Tips on how churches can win their young men back – and the role single women can play in that revival
Part 1: Where Have the Men Gone? »
In case you hadn't noticed, there's a shortage of young single men in church today. And things seem to be getting worse.
First-grade Sunday school classes have just as many boys as girls. But over the next dozen years, young men melt away. 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-heavy church of the future.
Why is this happening? Before we dive in, let me state the obvious: Many a man's religious reticence is his own fault. Some men are proud and want to be their own god. Others are captive to sin. A few have been wounded in church or deeply troubled by churchgoers' hypocrisy.
But let's be honest: Women suffer from these things as well. Nothing in Scripture suggests women are less prone to sin or pride than men. Women are just as likely to be abused or wounded in church.
I believe our modern church system screens out a certain type of boy. The screening continues through the upper grades of Sunday school and actually accelerates during the teen years. This screening process makes it harder for a typical guy to stay interested in church.
My last article explained how the screening process works and why it sends many dateable men for the exits. In this article, I'll share some tips on how churches can win their young men back – and the role single women can play in that revival.
Have you ever thought about the “rules” of Sunday school? For more than 150 years, they’ve been: sit in a classroom, look up passages in books, read aloud, memorize and listen to a female teacher. If you plop a typical 7-year-old boy into an environment like that, will he excel? How about the girl sitting next to him – will she do better than he does?
Fortunately, a new model of children's ministry is emerging. Here's what it looks like at my church in Alaska: Kids of all ages assemble in a large room full of fun things to do. It's 15 minutes of barely controlled chaos. After the kids get their wiggles out, they gather in rows to sing a few fun praise songs (complete with body motions). Next the lights dim, and a professionally produced video appears on a large screen. The video employs a modern metaphor to introduce a spiritual truth. Finally, the boys and girls separate into same-gender small groups — boys with male teachers, girls with female teachers. The lesson time is brief and usually built around an object lesson (related to the video they just saw). Once the instructional time is done, the teacher may ask students to share prayer needs. The teacher prays for each request or has the students do it. Then it's on to more free play until the parents arrive.
Churches around the country are experimenting with similar models. Whereas girls usually "win" in the old classroom-style Sunday school, the new model advantages neither gender. It plays to male strengths: activity, body movement, visuals and objects. And boys respond better to male teachers. Although there's not a lot of heavy Bible study in the new model, boys may actually absorb more of the teaching because they stay more focused and attentive.
Even traditional Sunday school curriculum is changing. A company called Next Righteous Generation (NRG) has created custom curricula for boys and girls. Lessons, activities and illustrations are tailored for each gender.
One other wrinkle: my church in Alaska has dropped the name "Sunday school." It's been redubbed, "Adventureland." The new moniker makes it easier for boys to invite their friends.
So children's ministry is definitely headed in the right direction. I believe we will see more adult men in church in about 10 years … that is, if they survive youth group.
Revamping Youth Group
Children's ministry may be getting friendlier to boys, but youth ministry seems to be going the opposite direction. As I noted in my last article, youth group is quickly evolving into a music-driven experience. Group singing is consuming more and more time in youth group. This is great for musicians – but for the rest of the boys, lengthy praise sets can be a drag.
Here's the problem with young men and praise-singing: The average 16-year-old boy is not grateful to God yet. He hasn't experienced much spiritual victory, so praise means nothing to him. Trying to make the typical teenage boy sing praise songs is like trying to make a pig knit. Asking him to stand in a darkened room for 25 minutes, singing songs of appreciation he doesn't feel is pointless at best. At worst, he feels somewhat defective. He secretly wonders, Is there something wrong with me? Why don't I feel the way I'm supposed to?
As an example of how to do youth group right, I'd point to Young Life. Their weekly meetings consist of a couple games, a handful of simple songs, a brief Christ-centered talk and a chance to respond. The formal content is usually wrapped up in less than an hour. This is by design; Young Life has learned the most effective ministry time is not the formal programming, but the personal interaction between students and leaders before and after meetings. Young Life is still very effective at reaching boys – particularly the ones who didn't grow up in church.
