Where Have the Men Gone?

Jan 25, 2012 |David Murrow

The way we raised boys in the faith 20 years ago eliminated many of the men Christian women would love to date today.

Ladies, I feel your pain.

The dating scene in the church is grim. Christian colleges are becoming convents. Churches all over the world report a shortage of men in the pews – and it seems to be getting worse.

What about the singles' group at church? One woman put it this way: "Well, about two thirds of the singles [at my church] are women, and the men who come are kinda wimpy. Or creepy. There's a reason they're single."

So I'll ask the question you've probably asked a thousand times: Where are all the dynamic, single godly men?

Simple. We screened them out of the church as boys. Picked 'em off one by one.

The way we raised boys in the faith 20 years ago eliminated the very kinds of men some women would love to be dating today.

What Happened?

There are only two possible explanations for the lack of men in church – either A) men are more sinful than women, or B) there's something about the church that's driving men away. The more I study men and church, the more I'm convinced “B” is the more likely cause.

Metaphor time: you're standing in an asphalt plant. The operator loads pebbles of every size into a hopper. The pebbles are shaken through a series of screens that remove every stone that's either too large or too small. The resulting gravel mix is perfectly suited to road surfacing.

Now, let's apply that metaphor to the local church. Children of every kind come into the hopper. They are screened through children's ministry and youth ministry. These programs remove the ones who are poorly suited to church culture. The final mix of adult churchgoers is heavily female and very short on high-testosterone men. But it's perfect for perpetuating the church culture we presently know.

Screen 1: Sunday School

Little boys love going to church. There's no shortage of lads in nurseries, Vacation Bible School and the lower grades of Sunday school. But around the fourth or fifth grade, boys start disappearing, because that's the age when males begin losing in church.

Losing in church? You didn't realize church was a competition, did you? Well, with boys everything is a competition. And it's a contest most boys can't win. The rules of Sunday school are stacked against them: sit still, read aloud, memorize, find passages in the Bible and receive instruction from a female teacher. With rules like these, who's more likely to win? Girls or boys?

By age 12, many boys have been losing in church every Sunday for years. Females possess superior verbal skills, reading skills and finger dexterity (for finding Bible passages). They can sit still longer and instinctively know how to express themselves in small groups. The average girl is made for Sunday school, whereas the average boy is made for the soccer field.

And that's where increasing numbers of young men can be found on Sundays – kicking a ball, doing something they're good at. Many of the dropouts are the wiggly, high-testosterone boys who grow up to become leaders, athletes and alpha males. The kind of men many women would love to be dating right now – if only there were more of them following Jesus.

Of course some boys do make it through Sunday school, where they encounter the next screen: youth group.

Screen 2: Youth Group

When I was an adolescent, youth group was fun. It was based on the three Gs: Games, Goofiness and God. We sang simple songs. We played nutty games. The teaching time was brief but meaningful to teens. I loved it. And it attracted a lot of guys. Church services were sometimes boring, but youth group was always a kick. Youth leaders of the 1970s were almost always men – that big brother role model the boys craved and the girls looked up to (and had secret crushes on).

Fun and games are still a part of youth group, but there's been pressure to make it more "spiritual" by increasing the amount of time devoted to teaching. Singing time has also increased. And today many youth groups are led by young women. These three trends are screening boys out. Let's take them in reverse order:

Female youth leaders. Here's the politically incorrect truth about teenage boys: Most young men will not follow a woman's leadership. There is no example in Scripture of a woman discipling a young man. And women bring a different style to youth group – more emotive, more introspective and more focused on feelings. I'm not saying it's impossible for a woman to minister to teenage boys, but she's at a disadvantage.

Lengthy worship sets. Praise and worship arrived in youth group during the early 1990s. The goofy songs disappeared. Singing time expanded to 30 minutes or more. The whole feeling changed from a fun group activity to an intimate personal time with God.

The youth meeting is quickly evolving into a music-centric experience. Teens stand in a darkened room and sing love songs to Jesus, led by a praise band of their peers. Girls thrive in this emotional hothouse, but boys melt and evaporate. Many guys stand in the crowd with their hands in their pockets thinking, This is lame. Or, I'm supposed to like this, but I don't. What's wrong with me? Before you know it, you've got 19 girls and five guys at youth group. And there's not a jock among the guys.

