all the emphasis on God as a woman, and on making sure we have more female leaders, and making sure women are welcomed and loved in the church, that we often forget the other half of the population. And then is it really such a wonder that we can’t get men to go to church, even those men who do call themselves Christians? Before I get hate comments about how sexist I am, please read my other posts in this series. The rest of my posts have been about sexism against women and I hope this one little post can just get you thinking about whether sexism against men exists as well.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.