Reaching Men, Part 3: Man-Friendly Music and Sermons

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

Part 2 of the series

Part 3 of the series: below

Bolinger: Is traditional music more appealing to men, especially men who don’t like to sing? What’s the best approach to music that you have found in your studies and your experience?

Murrow: Like you said, there are different kinds of men. There are men who are really into contemporary worship. I think that they tend to be the minority, but they are really into it.

Here are just a few best practices:

  1. Don’t repeat songs over and over and over and over. There was a tendency about 10 years ago for songs to just go on for seven, eight, nine minutes long. That really frustrates men.
  2. Play music in a key that men can sing.
  3. Avoid what I call the love songs to Jesus: the songs that describe Christ as our love object rather than our leader. (I’m desperate for you…I’m longing for you.) Think about the mental gymnastics that have to take place in a man’s mind as he pictures himself being desperate for Jesus or reclining in Jesus’s arms or being held by Jesus. It’s really a high hurdle. I mean, I suppose if a guy’s gay that’s probably a very appealing image, but for a straight man that’s probably not a really appealing image. So you just need to be really careful with that sort of imagery.
  4. You said you have a men’s Bible study and you sing. Usually, I recommend that men’s small groups don’t sing, especially in the morning. Just get right down to business. If you are going to sing, then sing one song and be done with it – one song with two or three verses, four or five minutes tops, just to get the blood flowing, and then get into it. The men are not there to sing.

When men come to church, they want to learn a mind-blowing truth about God that rocks their world. That’s why they’re there.

Bolinger: At my church, we do five worship songs before we get to the sermon. I sometimes think that’s a bit much, at least for some of the men. So if we were to make a change to be more man-friendly, what could we replace one of the songs with? We don’t necessarily want to do a call and response or something else where men have to read back a long passage because some men don’t really like to read either. So what would be a good alternative to maybe that fourth or fifth worship song?

Murrow: You have the full range of creativity at your beck and call. You can do skits. You can play a video. You can do an object lesson. I think one of the great indictments of the church is how uncreative we are. We all have our liturgies, even if we don’t acknowledge that. We tend to do the same thing in the same order, week after week after week. When we break up that routine, when we are little bit more creative, I think we put men on their toes. Men really do like the unexpected.

At church we tend to get into our routine. We get into our liturgy, whether we are Baptist or Methodist…we’ve all got our liturgies, and we just tend to ride that horse week after week. We do four or five songs, we have an offering, we do a sermon, we do communion…we become very predictable. One of the hallmarks of Christ was his unpredictability. He was always doing and saying things that were completely off-the-wall.

The church that I attend here in Alaska used to be that way, about 10 years ago: very unpredictable. Crazy things would happen all the time. I came to church anticipating that a creative, unusual thing was going to happen. We don’t do that anymore. We’re out of our adolescence. We’re a 25-year-old church now and we’ve settled into our dull routine. It really makes me sad.

Bolinger: OK, let’s spend some time on another big topic which is the lesson or the sermon: the teaching time that’s part of the worship service. You said that Jen is choosing man-friendly topics with titles where men will say, “Oh, I want to hear more about that.” Talk more about sermons. I think that in your book you wrote that a typical man appreciates a different type of approach to a sermon than a typical woman.

Murrow: I don’t even want to say it the way you said it. I don’t think that many women have a different approach. I think that if you do a man-friendly sermon, both men and women will understand it well. Women are blessed with a very flexible, multitasking brain. Women can “do masculine”, but men don’t usually do well with highly verbal, feminine-type presentations. So, if you preach to the men, the women are going to enjoy it as well.

This is a good piece of advice for all pastors: all things being equal, shorter sermons are better with men.

Bolinger: When you say “shorter”, how short is shorter?

Murrow: Let’s be even more fundamental than that. Obviously, you need to have something to say. You can’t just go to the pulpit with a bunch of familiar, Christianese-type things. You’ve gotta have a message. You have to have something to say that’s going to be life-changing.

If I were going to plant a church in the next year, I would preach 10-minute sermons, and I would market my church that way: home of the 10-minute sermon. I think within a year, the church would be packed. When people are polled, long, boring, irrelevant sermons is the number one thing that people don’t like about church. Do you know which churches in North America have the largest gender gaps? African-American churches, which have a tradition of very long preaching – 90 minutes to two hours is not uncommon, so three-hour worship, and 90-120 minutes of that is the sermon. I’ve sat through those sermons, and typically it’s a lot of very familiar things repeated over and over and over again. “This is the day which the Lord hath made…” You know, it’s just not really groundbreaking material.

So, all things being equal, shorter is better than longer.

The other way to get men in the door is to use an object lesson consistently. Men are visual learners, and although men appreciate a verbal sermon, they absolutely glom onto a visual sermon. A lot of skilled preachers are using video to supplement their sermons, but the very best thing is for the pastor to actually bring an object into the pulpit when he or she speaks. Whenever I work with pastors on their sermons, I always ask, “What’s your object lesson? What are you going to build this sermon around?”

