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Repost: The “Feminization” of the Church

April 16, 2016

I’m reposting this in its entirety from my own blog, to give my take on the issue of why there are more women than men in most Christian churches, and what conclusions are most reasonably drawn from this. [Note: since I first wrote this article I have moved from an Independent Church of Christ to a Methodist church, not least because women are allowed to be, and a woman is, senior pastor of the church.]

So here’s the post:

In recent years a lot of people have been talking about why in most Christian churches there is an approximately 60-40 ratio of women to men.  This 2006 Biola Magazine article puts it like this:

There are generally more women than men in every type of church, in every part of the world. . .A traditional explanation is that women are more spiritual than men. But the leaders of [a new masculinity] movement suggest that the church’s music, messages and ministries cater to women. . . The result of this feminization is that many men, even Christian men, view churches as “ladies clubs” and don’t go — or they often go to please their wives.

The phrase almost always used to describe this phenomenon is “feminization.”  In other words, the presence of a higher percentage of women in churches is not simply a higher percentage of women– it represents that the church is, or has somehow become, feminine.

The Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood has this to say about “feminine Christianity”:

Walk into the average evangelical church in America, and you will likely sing lyrics such as “I want my life to be a love song for you, Jesus” and “I want to fall in love with you.”

Then you might hear a sermon encouraging Christians to be “intimate” with Jesus and attend a “care group” where everyone is expected to share their feelings.

Such tactics might appeal to women, but they are at least partially unbiblical and push men away from Christianity, according to Randy Stinson, executive director of The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW) and assistant professor of gender and family studies at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS).

“Where are the men in our churches today?” Stinson said in a lecture sponsored by the SBTS theology school council March 29. “We have a crisis going on in the local church. Number one, men aren’t coming. And number two, when they are coming, they’ve [sic] marginalized, they’re being passive, they’re being pushed to the side.”

Christianity Today summarizes it like this:

Today a growing body of literature is leveling its sights on the church, suggesting that men are uninvolved in church life because the church doesn’t encourage authentic masculine participation.

The same article quotes controversial pastor Mark Driscoll:

In Driscoll’s opinion, the church has produced “a bunch of nice, soft, tender, chickified church boys. … Sixty percent of Christians are chicks,” he explains, “and the forty percent that are dudes are still sort of chicks.”

The article also quotes David Murrow, author of Why Men Hate Going to Church(Thomas Nelson, 2004):

“[W]omen believe the purpose of Christianity is to find “a happy relationship with a wonderful man”—Jesus—whereas men recognize God’s call to “save the world against impossible odds.” . . . While the church was masculine, it fulfilled its purpose. But in the 19th century, women “began remaking the church in their image” (and they continue to do so), which moved the church off course.

Needless to say, this line of thinking isn’t exactly complimentary to women!  It implies that whatever is “feminine” encapsulates everything that’s gone wrong with the church. A popular book on the subject even goes so far as to take the title The Church Impotent – because apparently a majority of women in the church means the church is emasculated, and therefore powerless and ineffectual. Even though men still hold the vast majority of the leadership positions.

There are several things that need to be addressed here.  First, what might be some objective reasons why there are more women than men in most churches?  Second, what does it mean to say the church is “feminine,” and is that a helpful or accurate assessment?  Third, what is the best way to address this situation?

Why are there more women than men in most churches? 

One reason that is often given (and one that is less denigrating to women) is that women are just naturally more religious than men. However, if that were true, then a similar female-to-male ratio ought to hold true in other major world religions.  But it doesn’t.  Christianity is the only major world religion where female attendance is higher than male attendance. As this United Kingdom study states:

Christian women reported slightly higher levels of religious activity than did the men, while among the other three religious groups, levels of reported religious activity were markedly lower among women than among men. How can we explain these gender differences in reported religious observance? Among the Jews and Muslims, there were marked differences between women and men, in keeping with observations about the roles of women and men in these traditions. These differences are also consistent with the view that men’s prescribed religious activities in traditional religion are more prestigious, and thus more likely to be engaged in. Hindu men also reported greater levels of religious activity than did Hindu women.

