Book Review: Why Men Hate Going to Church

I’ve spent some time on this blog talking about the present crisis Evangelical Christianity faces in the U.S., and what might be done about it.  There are a lot of explanations of why this is so, but one of the most intriguing comes from David Murrow.  In his book Why Men Hate Going to Church, he puts his finger on a very important problem: with a 2:1 ratio of women to men, there is something about Christianity in this country that repels men.  And, as is well documented, men are central in the transmission of the faith both to their contemporaries and to the next generation.

I come from a long line of men who hated church.  They’d sooner be just about anywhere else–work, the bar, the Lodge, the country club, the yacht, the airplane, you name it–than in church.  My decision to be a Christian in more than name only never sat well with many of my relatives.  So I find any attempt for a reasonable explanation–if not necessarily a pleasant one–intriguing.

Murrow’s basic premise is that Christianity in general, in spite of a predominantly male clergy, is largely feminised, and as a result unattractive to men.  His book breaks itself down into six parts:

  1. Why Men Hate Going to Church (an overview;)
  2. The Three Gender Gaps, or aspects of church life where the approach generally taken appeals more to women than to men;
  3. Understanding Men and Masculinity;
  4. The Straws That Break Men’s Hearts, the "little" things that repel men and cumulatively run them out of church;
  5. Restoring the Masculine Spirit in the Church, ways of changing the program of the church to make it more amenable to men; and
  6. Meeting Men’s Deepest Needs, addressing men in a more profound way.

While I find Murrow’s basic idea to be correct, there’s something about this book and books like it (John Eldridge’s Wild at Heart is another) that always seem to miss something.  That something is real historical perspective, which would facilitate breaking out of the present mould by suggesting that things haven’t always been the way they are now and don’t need to be that way in the future.  (Such a perspective also suggests that cultural issues are involved too.)  Let me make some observations to illustrate this:

  1. Murrow tends to romanticise the "early" church, a universal fault with Evangelical writers.  Contrary to Murrow’s characterisation of an explosion of unadulturated, apostolic and masculine energy, the New Testament and subsequent history actually show that Christianity was less and less feminised as time went by, with movements such as Montanism unsuccessfully bucking the tide (and that defeminised by the very masculine Tertulllian.)  Roman Empire Christianity moved in a very masculine civilisation with some very "unmasculine" characteristics, at least as far as Murrow is concerned.  For example, civic life lived and died on verbal, rhetorical skills, something men are supposed to be desperately short of.  (We see some of this in the New Testament.)  The elaborate theology and doctrine of Christianity was developed by the Church Fathers, not the Church Mothers, which is amazing in view of Murrow’s view of women and Bible studies.
  2. Murrow’s statement that "Men are rarely motivated by guilt, duty or obligation" (p. 20) is simply wrong.  Back in World War I, an entire generation of Britons and Frenchmen were motivated by just that to endure four years of the most horrible war ever fought.  The compulsion of duty in the performance of great tasks imbues The Lord of the Rings, written by J.R.R. Tolkien, possibly the best known "Great War" veteran to have ever lived.  What Murrow has missed is that modernity–which had a far greater impact on the Germans in the opposing trenches–has radically altered men’s expectations of what they can get out of life, and that’s a lot of what the church is struggling with.
  3. Reading Murrow is a reminder of the enormous impact that Scotch-Irish emotionalism and primitivism has had on the American psyche and especially our culture’s traditional view of masculinity.  It’s worth remembering, though, that these Celtic worthies are the descendants of people who were brilliant enough to put roller bearings in their carts but never bothered to use an alphabet until the Romans showed up.  (That explains a lot of the lack of literacy and anti-intellectualism of American life.)  An urbanised culture like ours begs for different outlets of masculinity.  Why have most musical composers been male?  Or engineers and scientists?  Or professional chefs?  I know that Murrow is trying to focus on men as they are, but as I write I know of one guy that’s out there cooking for relief workers cleaning up after the recent spate of tornadoes.  The subject of the Scotch-Irish may also illuminate why the South continues to be the centre of American Christianity, feminised church and all.  There’s enough historical memory down here of what happens when testosterone-fuelled hotheads dominate the discussion.  Remember Pickett’s Charge?  That led to Appomattox.
  4. Murrow may not be getting the whole picture on why feminisation is a threat to churches in Latin America.  My contact with men’s ministries leadership in Mexico leads me to believe that one reason why pastors are gun-shy about starting men’s ministries is because they fear the men will stage a coup and take the church over.  I’ve heard the same sentiment on this side of the Rio Grande as well.  Evangelical authors tend to avoid the whole subject of power holder/power challenger relationships in church, but they’re there, and their impact on keeping men (who are perceived as hard to control) out of churches needs to be addressed.
  5. He asks the question, "Why are Christians going on retreats?  What kind of army is always retreating?  Why don’t we advance every now and then?" (p. 138)  The Full Gospel Businessmen’s Fellowship International answered that question a long time ago by calling its gatherings in remote places advances.

In spite of these limitations, Murrow’s book is a good one.  It ‘s challenging in many ways, both to churches in general and for those of us who are involved in men’s ministriesWhy Men Hate Going to Church is an essential read for anyone who is serious about getting at the deepest difficulties of church in this country and what needs to be done to right them.

Finally: if Murrow thinks that a lot of recent praise and worship music has too strong of a feminine take on one’s relationship with God, he should check out last week’s podcast!

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