Also in my previous article I mentioned several dating customs that have swept the church in the past decade, including supervirginity and the "kiss dating goodbye" movement. Some Christian women have adopted a standard of purity that exceeds that of the Bible. Young men may conclude it's just too complicated to date church girls; they come with too many rules and regulations.
I encourage single Christian women to date Christian guys. Dating is a good thing for those who are mature enough to handle it. I encourage women to show affection toward the ones they like. Sexual intimacy is clearly out of bounds for unmarried Christians, but that does not mean all physical contact is unholy. Women who erect too high a fence around themselves should not be surprised when men walk away.
What Men Want
If you’re looking for a church with young, single men, they’re generally harder to find in small, traditional congregations, and easier to find in megachurches. This is no accident: These jumbo congregations work hard to make guys feel at home. Megachurches have nixed many of the feminine cultural elements ingrained in traditional churches: group hugs, handholding, emotive displays, personal testimonies and prayer-and-share. They've removed the banners, quilts, curtains, doilies and flowers from their worship spaces. Some have zapped every "Jesus is my boyfriend" song from their worship sets.
Megachurches are into excellence – and so are men. Guys love a challenging sermon that doesn't stray into condemnation or moralism. They like mind-stretching discussions and healthy debate. Men appreciate a nice facility that's well kept.
If you want to meet young men at church, find a congregation that specifically targets them. Mars Hill Church in Seattle is built to reach the young, urban, coffee-and-computer crowd. Pastor Mark Driscoll unashamedly goes after these dudes. He addresses them each week from the pulpit. He uses metaphors they can relate to. His preaching is edgy – Driscoll is not afraid to present Christ's harsh, demanding side. As a result, Mars Hill is brimming with young single men – in one of America's least-churched cities.
This will warm your heart: Driscoll encourages his young men to stop prolonging their adolescence and get married. He praises young men in his congregation who land a job, buy a home and commit to a woman. Driscoll says, "The real question of manhood is not, 'Can you take a punch?' It's 'Can you keep a job?'"
Now, don't book your ticket to Seattle just yet. There are plenty of churches across America that have begun targeting men. That's bringing them in the doors – but is it bringing them to faith?
Men do not follow religions or teachings or philosophies – they follow men. They need mentors – heroes in the faith – even more than women do. But churches have neglected their laymen for so long that there is now a shortage of older men who are willing to mentor the young. Male Sunday school teachers are in chronic short supply; male youth leaders are often hard to find. Does your church have even one mature man who's mentoring the young adult men?
And things are only going to get worse; the "pedophile priests" and "creepy coaches" scandals will cause more men to shrink from personally mentoring boys. Men will fear being falsely accused – or being seen as perverts themselves.
What Women Can Do
So what can you, as a single woman, do about this?
If you volunteer in Sunday school or youth ministry, speak up for boy-friendly curriculum, activities and lessons. Don't make your boys do things that embarrass them. If you notice the girls outperforming the boys, change activities.
If you want to influence the direction of your church, get organized. Meet with your girlfriends regularly to pray for the men in your lives (and in your congregation). Prayer is powerful, especially when "two or three agree on anything."
Most pastors would love to make their churches more man-friendly, but they're afraid of opposition from the ladies. So here's an idea: Gather some women, go to your church leaders and tell them you'll support efforts to make the church more guy-friendly. When the matrons of the congregation start freaking out over the removal of the quilts, flowers and banners, invite them for coffee and explain the situation, woman-to-woman. Take some of the heat off your pastor and elders; they'll love you for it.
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Used car prices are up 30 percent since 2008. Why? During the economic collapse of 2008–2010, auto companies cut back drastically on production. As a result, there's currently a shortage of used cars – which has increased their value.
In the same way, churches unwittingly cut back on their production of young Christian men in years past – which has created the shortage we see today.
The only way to correct this imbalance is to produce more – if not for the current generation of women, then for the next.
Copyright 2012 David Murrow. All rights reserved.