The fact is that most of the time in the other world religions (with the exception, perhaps, of some reformed branches), women are actively barred from full participation in many of the everyday practices of religion.  They are often kept separate from the men, hidden behind screens or walls, or required to keep silent.  Perhaps, then, another question we ought to be asking, instead of why there are relatively fewer men participating in Christianity, is what is it about Christianity that encourages so many women to participate?  As this article on religion in the United Kingdom in The Telegraph says:

One possible reason why the Church has always attracted so many women is that the theological education on offer on a Sunday is the same for both sexes. Men and women (generally speaking) have always sat together in Church and are expected to participate equally in the liturgy and in prayer. It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that the only other religious denomination anecdotally reported as having rising numbers of women is Reform Judaism. Its congregations are mixed whereas in Orthodox synagogues the men and women sit separately and only boys receive the rigorous schooling in the Hebrew scriptures. . . .

An often-ignored fact in all of the hand-wringing about fewer men in church is that the early church in Roman times apparently also attracted more women than men.  As this Huffington Post article on The Power and Presence of Women in the Earliest Churches states:

Some readers may find it surprising to learn that a woman shortage blighted the ancient world, with about 130-140 men for every 100 women. This is so because many female infants were left to die of exposure and because of the mortal risks associated with pregnancy and childbirth. Yet both Christians and their critics observed a marked overrepresentation of women in the early churches, a fact the critics used to their advantage: “What respectable group caters to women?” Why, one wonders, did so many women find the churches appealing if women’s contributions were not valued?
The answer is, simply, that the early churches did value women’s contributions.

This article on women in the early church from the Christian History Institute corrorobates this:

Celsus, a 2nd-century detractor of the faith, once taunted that the church attracted only “the silly and the mean and the stupid, with women and children.” His contemporary, Bishop Cyprian of Carthage, acknowledged in his Testimonia that “Christian maidens were very numerous” and that it was difficult to find Christian husbands for all of them. These comments give us a picture of a church disproportionately populated by women. . . It is no surprise that women were active in the early church. From the very start—the birth, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus—women were significantly involved. . .The involvement of women continued in the first few decades of the church, attested by both biblical and extra-biblical sources.

The fact is that a major appeal of Christianity at its inception was that it valued and uplifted those who were marginalized in their own societies.  The same Celsus quoted above also said that Christianity was “a religion of women, children and slaves.” As Paul indicated in his first letter to the Corinthians:

Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. 1 Cor. 1:26-29

A similar phenomenon appears to be occurring in the rise of Christianity in places where it has not had a long-standing, traditional hold, such as in China.  Christianity continues to grow rapidly in China, with up to 70% of the new converts being women. In this Christian Post article, the reason given is similar to what was going on in the early church in Roman times:

The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences said on its website that Christianity mainly attracts people with low social status, including the poor, the women and older people.
It said that while half of Christians had completed their primary education, only 2.6 percent of them attained a college degree or higher.

Christianity’s attraction of the marginalized is one of its strengths, not one of its weaknesses. On the other hand, this factor probably doesn’t fully explain why there is a greater percentage of women in modern Western churches today– especially since many branches of Christianity are now seen by society as limiting women, not empowering them.  An important question to ask, though, is how long this female-male ratio has been occurring.  The idea that this is a recent phenomenon, rising with the advent of feminism, is certainly false.  The Biola Magazine article I quoted earlier states:

The gender gap began as early as the 13th century, according to some church historians. Others say it began during the Industrial Revolution. . . Industrialization forced men to seek work away from home, in factories and offices, which created a split between the public and private spheres of life. The public sphere became secularized through the new values of competition and self-interest, and the private sphere came to represent the old values of nurturing and religion. . . Thus, religion came to be seen as for women and children and not as relevant to the “real” world of business, politics and academia, she said. Soon, in churches, women began to outnumber men. . .  So, male pastors began to adapt churches to their female demographic.

The rise in the “two spheres” concept popularized in Victorian times may be a factor, but the disproportionality of women in the church, at least in some kinds of congregations, has certainly been documented earlier than that.  American colonial preacher Cotton Mather wrote about it in the 1600s, for instance, though not all colonial churches had this issue. The book Under the Cope of Heaven by Professor Patricia U. Bonomi offers an interesting theory: that male attendance decreased in American colonial churches in inverse proportion to the increase in the role of clergy at the expense of laity:

As the ministers’ rising professionalism led them to reduce the laity’s power in church government, laymen proved less amenable to a a more passive role than did laywomen. . . [Therefore] Feminization appears to be linked less to the secularization of the masculine sphere than to the loss of power by lay males to a professionalizing clergy.

If this is true, then the Encyclopedia Brittanica’s entry on clergy and laity in Eastern Orthodoxy could help explain why there is a more equal sex ratio in these churches:

The emphasis on communion and fellowship as the basic principle of church life inhibited the development of clericalism, the tradition of enhancing the power of the church hierarchy. The early Christian practice of lay participation in episcopal elections never disappeared completely in the East. In modern times it has been restored in several churches, including those in the United States. Besides being admitted, at least in some areas, to participation in episcopal elections, Orthodox laymen often occupy positions in church administration and in theological education. In Greece almost all professional theologians are laymen. Laymen also frequently serve as preachers.

