In my previous diocese, clergy were asked to fill in a form for the Archdeacons’ visitation which included the question: ‘what does your parish do for men?’ I was tempted to reply, ‘I don’t know what it’s done for anyone else, but when I came here I was two stone lighter and my hair was dark’!
Someone once said that the Christian Church is like a lifeboat: it’s for ‘women and children first’. In many church congregations, women seem to be in the majority, followed by children. Young adults and men, in particular, seem to be missing. Why is that?
Of course, when it came to ordained ministry, until fairly recently, the picture was reversed: priestly ministry in the Church of England was a club for men only. The C of E started ordaining women priests in 1994. In 2012, 490 new clergy were ordained: 269 were men, 221 female. In 2014, the Church of England saw its first woman bishop, the Rt Revd Libby Lane, Bishop of Stockport.
65% of churchgoers in the UK are female, so they are in the majority. Part of the answer to why that is may be to do with age. The average age of a churchgoer is 61, whereas the average age of the general UK population is 40. Given that women have tended to live longer than men, you might expect more women in church than men. But it isn’t necessarily a modern phenomenon:
In 1904, religious writer Richard Mudie-Smith conducted a census of Church of England attendance in London and found that 84,602 women were present compared to just 46,343 men – almost a two to one ratio.
Other religions in this country don’t seem to have the same gender balance: Islam and Judaism have more male adherents than female. So why is the Christian Church more appealing to women than to men?
Is it that men more rational, and don’t accept religious teaching? Perhaps it is because men are notoriously bad at dealing with emotions. I have often seen someone in tears in church, simply because they have heard a hymn with particular associations (it was sung at a parent’s funeral, for example). Perhaps it is because women are better at talking about personal things. Men seem to substitute sport for personal interaction. “Did you see that game? That was never a penalty!” may be as deep as some men’s conversations ever get! Or perhaps it is because men have traditionally been career-focused, leaving women to look after children, including taking them to church on Sunday. Or is it the case that, having spent a hard week at work, men prefer to relax on Sundays, washing the car, mowing the lawn or playing golf? Of course, those stereotypes are dated, but there may be something in them, given the average age of churchgoers.
In a 2011 book, a Christian author, David Murrow asks: “Why Do Men Hate Going To Church?” David Murrow is the Director of Church for Men. The organisation’s website offers to put you in touch with a ‘Man Friendly Church’. You can even get a study guide to look at with the book, to ask how your church can become more man-friendly. It’s a question we might like to ask of our own churches: how ‘man friendly’ are we?
Jesus, of course, has no trouble relating to either men or women. I have often preached on his radical acceptance of women and children, in a culture that was very male-dominated. But perhaps we should start to think about how Jesus worked with men. Jesus seems to have had no problem talking to men of different social status – fishermen and tax-collectors, centurions and rulers. After all, the twelve apostles were men.
The gospels are full of Jesus’s encounters with men: Nicodemus, Zacchaeus, Jairus, Herod and Pontius Pilate – as well as the many men, blind, lame and oppressed by demons, whose names we don’t know. And, in Mark 10:17-31, the man we know as the rich young ruler.
Here is a man with a desire to understand: he asks Jesus the question, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus plays with him: ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone’. Jesus runs through the commandments for him, and the man, as far as he can tell, has kept them. He has been faithful and devout. So what’s missing? Jesus puts his finger on it. This man who wants to know how to be good is a wealthy man. Jesus challenges him:
Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. (Mark 10:21, 22)
I don’t think this is a general prescription: that all Christians should (literally) give up all their possessions – although some, like St Francis of Assisi, have done so. But Jesus knows that for this one man, although he appears open and seeking after truth, the stumbling block is that he is really deeply wedded to his wealth. Perhaps men are locked into a view of themselves in which their value is rooted in their material wealth? How hard it is, Jesus says, for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God! Easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle! (V25) In other words, it’s impossible for a wealthy person to be saved. The disciples are astonished: if the rich aren’t God’s favourites, then what hope for the rest of us?
Jesus’s answer is that rich men and women are saved on the same basis as the poor. We are saved because God chooses to save us, because God loves us. Not because of what we have achieved or earned in life.
Perhaps that is why some men find religion difficult: because men have been told that their worth is to do with their accomplishments, their achievements? And the bible says we are saved, by grace, unmerited, unearned love:
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God — not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. (Ephesians 2:8-10)
We are saved, not by our own goodness, but because of God’s goodness. We do good works, not in order to impress God, in order to get God to accept us, but because it’s what God created us for. (And we’ve all come across the self-made man who worships his creator…)
Perhaps it’s difficult for men, to allow themselves to be accepted by God without that being something we have to work for? Men who have been taught that their worth, their value, lies in what they have achieved, earnt, rather than simply knowing themselves to be valued by God?
Jesus ‘loved’ the rich young man, but he still went away grieving, shocked to discover where his heart really lay, in his material wealth.
Men (and women and children) need to know where true wealth is to be found. Jesus talks about the man who discovered treasure in a field, or the merchant who finds a pearl of great value. They sold all that they had to obtain that which was of far greater value (Matthew 13:44-46). Jesus tells us that the Kingdom of God is the thing which is to be valued above all else: we should let go of everything else in order to find it.
Jesus says we are to:
…store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6:20, 21).
So, men, here’s the challenge: are we prepared to put all other things aside in order to gain the Kingdom? And are we ready to share that message with those around us? Jesus tells us not to worry about material things. God knows what we need. We are to:
…strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matthew 6:33)
 Office for National Statistics, Social Trends 2009