Reaching Men, Part 1: Why Men Struggle in Church

This series is comprised of excerpts from Chris Bolinger’s interview with David Murrow, author of Why Men Hate Going to Church and three other books. For the complete interview with Murrow, pick up a copy of Today’s Vital Church, Volume 1. For more insight from Murrow, visit or pick up a copy of one of his books.

Part 1 of the series: below

Part 2 of the series

Part 3 of the series

Dave: I’m a television producer by trade and have been working in the TV business for almost 30 years. And that was actually very helpful when I began to notice the gender gap in our churches, because in the TV business you learn that everything has a target audience…The culture of the church is very much oriented toward women. Women seem to get church in a way that men don’t. That’s what started me down this road of researching and writing about men in the church.

Serving as an elder in a Presbyterian church, a mainline church, you learn very quickly that “if Momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.” A lot of our time was spent creating ministries for women and keeping women happy. Most of our ministries revolved around traditionally feminine roles in caring for the sick, caring for children, ladies’ teas, ladies’ scrapbooking nights. It definitely was skewed toward women, in particular, older women.

If you think about a 55-year-old woman with an empty nest, which is our typical Presbyterian layperson today, you know she misses her family. Her children are busy. Her grandchildren are in a faraway city. So we created an institution where every Sunday she can have children in her arms and she can use her gifts.

But men’s gifts lie fallow. The things that guys are into – strategic planning, sports, competition – these things are frowned on in the church. Church is supposed to be a warm, nurturing place where we hold hands and love each other. It’s definitely very much more of a grandma thing than a young man thing. The culture doesn’t really fit men’s culture.

Bolinger: You saw this in your own church, but what did you see when you started doing research in non-mainline churches and churches outside your own area?

Murrow: It was just at the beginning of the third wave of the megachurch movement. The first wave was Saddleback and Willow Creek. The second wave was in the 1990s. I wrote the book in the early 2000s when this third wave – the church planting movement – was getting started. And I noticed that these church plants had a very different culture than our Presbyterian church. They were much more – dare I say? – more masculine in their viewpoint. They were more aggressive about evangelism. They were more into innovation. You didn’t have the traditional ladies’ teas and lace curtains. It wasn’t that sort of a church environment anymore. It’s a much more amenable to guys.

So that was one of the things that I incorporated into my research: how are these churches able to grow so quickly? I realized it was because they were in large part creating an environment where men would stay and be fed and be satisfied and be challenged. Once you have men in the church, the women gravitate to those churches. The more men you have involved in a church, the more likely you are to find growth there. Once a church becomes 70% female, which is what most mainline churches are moving toward, your church is basically going to die. At that point, you’re just performing hospice service for a dying institution.

Bolinger: So you saw a different model, a different approach, with the church plants and some of the up-and-coming large churches or megachurches which you weren’t seeing in the mainline church you were attending. We’re seeing men being attracted to these church plants and megachurches. Are we seeing men attracted to any other types of churches?

Murrow: Primarily that’s the case: the larger the church, the smaller the gender gap. If you have a big church, chances are you’re about 50/50.

Men’s ministry really has not taken off in the local church. In the 1990s there was the Promise Keepers phenomenon. We thought there was going to be a really big movement into men’s ministry. It just hasn’t materialized; it hasn’t been a force like we thought.

There are other areas where men are attracted. We are finding growth in some ministries such as John Eldredge’s Ransomed Heart that is doing well with men. There is a movement toward men dealing with their wounds – the Crucible Project, for example – that’s finding some success. We’re not seeing the big huge numbers, but we are seeing the foundation for some future growth, because men are dealing with their core issues instead of just going to church, and that’s a good thing.

Bolinger: Dave, when you say that “men hate going to church”, what types of men tend to be the most reluctant to go to church, the same church that is attended by their wives or their girlfriends?