This would also explain why, in my own church (an Independent Church of Christ), where laywomen and laymen alike participate in teaching (both in children’s ministry and adult bible studies), baptizing, serving communion, collecting and counting the offering, greeting, ushering, and giving short teachings prior to the main sermon, I see roughly half men and half women when I look around the pews on any given Sunday morning.  My own church (though I have not done an actual count) doesn’t seem particularly “feminized.”

But this doesn’t explain why in some churches where lay participation is high, there is still a higher percentage of women.  This study from 1990 states that in American Pentecostal churches the female-male ratio was at that time as high as 2 to 1, while in Baptist churches it was 3 to 2.  (This study, however, concludes that women are simply more religious for various reasons, failing to take into account that this is a Christianity-only issue, so I won’t be quoting it further here.)

But there is another cause that I think is, and has been, very prevalent in Western churches for a long time, and is likely more prevalent in Baptist and Pentecostal and similar churches, because of their strict limitations on women’s roles. It’s a self-perpetuating stigma that, once established, is very hard to defeat: the stigma known as “gender contamination.”  This Forbes article defines”gender contamination” as the idea that when something is perceived as being a women’s thing, men want nothing to do with it.  It’s the reason why men won’t drink “diet” soda and have had to have differently-named low-calorie versions marketed specially to them.  It’s the reason why men resist using lotions and moisturizers even if they have neutral, non-flowery scents, and why some companies advertise their products by denigrating competitors with such words as “precious” and “princess.”  In short, in our “male mystique” focused society, boys who believe girls have cooties still believe deep-down, when they grow into men, that women have cooties too.

There are still some very deep-rooted misogynistic elements in modern Western culture– and this, I think, has a lot to do with why evangelicals like Mark Driscoll and the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood are so distressed at the idea that churches are “feminized.”  If churches have more women in them, then churches themselves have cooties, and it’s up to the biblical manhood movement to remove the stigma by masculinizing the church.  Just as soda advertisements now insist that certain brands are not for women, and certain body washes emphasize how very manly their scents are, the answer in the minds of these Christians is to re-market the church as a manly institution.

The Christianity Today article I linked to earlier puts it this way:

These authors . . . suggest that the solution is to inject the church with a heavy dose of testosterone. In other words, allowing women to create Jesus in their image has emasculated him; thus, regaining a biblical image of Christ is as simple as re-masculating him. The masculinity movement’s solution assumes that Jesus came to model genuine masculinity. . .  imply[ing] that when the church adopts the supposedly male psyche, it fulfills its purpose, but when it conforms to the supposedly female psyche, it becomes aberrant.

Which leads me to my second question:

Are these categories of “masculine” and “feminine,” when applied to churches and church services, helpful or accurate?

Jeffrey Miller, in the Christian Standard‘s Nov. 2011 article Common Sense on “The Feminization of the Church”, discusses two of the main proposals for masculinizing the church: first, that churches sponsor “manly” and challenging group activities such as hiking or kayaking, and second, that church services discard or at least strictly limit “feminine” songs about love and intimacy with Christ in favor of “masculine” songs about God’s power and authority.  Here’s what he discovered regarding sponsoring “manly” activities through his own church:

I wanted to test the theory that men are more interested than women in rigorous and even dangerous recreation, so I devised a stealthy experiment and formed a hiking group. Anyone is welcome to join this group, but all who express interest are told we do not take leisurely jaunts. Instead, each outing has some significant challenge, the most common being distance—our longest hike, for example, exceeded 26 miles. Other obstacles have included bitter windchills, steep climbs, sheer descents, black bears, yellow jackets, and two territorial rattlesnakes.

I sent invitations to an equal number of men and women. The list has grown and now consists of 20 men and 20 women. I tell people we hike to stay in shape, rise to the challenge, enjoy God’s creation, and get away from it all. While all these are true, I haven’t till now shared one other important goal of mine: to track the ratio of female to male participants. After 19 monthly hikes, having invited an equal number of men and women to join in rigorous outdoor adventures, 33 men and 57 women have taken up the challenge. Surprised? Me too! I thought the ratio would drift toward 50-50.

