Promise Keepers

Fathers, sons & pews, Part II

When it comes to who fills the pews, every Sunday is Mother's Day in most mainstream American churches.

And what about Father's Day? That can be a touchy subject for pastors in an era in which men who religiously avoid church outnumber active churchmen roughly three to one. Worship just doesn't work for millions of ordinary guys.

"What churches are doing isn't getting the job done. Mom is having to take the kids to church because Dad doesn't want to go," said Marc Carrier, co-author, with his Cynthia, of "The Values-Driven Family."

"That leaves Mom in charge of the spiritual upbringing of the children, which means faith is a Mom thing and not a Dad thing. ... So why is little Johnny -- who is 25 and has his first child on the way, whether he's married or not -- never in church? The odds are that his father was never in church."

Church attendance among men had already fallen to 43 percent in 1992, according to the Barna Group, which specializes in researching trends among Evangelicals. Then that number crashed to 28 percent in 1996, the year before the Promise Keepers movement held its "Stand in the Gap" rally that drew a million or more men to the National Mall -- one of the largest gatherings of any kind in American history.

No one involved in national men's ministries believes that those stats have improved. That's one reason why a nondenominational coalition wants to hold a "Stand in the Gap 2007" rally on Oct. 6, hoping to gather 250,000 men at the Washington Monument and on the Ellipse, just south of the White House.

The American numbers are sobering, noted Carrier, but they are nowhere near as stunning as another set of statistics in an essay entitled "The Demographic Characteristics of the Linguistic and Religious Groups in Switzerland," published in 2000 in a volume covering trends in several European nations. The numbers that trouble traditionalists came from a 1994 survey in which the Swiss government tried to determine how religious practices are carried down from generation to generation.

Apparently, if a father and mother were both faithful churchgoers, 33 percent of their children followed their example, with another 41 percent attending on an irregular basis and only a quarter shunning church altogether.

But what happened if the father had little or no faith? If the father was semi-active and the mother was a faithful worshipper, only 3 percent of their children became active church members and 59 percent were irregular in their worship attendance -- with the rest lost to the church altogether.

If the father never went to church, while the mother was faithful, only 2 percent of the children became regular churchgoers and 37 percent were semi-active. Thus, more than 60 percent were lost.

This trend continued in other survey results, noted Carrier. The bottom line was clear. If a father didn't go to church, only one child in 50 became a faithful churchgoer -- no matter how strong the mother's faith.

"These numbers are old and they are from Switzerland, but they're the only numbers that anyone has," said Carrier. "Someone needs to find a way to do similar research in America to see if the same thing is happening here. This is shocking stuff."

At the height of the Promise Keepers movement, researchers did study one related trend in churches that began emphasizing ministry to men, said the Rev. Rick Kingham, president of the National Coalition of Men's Ministries, a network of 110 regional and national groups.

Surveys found that if a father made a decision to become a Christian, the rest of the family followed his example 93 percent of the time. If a mother made a similar decision, the rest of the family embraced the faith 17 percent of the time, he said.

"It seems that when a man takes that kind of spiritual stand it usually affects everyone else in the whole constellation around him, including his family and even other men that he knows," said Kingham, who is helping organize Stand in the Gap 2007.

No one wants to minimize the importance of faithful mothers, he said, but it's clear that "fathers play a unique and special role in helping their children develop a living faith -- especially their sons. ... There's no way to deny that."

Similar gap, different decade

For generations, preachers have been asking the same sobering question to provoke people to think about ultimate issues: If you died tonight, do you know where you would spend eternity?

The Rev. Rick Kingham has started asking men a different question, knowing that too many of them are living lives defined by solo commutes, office cubicles, fast food, Internet niches, television remotes, eight-foot fences, garage-door openers and gated communities. Here is the question: Do you have any idea who will carry your casket out of the church after your funeral?

Many men struggle to answer.

"It's a sad day when most men can't name six men that they know are their close friends," said Kingham, president of the National Coalition of Men's Ministries, a nondenominational network of 110 regional and national groups. "There are men who -- if they really get honest -- will tell you that they only have one or two real friends."

That's a huge gap in millions of lives.

A decade ago, waves of men gathered in Washington, D.C., to kneel and repent of their sins, from spiritual apathy to workaholism, from absentee fatherhood to emotional aloofness in their marriages. The event was called "Stand in the Gap" and, with the Promise Keepers movement leading the way, it drew a million or more men to the National Mall -- one of the largest gatherings of any kind in the nation's history.

The goal of the 1997 rally, said Kingham, was to dare men to stand up at church, home and work and say, "I'm a man. I'm a Christian. I'm not ashamed of that." The event's original slogan was, "Where are the men?"

That remains a valid question, which is why some of leaders of the first "Stand in the Gap" event have decided to mark its 10-year anniversary with another rally. They hope to draw about 250,000 men to the Oct. 6 event, which will be held at the Washington Monument and on the Ellipse, just south of the White House. The Promise Keepers network, which is much smaller than at its peak in the late 1990s, is one member of the larger coalition behind "Stand in the Gap 2007."

