Tuesday, June 13, 2006

The "Feminization" of American Christianity

Recently, I have been struck anew by how much American Christian leaders have fixated on getting manly men into church. The most recent example of this fixation has been the buzz surrounding David Murrow’s Why Men Hate Going to Church, which garnered attention from the Washington Post. Other books that feed this trend are Leon Podles' The Church Impotent: The Feminization of Christianity, John Elderidge's Wild at Heart: Discovering the Secret of a Man's Soul, and even Douglas Wilson's Future Men. Entire organizations exist to promote "muscular Christainity" and the revival of "masculinity," such as Vision Forum, and websites exist to declare the virtues of patriarchy. Further, one cannot help but see the promotion of complementarianism, by organizations such as the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, as part of this larger trend toward a reassertion of manly males.

Usually, along with the beliefs that undergird this movement (beliefs, I must note again, that are rooted in 1 Corinthians 10, 11, and 14; 1 Timothy 2:11-15; and Titus 2 and ones that I share) is a larger story of the downfall of American Christianity. Given scholarly support by Ann Douglas's classic 1977 study, The Feminization of American Culture, the declension narrative goes like this: at the end of the 19th century, Victorian culture focused on the subduing of unruly male passions and on the redirection of the outlets for those passions. Hence, temperance became the major battle of the progressive age, which is read as an attempt to shackle men from their natural outlets. In addition, the leaders of that Victorian culture--ironically, ministers and women--authored key novels that idealized virtues that would ultimately serve to de-masculize men (namely, timidity, piety, and a disdain for competition). By replacing passion with timidity, adventure intellectual belief with piety, and survival of the fittest with a disdain for competition, Christianity won the battle of that age, but is now losing the larger war as the next generation of men are leaving the church.

Coupled with this "Feminization" narrative is the larger American movement toward egalitarianism. Beginning at the end of the 19th century and throughout the 20th century, American women have gained larger voices in the political, cultural, and ecclesiastical worlds from which they had been shut out. As they transitioned from leadership of mission's organizations and "women of the church" groups to the leadership of congregations, this is viewed as part of the reason why American men have stopped going to church, why mainline Protestants have lost members in droves, and why the church is in crisis today. The answer, according to these recent books and conservative evangelical leaders, is to "re-masculize" the church, freeing men and their sons to embrace their manhood (by drinking, smoking, risk-taking, and other behaviors in smaller male-oriented groupings or by exercising "male headship" in various leadership roles in family, church, work, etc.).

There are a lot of things to say to this narrative and the larger call for re-masculization. The first thing is this: the historical narrative--not just my generalized summary, but the larger narrative supported by academic scholarship--is simply too thin and places the emphasis in the wrong place. First of all, throughout the history of Christianity from the very beginning, women have had key places in the church and tended to outnumber the men. Read through the NT, read early descriptions of the church from the first and second centuries and you will find a large number of women present. In other words, the "problem" is not new, but as old as the Christian religion.

Rather than concoting a "declension" model, perhaps the better historical question is "why?" What is it about Christianity that attracts more women than men (or others who see themselves as weak, forsaken, abused, and abandoned)? Could it be that Christianity preaches a Gospel that requires people to view themselves as weak, forsaken, helpless, abandoned, destitute? Could it be that such a message is a stumbling block to males who believe they have strength in themselves to save themselves?

But even beyond the questions that could be asked, even the American story is more complex. Because, candidly, male behaviors did need to be address--alcohol was destroying families, unbridled economic competition was destroying the weak, children, and women in the teeming urban centers. 19th century clergy and women leaders (such as Francis Willard, head of the Women's Christian Temperance Union) were responding to real crises. If you will, these leaders were the James Dobsons of their day, trying to help Americans keep their "focus on the family." And so, we need to develop a richer, more complex narrative that doesn't see "declension," but a story of the way things really were.