And with regards to “manly” music, here’s his response:

Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI) lists the 100 most frequently used songs in its database. If contemporary praise music is problematically feminine in both lyrics and tone, as the Driscoll-Murrow crowd avers, we should expect the top 100 list to be dominated—or at least infiltrated—by women. In fact, however, the list includes 145 male and 16 female composers. Thus more than 90 percent of the composers writing today’s most popular praise songs are male!

Moreover, some of the most “masculine” songs are written by women (and some of the most “feminine” songs are written by men). Consider Twila Paris’s “He is Exalted,” Jennie Lee Riddle’s “Revelation Song,” and Brooke Fraser’s “Desert Song,” all of which employ metaphors of power. In contrast, Lenny LeBlanc and Paul Baloche’s “Above All” and Martin Nystrom’s “As the Deer” both feature elegant melodies and calming images from nature.

Going back to the 19th century, Fanny Crosby’s lyrics are not predominantly what we would call “feminine.” And William Bradbury’s melodies are not especially “masculine.” In search of a nonscientific test for these statements, I asked my mom for her five favorite Fanny Crosby songs and my dad for his five favorite William Bradbury songs. . . My mom’s favorite Fanny Crosby songs are “Blessed Assurance,” “To God Be the Glory,” “Praise Him! Praise Him!” “Redeemed!” and “Draw Me Nearer.” My dad’s favorite William Bradbury hymns are “Savior Like a Shepherd Lead Us,” “Jesus Loves Me,” “The Solid Rock,” “He Leadeth Me,” and “Sweet Hour of Prayer.” Judge for yourselves, but I believe the list of hymns by Crosby is more vigorous and Bradbury’s list is more intimate.

I conclude, therefore, that a central problem with the manly music argument is that men both write and perform the overwhelming number of songs that Driscoll, Murrow, and others consider too feminine. If anyone is guilty of feminizing the church’s music, it’s not women!

In short, the categories of “masculine” and “feminine” are cultural constructs that often have very little to do with the actual proclivities of real men and women.  Women don’t necessarily focus on relationship and men on power in worship, nor do only men enjoy rigorous and challenging physical activity.

Thomas G. Long’s article Why Do Men Stay Away? in The Christian Century finds these categories insulting to both men and women:

Why are men and the church often at odds? Sadly, many of the answers are as insulting as they are misguided. . .They argue that men, loaded as they are with testosterone, have a proclivity to impulsive, risk-taking, occasionally violent action—exactly the behavior disallowed in the soft world of worship. Given this theory, what enticements can the wimpy church possibly offer us men when we compare it to the joys of hiding away in a man cave, stuffing our maws with pizza and beer as we watch Da Bears and heading out after sundown to rip off a few wheel covers and rumble in the Wal-Mart parking lot?

Others propose a more political and historical explanation, namely that centuries of male control of the church have yielded to an ineluctable force of feminization. Pastel worship, passive and sentimental images of the Christian life, handholding around the communion table and hymns that coo about lover-boy Jesus who “walks with me and talks with me” have replaced stronger, more masculine themes. . .

Really? The feminine erosion of the church? As David Foster Wallace said in a different context, this is an idea “so stupid it practically drools.” Even sillier are the proposed masculine remedies. One website suggests “Ten Ways to Man Up Your Church,” beginning with obtaining “a manly pastor” who projects “a healthy masculinity.” This patently ignores strong women clergy, of course, but it also denigrates the capacity of men to recognize and respond to able leadership regardless of gender or stereotypes.

Categories of masculinity and femininity that reduce men to biceps and women to clinging vines are hardly biblical.  None of the heroes and heroines of the faith presented in the pages of Scripture acted this way.  Nor do the Scriptures uphold these stereotypical behaviors as virtuous or godly.  On the contrary, the fruit of the Spirit from Galatians 5:22-23, ” love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” include both typically “masculine” and typically “feminine” virtues that are for men and women alike.

And there’s a real problem when traits associated with women are denigrated as a kind of sickness that is weakening the church.  As Jeffrey Miller put it in his Christian Standard article:

If the church manifests feminine characteristics, and if it does so more than it once did, then why would this make the church impotent? Such a claim is not only illogical, but offensive. Surely it is ungentlemanly to say to women that the problem with the church is that it’s becoming more and more like them.

How fair is it to assign categories to women that you then belittle and blame them for?  Surely it’s possible to attract more men to our churches without communicating to women that they shouldn’t exist?

So what is the best way to address this problem?