Truth is, religious groups that want to reach men face many of the same cultural challenges as they did a decade ago and some of the problems have even gotten worse. In the case of online pornography, 1997 was the "good old days," said Kingham.

"If anything," he said, "there are powerful forces at work in our society that have driven men even further into isolation than they were 10 years ago and even further from the kinds of community that they need in their lives."

While the 2007 event will be smaller in size, its leaders hope to reach out to a wider audience in terms of the ages of the men who take part.

For better or for worse, the original rally turned into a kind of born-again Woodstock for men in the 77-million-member Baby Boom generation. Organizers hope that the program at Stand in the Gap 2007 will also include speakers and themes for the World War II generation that many call the "Builders," as well as the post-Boomer generation known as the "Busters" and the "Millennials," born after 1982.

"If we can find a way to let these four groups of men talk to each other about what is going on in their lives and their faith, then we will have accomplished our main goal," said Steve Chavis, who served as media coordinator for the 1997 rally and is playing the same role again.

The first rally focused most of its energy on family issues and racial reconciliation and these subjects will surface again. Kingham said Stand in the Gap 2007 will also emphasize themes of loneliness, complacency and disillusionment. But after looking inward, men must find ways to reach beyond their own needs and help others.

Take, for example, all of those Baby Boomers who will soon face retirement.

"We have to tell these men, 'Don't quit your jobs. ... Use your jobs and skills in missions, relief and development projects around the world. You can help the widows and children,' " said Kingham. "There are all kinds of ways that men can offer a credible witness to what Jesus Christ is doing in their lives."

NEXT WEEK: Fathers, sons and empty pews.

Neo-traditional born-again dads

They show up for dinner, help with homework, lead the rituals of bedtime and park their butts in the bleachers when their kids are in action.

They are heavy on discipline, but also eager to praise. They have been known to spank their children, but they are also more likely to hug them. They certainly take their families to church -- early and often.

They are totally off the radar screens in Hollywood and elite academia.

They are ordinary, faithful, evangelical and Catholic men and University of Virginia sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox has survey data showing that they appear to be more involved, more dedicated fathers than their secular counterparts, or even those who worship in more "progressive" pews.

"Conservative Protestant Churches and parachurch ministries have stressed values such as traditional gender attitudes, strict discipline, expressive parenting and parental involvement," noted Wilcox, in the Journal of Marriage and Family. "Moreover, because of their pietist tradition of worship and increasingly therapeutic approach to relationships, conservative Protestant churches have an expressive ethos that may carry over into family life."

It would be wrong, Wilcox explained, to call these fathers old-fashioned traditionalists who rule their homes with an iron hand and a stiff upper lip. Instead, Wilcox called them "neo-traditionalists" who are trying to blend discipline and doctrine with a new style of parenting that is also heavy on "affection and sensitivity."

The result is not "some kind of flashback to the 1950s," said Wilcox. "I think what we are seeing is evidence that there are lots of evangelical and Catholic fathers who are truly changing their lives to try to spend more time with their children. The evidence is that they are doing this because they believe God wants them to."

This survey will certainly be seen as a paradox, if not a threat, by other researchers, noted theologian Russell D. Moore of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.

"After all," he said, "wouldn't one expect that conservative evangelical dads would dismiss childrearing as 'women's work,' while they attend Billy Graham crusades or uproot South American rain forests, or do, well, whatever it is that evangelical men do?" But perhaps, he added, "evangelical fathers are more committed to their children, not in spite of their biblical understanding of the family, but because of it."

The national study of 1,000 fathers who live at home focused on several practical questions about daily life. Wilcox found that evangelicals were more likely to spend one-on-one time with their children and to take part in family meals and church activities. Catholic fathers had similar high scores, but tended to favor non-religious activities with their children.

Evangelical and Catholic fathers consistently scored higher than those from the denominations that researchers have long considered "mainline" and progressive. In his study, Wilcox included Episcopalians, Lutherans, Presbyterians, United Methodists and Congregationalists in this "mainline" camp. Meanwhile, the evangelicals included participants from Southern Baptist, the Assembly of God, Christian Reformed, Pentecostal and other conservative churches.

Yet Wilcox understood that the "mainline" world is not monolithic, since he was raised as an Episcopalian before converting to Roman Catholicism. While the mainline denominations lean left on moral and cultural issues, they also include many individual congregations that are quite conservative.

Thus, Wilcox was able to dig into his data and test his thesis that beliefs make a difference. He discovered that about 30 percent of the "mainline" men identified themselves as conservatives on issues of biblical authority and whether the Bible was their final guide on "practical issues they face in daily life." Sure enough, he said, these conservative men were more child and family oriented than the typical fathers in the "mainline" denominations.

There was no way to avoid this theme in the data, he said.

"There is no doubt in my mind," said Wilcox, "that part of what is going on here is that these fathers have a strong belief that there is such a thing as a biblical worldview, one that stresses that God wants to play a vital, active role in their lives. They also believe God wants them to pass this belief on to their children, right there in their homes. So that's what they're trying to do."