Teaching. Youth leaders have come under intense pressure to focus most of their teaching on sexual purity and relationships — often at the expense of other topics. The pressure is coming from frightened parents who see it as the youth leader's duty to get their children through high school without a pregnancy or an STD.

This focus on sexual purity has morphed into a number of peculiar teachings that alter the dating habits of young Christians – and drive young men out of the church.

The anti-dating movement. Inspired by the bestselling book by Joshua Harris, many young believers have decided to kiss dating goodbye. Instead, they plan to someday enter into formal courtship arrangements with potential mates, preferably under parental supervision, with an eye toward marriage.

I'm not speaking against this practice, but you can see how it might feel like a straightjacket to a young man. A nice fellow may be seen as a wolf simply for asking a girl on a date.

The super-virginity movement. I know a number of Christian couples who not only refused to have sex before marriage, they have shunned all physical contact. No kissing. No hugging. Some even declined to hold hands before their nuptials. The goal was to have their first kiss at the altar, as they are pronounced man and wife.

Once again, I'm not condemning the practice. But supervirginity requires the marrying man to take an enormous risk.

During courtship, the supervirgin couple explores their spiritual, mental and emotional compatibility, but may not know if there's a spark of physical passion between them. The supervirgin woman enters marriage knowing exactly how her husband will respond mentally and emotionally (her primary needs), but the supervirgin man has no idea how she will respond physically (his primary need). Kissing, hugging and handholding are good indicators of physical chemistry; take these away and a guy has no clue whether he's marrying a red-hot tiger or a cold fish.

Of course, these things shouldn't really matter, because of a third peculiar teaching that's rampant in the church today: God has prepared one special person for you to marry. That's right: Jesus is our heavenly matchmaker. You don't need to actively search for a mate; simply pray and God will plop that perfect person down in front of you one day.

This crazy teaching has its genesis in Genesis — the only two occasions in Scripture where God provided a specific wife for a specific man. God gave Eve to Adam and provided Rebekah for Isaac. Both were special cases: Eve was the mother of the human race, and Rebekah was the mother of the Hebrew nation. Through the remaining 65 books of the Bible, God never arranges another marriage. Nonetheless, youth leaders the world over point to these two ancestral couples as proof that God preordains a special mate for each of us.

This bad snippet of theology causes all kinds of dysfunction among young Christians. They fall in love and then pray intently: "God, is this the one You have prepared for me?" God is silent. Hearing nothing, they have two choices: walk away from a perfectly acceptable mate or marry under a cloud of fear, terrified that they're outside of God's will.

A man can choose a Christian girlfriend with all her fantasies and prohibitions, or he can choose a regular girlfriend who will pucker up. Increasingly, even Christian men are choosing to date outside the church. It may not be right; it's just easier.

Who's Left

The single men who survive the screening process generally fit one of the following profiles:

  1. The Bible geeks. Quiet, studious men who love to study theological tomes. Or verbal guys who love to teach.
  2. The musical. They play in the band. Or they stand on the front row raising their hands during the music.
  3. The asexual. Guys who are OK with kissing dating (and kissing) goodbye.
  4. The predators. Guys who know there are plenty of desperate young women in church and enjoy trying to get them in bed.
  5. The social misfits. Strange men who come to church because it's the only place women will smile at them.

If you're into these kinds of guys, then the church dating scene isn't so bad. If not, then you'll have to fight over the most rare (and for some, the most desirable) category of single churchgoing men: the late converts. These are men who came to Christ in their teens or 20s, bypassing much of the screening process. Many were saved out of terrible sin. They have been forgiven much and love God much. (These guys get snapped up quickly by the best-looking women.)

Where Does That Leave Us?

By their senior year, girls are 14 percent more likely to have participated in a youth group than boys. And they are 21 percent more likely to have stayed involved in youth group all four years of high school. Congratulations. The stage is set for the female-dominated church of the future.

So what's the answer? We need a revolution in how we raise boys in the faith. Sunday school and youth group are screening out men years before they reach adulthood. Christians must have the courage to change these institutions so regular, red-blooded boys are more likely to grow up in church. I'm not saying we should pander to men, but would it be too much to accommodate them?

Want some good news? The changes are already underway. My next article will discuss the many ways churches are removing the screens — and the amazing response they're seeing from young men.

Part 2: How to Get the Men Back »

Copyright 2012 David Murrow. All rights reserved.

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