Murrow: Let’s look at the problem this way: Think about the skills that you need to be good at being a churchgoer. The person up front, the pastor, is obviously a very highly verbal person. He has to have emotional sensitivity, because he’s got to deal with counseling and chaplaincy type issues. He has to be studious; you have to love to read and study the Bible and other books. The other people who are up front at church, who get a lot of stage time, are musicians – the worship leader and the members of the band. To rise in a church, the big four skills that you need are to be emotionally sensitive, to be studious, to like music, and to be verbal.

If you take those four characteristics and look at the population, there are more women than men in the population who possess those gifts. Now there are certainly men out there who are verbal, studious, sensitive, and musical, but their numbers tend to be a bit smaller. So one of the reasons that we see more women than men in church is because what we ask of churchgoers is more likely to be found in a woman than in a man. The guys that we tend to find in church are verbal, sensitive, musical, and studious.

So it’s really just a numbers game. We’ve created a culture where the gifts that we value are more commonly found in women than men, and that’s why we see more women there.

Bolinger: You’ve mentioned the gifts and talents that we see in the people up front. What about the folks that are sitting in the pews? What are we asking of men who come to church but aren’t up front? What might get them fired up instead of turned off?

Murrow: Let’s look at the basics. Let’s go to a traditional mainline Lutheran, Methodist, or Episcopal type church. What skill set will you need? You’re gonna have to like to sing. You’ll need to be able to read – lectionary readings, responsive readings, read off the screen. If you go to a Sunday School class, then you’ll be asked questions about a text and may have to read a text from the Bible. You have socializing before and after the service – coffee hour and those sorts of things. It’s a lot of soft, interpersonal skills or verbal or artistic skills that a lot of guys simply lack. You think about your average oilfield worker, air conditioner repair man – you know, that blue-collar guy – he often lacks those soft, interpersonal skills. He not quite as good at churchgoing as his wife is, and that’s where you see a lot of the discouragement.

It’s not that men hate God or hate Christ; it’s that they hate churchgoing because their wives are simply better at it.

Bolinger: And given a choice between church on Sunday morning or going out and playing 18 holes of golf  or doing some yard work, a lot a guys are probably gonna choose the alternative to church versus going and sitting and doing things that they’re not terribly comfortable with or that don’t play to their strengths. They’re going to do something that plays to their strengths.

Murrow: That’s exactly right. Chris. The example that I like to give is this: when I was a young man in my early 20s, I briefly took up the game of golf. Now I learned after two or three rounds that I have absolutely no knack for the game. You’ve heard of Tiger Woods? Well, I spent most of my time in the woods, looking for my ball. I just never was very good at golf. I was always in the sand trap, shot a lot of balls in the water – just really wasn’t good. So after two or three bad rounds, I did what most men do when they are not good at something: I quit. I put my clubs away and never picked them up again.

We’ve set up a situation where men try church and they don’t find God there, they don’t find anything that they’re good at there, and they feel like they’re not needed there. There’s really only one man who’s needed there, and that’s the pastor. Since they’re never going to preach, they don’t see a future for themselves within this institution.

They feel that they can connect better with God outside of the institution of “organized religion”. I’ve talked with men who’ve had profound experiences with God while they were out hunting or out on a boat on the water. It sounds like a dodge: “Oh, I can connect to God better out on my fishing boat than in church.” So we say, “Oh, you’re just making excuses.” But it’s true. I mean, these guys have profound experiences with God out in the field, doing things with their kids. They experience God at a gut level. I think it’s because they’re in their area of competence. They feel comfortable there, and God speaks to them in their comfort.

Bolinger: I guess that the picture is bleak, but not entirely bleak because you mentioned up front that church plants and some nontraditional churches and megachurches are having good success reaching men. Some of it may be outside the Sunday morning worship, but if you look at the worship they’re getting about as many men there as women. So what are they doing differently? What are some things that they are doing that a traditional, non-megachurch can do to have similar success with men?

Murrow: That’s the wonderful thing. You do not have to have a 2,000-person church to attract men.

For the rest of the interview with David Murrow, pick up a copy of Today’s Vital Church, Volume 1.

Copyright 2015, 2016 Revitalize Ministries, Inc. All rights reserved.

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