A problem with deep roots: Why so many men think church is for women (Part I)

A problem with deep roots: Why so many men think church is for women (Part I)

It was conventional wisdom, in the Middle Ages, that women were more pious than men and that women went to Confession and took Communion during great church feasts "while few men do," as a Dominican priest observed.

Austrian theologian Johann B. Hafen saw this trend in 1843: "During the year who surrounds most frequently and willingly the confessional? The wives and maidens! Who kneels most devoutly before our altars? Again, the female sex!"

Early YMCA leaders found that one out of 20 young men claimed church membership and that 75 percent of men "never attend church" at all. A Church News study in 1902 found that, in Manhattan, the ratio of Catholic women to men was 3 to 1.

What about today? To see what is happening in Catholic sanctuaries worshippers just have look around.

"You may have noticed that in many Catholic churches everyone in the sanctuary except the priest is female and sometimes the masculinity of the priest is doubtful. I remember a 50-year-old priest with a page-boy haircut," observed author Leon J. Podles, speaking at Mount Calvary Catholic Church in downtown Baltimore.

"Most Catholic pastoral ministers in this country and elsewhere are female, so often there is not a male in sight during Communion services. ... There have been recent changes in some countries in the ratio of women to men in the church, but it has not been a result of more men, but fewer women attending."

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.