Another thing to say in response to all this is that the loss of men in the church might be the result, not of the "feminization" of the church, but of the intellectual vacuity of many churches. This was the result of American theology adopting the Kantian dualism between scientific "knowledge" and Christian "faith." Scientific knowledge required the full attention of intellect, while Christian faith was unknowable, a leap in the dark, a decision made at the moment of crisis, a God-consciousness. All that might be nice, but it is not real challenging or attractive: and most men have reacted to this by saying, Give me the intellectual challenge of turning profits, building oil refineries, buying properties. Again, this was the result of intellectual and cultural movements that were not tied to "feminization," but high-brow philosophy and academically sophisticated theology.

Further, and tied with this, I think another reason some men "hate going to church" is, ironically enough, most of our churches have failed to preach the Gospel. I don't mean the Gospel of "Jesus dying for my sins." But I mean the Gospel--an all-encompassing vision of God's invasion into the world to bring his reign to bear on every aspect of life. Such a vision (which right now is going under the label of "missional") is not new--you can find it in Jonathan Edwards' The History of the Work of Redemption, for example. It is a Gospel vision in which human beings recognize their profound dependence upon God for all things and join him in his Kingdom mission of vindicating his name in all the earth. In doing this, God does his good work in the lives of men and women, transforming households, networks, neighborhoods, cities, and the world itself for his glory. By preaching a truncated Gospel, conservative Protestants have ended up in the same place as their liberal brothers (and sisters): with a dualistic vision of the world in which science, business, and law have nothing really to do with the Christian Gospel.

And so, I think the answer to this perception that men hate going to church is not to tell men that Christians like cigars, beer, and movies for men who like movies. Nor is it to lead with "biblical manhood" as a key plank in God's mission to the world (even while recognizing that it is something that needs to be taught and upheld in our churches). Rather, I think the answer is to preach and pray and sell a Gospel vision of what God is doing in this world--because "God has now revealed to us his mysterious plan regarding Christ, a plan to fulfill his own good pleasure. And this is the plan: at the right time he will bring everything together under the authority of Christ--everything in heaven and on earth" (Ephesians 1:9-10 NLT).

This is a plan in which I want to participate: to see Christ "fill all things everywhere with him" and the whole earth be filled with his glory (Ephesians 1:23 NLT). And this is a plan to which men and women everywhere will rally, one that will challenge and bring out the full honor of our genders, personalities, abilities, hopes, and dreams. For it is nothing less than the glorious Gospel purpose of the Triune God.


Richard A. Bailey said...

Good, wise words. I'm listening.

jeffandtroy said...

I'm listening too. Thanks for this helpful and simple summary.


amar rama said...

Agreed :-). I grew up in Madras, India in thoroughly urban settings. So having John Eldridge thrust at me word for word did get frustrating. Maybe I really do not want to go hunting in Colorado to get to know Christ after all.....

e-Mom said...

You've nailed it. This is it, this is the answer right here...

"What is it about Christianity that attracts more women than men (or others who see themselves as weak, forsaken, abused, and abandoned)? Could it be that Christianity preaches a Gospel that requires people to view themselves as weak, forsaken, helpless, abandoned, destitute? Could it be that such a message is a stumbling block to males who believe they have strength in themselves to save themselves?"

I also agree with your notion that Christianity has appealed more to women than men as far back as the first century. Along those lines, here's an additional point to consider. Christianity grew out of OT Judaism, a religion which appealed to the "doing" nature of males... butchering of animals for sacrifice, rigorous intellectual study of the Law and so on. I wonder if females related less well to God under Old Covenant Judaism in the same way that males have difficulty finding and enjoying faith under New Covenant Christianity. It would appear that the Old Covenant and the New Covenant are gendered. Where formerly, procreation and the physcial establishment of the nation of Israel was uppermost (masculine values) latterly, spiritual rebirth and the establishment of an invisible and relational kingdom of God (the universal church) are uppermost. Therefore, it seems to me that Judaism would naturally appeal more to men and Christianity would naturally appeal more to women. The church's long-standing observation that women are the "more spiritual" gender in the Christian religion is likely quite accurate. Your thoughts on this?

Andrew Simone said...

