‘Beyond Belief’ on radio 4 asked this question today, quoting statistics that would suggest that 35% of the male members of congregations have stopped attending in the last 10 years. It is well worth a listen – here.
And as I confessed in my most recent post- I am one of them- at least as far as Sunday attendance at traditional church services goes.
This despite the continued male-domination of the religious machine, and the historic misogynistic flavour of many of our religious traditions (at odds with the way Jesus turned the tables on gender stereotypes.)
The questions I have often heard asked are-
What is about church that alienates men- even more so than women?
What is it about male spirituality that is no longer catered for within church?
How are healthy, holy versions of masculinity affirmed and modeled within church?
The spirituality of Jesus and his band of (male) disciples was one that tended to use words like these-
Risk taking,courage, self sacrifice, togetherness, adventure, mission, journey, loyalty, faithfulness in the long haul, friendship. ‘Taking a prophetic stance in order to change the world.’
The stories of the new men of the New Kingdom are full of tales of men fishing together. Learning and debating on the road. Living out practical God stuff in the presence of real human tragedy and ecstasy. The shadow of death and love of life in the middle of dangerousness.
What people like me have been forced to acknowledge is that our experience of church is often not like this at all.
We seem to have reduced spiritual practice to a very narrow band- as someone said on the programme- ‘Everything fixed by reading the Bible more and praying more.’ The problem is above all a moral one, and the answer to the problem easily results in living more narrow, less colourful lives- less connected, less rounded, less real.
So- what is the answer?
There were stories of wilderness retreats on the programme, which is something we have been experimenting with for a few years too (here and here for example.) Dorothy recently sent me some information about a course being run at The Bield doing similar things too- along the lines of the Richard Rohr ‘Rites of Passage’ material.
The chance for us to go off on these kind of defined pilgrimages can be wonderful.
I have a mixed feeling about male-only courses though. Some of this may relate to my own lack of clarity over what it means to be ‘masculine’- and what of my masculinity is praise worthy, positive and to be preserved.
I also am slightly suspicious of some of the language- the ‘warrior’ stuff, and the idea that at the heart of every man beats the heart of a hunter. I am not sure I ever want to fight or kill anything or any one- even in metaphor.
Richard Rohr describes his encounters with groups of nuclear scientists like this- “They don’t have a language to talk about faith. They can’t discuss things, the chaplain says, unless they are objectified and given a law, order and structure. But the language of inner states, inner movements, inner awareness, and inner consciousness is foreign to them.” I know men who are just like this- and many others who are entirely UNLIKE this.
I also strongly feel that male spirituality is substantively just the same as any other kind of spirituality. And I am not convinced that the answer to men leaving church is just to make what we already do more ‘butch’- tone down the love stuff and make it all less touchy-feely. As if women are not leaving church too.
Faith without works is dead- but ‘works’ without an inner awareness will almost always lead to damage- both to our self and to others. We need to be active and vital in how we live lives, but we also need to discover those soft supposedly feminine attributes and stop pretending that we can live like stones.
a final thought- I have come to believe that the obsession with getting men (and women) to come to church is entirely the wrong emphasis- rather we need to discover new/old ways to take church to them.
New/old ways to live out the mission of God in our context, and to learn to share this in community.
New/old ways to live authentic real lives.
And at the end of each day, new/old jokes to share around a fireside.