The church is not a product like a soda or a moisturizer, that you can market to men by claiming that it’s not for women.  Nor is it helpful to bifurcate church experience so that the women get all the comfort and love while men get all the challenging calls to discipleship.  Men and women are real people, not stereotypes. Men often need comfort and love, and women have no less need for challenge.  Jesus wasn’t speaking only to men when He said “Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow Me (Luke 9:23).”  Nor was He talking only to women when He said, “Come to Me. . . and you will find rest for your souls; for My yoke is easy and My burden is light. (Matthew 11:30).”

Brownyn Lea recently wrote a guest post on Preston Yancey’s blog entitled  What Women Want: the Jesus of the Gospels.  She said:

Jesus is a comforter, a healer, a Savior. “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild”, the suffering Servant, the loving rescuer. That Jesus rightfully and perfectly holds all these titles is proof that those nurturing qualities do not belong exclusively to the female domain. Jesus IS the epitome of love, of care, of welcome.

However . . .what I want from church is this – a robust preaching of the Jesus of the Gospels. I want to hear about the Jesus who demanded loyalty, who commanded authority from storms, sinners and satanic forces, who said vexing and frustrating and wild things. I want to hear preaching which is not just faithful to His words but to His TONE: of comfort but also of rebuke, of welcome but also of warning. I want to hear His dares, His call to come and die, His challenge to make hard choices. I want the Jesus of the gospels who does not just meet our needs, but who calls us to bold and courageous adventure, to self-sacrifice, to taking risks. I want the Jesus who promises huge rewards for huge sacrifices, who embraces fiesty Peter and wayward Mary and touchy-feely John.

I want the Jesus who welcomed the little children, but also the Jesus with eyes like a flame of fire, with feet of burnished bronze and a sharp two-edged sword coming out of his mouth. Whatever that wild imagery means, I want to grapple with it. I want the Jesus who inspires my awe and calls forth my worship: a gospel from The Gospels. That’s the Jesus I want. That’s the Jesus I need: the one who is worthy of the honor, adoration and allegiance of men and women alike.

It’s a woman who is saying these things, articulating the need that Christian men and women alike feel for the whole Jesus– neither a masculinized prize-fighting caricature nor a feminized weepy-and-wimpy caricature.  And if we don’t want our Jesus to be a caricature, we ought not to be caricaturing His male and female followers.

Thomas G. Long’s Christian Century article hits the nail on the head, I think:

Perhaps a clue can be found in a Christian group that attracts men and women in roughly equal numbers: Eastern Orthodoxy. . . The finding of religion journalist Frederica Mathewes-Green [is] that Orthodoxy’s main appeal is that it’s “challenging.” One convert said, “Orthodoxy is serious. It is difficult. It is demanding. It is about mercy, but it is also about overcoming myself. . .”

Yes, some churchgoers are satisfied with feel-good Christianity, but I think many Christians—women and men—yearn for a more costly, demanding, life-changing discipleship. Perhaps women are more patient when they don’t find it, or more discerning of the deeper cross-bearing opportunities that lie beneath the candied surface.

Why do more women than men go to church in modern Western Christianity?  Perhaps most women don’t really care all that much for sterilized, feel-good niceness in the church either– but women are usually the ones responsible for getting their kids to church, so they deny themselves, pick up their crosses and get out the door.  Maybe Christian leaders ought to be applauding their commitment rather than blaming them for what’s wrong with the service.

Maybe rather than capitulating to worldly gender-contamination and male fear of female cooties, publicly visible male Christian leaders should stop maligning femaleness and trying to market Jesus and the church as masculine.  In fact, maybe they should stop trying to market the church at all.  Paul said in 1 Corinthians 2:1-5:

And when I came to you, brethren, I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God. For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling, and my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God.

Ultimately, “feminization” isn’t the real problem.  Women aren’t the problem.  Let’s face it, in the vast majority of churches the decisions aren’t getting made by women– but Adam’s tendency to blame “this woman You gave me” for his choices is still visible in male church leaders today.

I firmly believe that if churches will just preach the gospel of the kingdom of God, both its comfort and its challenge– Christ will take care of the rest.  Men will rise to the challenge to pick up their crosses and endure the stigma of gender contamination in order to identify with Christ.  And this will in time erase the notion that church is a “women’s thing.”

Finally, churches do need to pay attention to who they’re reaching and who they’re not.  But perhaps we ought to be concentrating less on the ratio of females to males and start focusing more on attracting people of other races and economic situations.  Perhaps the real problem is not so much that there are 60 percent women and 40 percent men, but that all of them are white and middle class.

In the end, the Holy Spirit is the one who can help us most.  Let’s humble ourselves and ask.

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