The last time I spoke in a church, I spoke from inside of a box. The next week I planned a sermon with a guy – I had him on a ladder; he preached from the top of a ladder. I worked with my pastor a couple of weeks ago on a sermon where he was talking about the difference between grace and works, and he used a debit card versus gift card. He built his entire sermon around a debit card, which is where you pay in and you pay in and then you withdraw your own goodness out of the bank versus a gift card where God just gives and you spend it on whatever you want.

If a pastor really wants to turn his church around and get men in the pews, the most effective thing that he can do is to preach a concise sermon and build it around an object lesson. If a pastor will do that, then he will have a church full of men in five years. I’m not even going to talk about theology or content. I’m just saying mechanically that’s the best thing you can do: short, concise sermon built around an object lesson.

Bolinger: A lot of pastors try to structure their sermons around three points or four points, oftentimes starting with the same letter. Is that good for men, or is it better to have an object lesson? Obviously, if you have an object lesson, then you have one object, so you have one main point. So men would rather have a single point than three or four points to remember?

Murrow: Yes.

Bolinger: What about the aspect of a story? I know that a lot of times I won’t remember the main points of the sermon – if there is an object lesson, then I’ll remember the object; if there is a prop, then I’ll remember the prop – but I remember good stories. Is that a unique thing for men or is that across gender: the fact that people really remember stories that are integrated into a sermon?

Murrow: Stories can be very powerful. That is the part that we tend to remember; our brains are wired to remember stories. We’ve been telling stories around the campfire for thousands of years. So stories are important. The most skillful preachers don’t just salt their verbal sermons with stories – oh, that’s a nice illustration. Instead, they build their entire sermon around an illustration, a central story, a central metaphor, and they go back to that story over and over and over again. So you might start off with the story of Abraham Lincoln attending church, and then all through your sermon you keep bringing it back to that, you just keep hammering that point home. It’s like in the Army: you tell ‘em what you’re gonna tell ‘em, you tell ‘em, and they you tell ‘em what you told ‘em. If a guy can walk away from a church service with one big idea, he is going to love going to church. The problem is that we give them so much content on Sunday morning, and it’s such a cornucopia, a salad bar of different theological truths, that men end up walking away with nothing.

It’s time for the three-point sermon to die, unless all three points support one big idea. You really just need to go to one-point sermons and make that point well and then trust the Holy Spirit to further illuminate the text during the week.

Bolinger: And that big idea needs to be something actionable, right? Something that he can do something with when he leaves the building and goes into his regular life, is that true?

Murrow: Well, that would be the best: actionable. Or just something that changes his mind about something. Something that opens his mind to a new possibility. The best sermons that I’ve ever heard are ones that just really challenged me in my personal life.

We’re talking about the importance of visuals. Let me take you back to Saint Martin’s Lutheran Church in Houston, Texas in 1966. I am five years old. Pastor Lorenz calls the children forward for the kids’ sermon. Pastor Lorenz asks for a volunteer. David Murrow puts his hand up in the air. I walk over to Pastor Lorenz, he hands me a sheet of paper and he says, “David, would you tear this sheet of paper in half?” And I tear the sheet of paper in half. Then he reaches over and hands me a phone book and he says, “David, would you tear this phonebook in half?” And I pull and tug and work as hard as I can on it but nothing. I can’t do it, right? Then Pastor Lorenz turns to me and says, “David, this is why you want to go to church every Sunday. When all these pages are together, we are strong, but we when we are just one page out there by ourselves, the devil can come along and tear us up.” Now here I sit in my home in Alaska and I can still tell you word for word what I heard 48 years ago when I was a five-year-old kid because it was short, it had a visual, and I got to do it with my own hands.

So if you want to become a great teacher of men, you need to develop sermons and curriculum that involve hands-on learning that people personally experience. That’s where the rubber meets the road when it comes to men.

Pastors are taught in seminary to speak words. They are not taught to implant truth. And I think actually in seminary they kind of dismiss these sorts of methods as “entertainment”. “Oh, that’s just entertainment. You’re just entertaining the crowd. What people need is the true meat of God’s word, which is spoken words from a person’s mouth.”

I think that in the church today we only trust two paths: mouth-to-ear and book-to-eye. Those are the two paths through which God’s pure truth passes. We’re just so far behind on this. We live in a highly visual culture. We’re quickly transitioning out of a mouth-to-ear and word-to-eye type of communication regime, and yet we stubbornly cling on those because we think anything else is just entertainment and pandering to the weak in the lowest common denominator. It just infuriates me when that elitism rears its head, and we tend to characterize anything besides book-to-eye and mouth-to-ear as unspiritual. It’s just wrong.

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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