I affirm this as well, speaking as a man who falls more in the feminized than the manly camp which is ironic, considering the etymology of my name.

pilot_charlieschwartz said...

I read Sean Lucas on Feminization of Christianity. Like most I've read about this, Sean nibbles at the edges. Put simply, it is good that men be men and women br women. The church condemns men for being men and panders to insecure women. I'm on my way to Colorado to hunt and having a cigar on the way. Charles Schwartz

Anonymous said...

It's probably fruitless to leave a comment over a year later. But there is something that is sorely missed in an otherwise honest assessment of this topic. Quickly, it is the feminization of the gospel message.

Today's protestant denominations focus primarily on something that isn't really addressed and is perhaps even altogether absent from scripture. That is a 'personal relationships with Jesus Christ.' Changing Jesus Christ from Lord and Victor -- from Creator and Savior -- from Conquering Hero and Almighty God to someone you can have a 'personal relationship' with changes his mission.

Frankly, Jesus didn't come to have personal relationships. He didn't come to make people feel better or to heal emotional wounds. He didn't come to help the sick or the needy. He didn't come to champion women's rights or to protect the oppressed.

He did all these things, as signs. He did all these things concomitant to his true mission. The reason Jesus came to this world incarnate was to save His people from their sins. That's what will bring men back to church. Emphasize sin, and you'll find men interested in religion. Talk about Romans 7 instead of personal relationships and you'll turn masculine heads.

Stop the psychobabel and the effiminate focus on relationship and talk about God's plan for dealing with sin. Talk about adoption, election, predestination, atonement, obedience, holy living, faith, love, kindness, service.

Stop the corruption of the gospel message by the distracting use of terms and ideas that are not only extra-biblical, but perhaps even anti-Christ. Christ came to point the way to the Father. Every man comes to the Father through the Son. But the end is NOT a relationship with the Son, but a relationship with the Father. What man doesn't want a relationship with his Father?

Just my thoughts on some pretty big omissions. I hope these thoughts are received well. Because I can't post except anonymously, I'll give my name here -- it's Kevin Ritchey.

nobrock said...

As the previous poster stated, I to am leaving this post years after the article was written. Nevertheless. I wish to point out another problem area in modern evangelical Christianity that drive many men away. The statement that we human are nothing and that everything must be given for God.

Men are willing to sacrifice, in fact, sacrifice use to be expected of men. Most team sports are built around the concept of sacrifice, the individual does what is necessary for the group good. The group will acknowledge this sacrifice, and the indivisual become a better, more important member of the team.

I have almost completed a 60 day evangelical program, and am total disgusted with it. Every lesson includes the thought that we (humans) are nothing, our only reason for existance is to glorify God, we desrve nothing, earn nothing ourselves and owe everything to God. Talk about a philosophy that will drive men away!

Men were drawn to Christian when they were acknowledged as part of "God's team." They were willing to sacrifice because they believed they would be acknowledged for their sacrifice, rewarded for it.

Modern evangelicial churches now say it is your obligation to sacrifice for God, but neither God nor the churh will praise you for it because it is expected. And do not ever talk about being part of "God's team!" God doesn't need you except for agilation. The same as the star quarterback on a team doesn't need anyone.

No wonder men are leaving Christianity at a growing rate. Evangelical theology has developed God to the point were humans are nothing more than a cheering section.

If you want men to reengage (or a growing number of secular women for that matter) jettison this concept of humans are irrelavent to God's creation. Once religion begins to again provide meaning for a man's (or now a woman's) religious work, you will see men and women coming back to God.

Unknown said...

Christian churches, at least in the U.S.A. reject the classical male virtues of Courage, Honor, Self Control, and an Egalitarian attitude.
Inevitably relgious institutions tend to be dominated by the political and economic power most prominent in a nation such that they form alliances with the same in order to retain political, economic, and cultural power.
As women became dominant in the U.S.A., the inherent anti-male tendencies of American Christianity became more entrenched and prevalent.
Men, especially men that had the aforementioned virtues, left the church as a result.