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Is gender equality shortchanging boys in churches, schools and other American institutions?

Making churches gender neutral

worship, praise, millennials
Unsplash/Hannah Busing

David Murrow, who started Church for Men, an organization that helps congregations reconnect with men and boys, in 2005 around the same time he released his book, Why Men Hate Going to Church, believes the key to help churches better respond to the needs of boys and men could lie in the creation of more gender neutral churches.

“I hear stories all the time from churches that buy 10, 15 copies of the book for their elders and leaders and there are a lot of churches that are implementing more man-friendly programming, boy-friendly things for young men. I think one of the secrets to the growth of the megachurches has been their ability to gender neutralize their worship spaces and create an environment where men walk in and feel like this is something for them and not just something for their grandmother,” Murrow told CP.

“The typical church in America is about 80 to 90 people. It’s what I call a grandma church. There is a lot of older members and the ladies of the church decorate the sanctuary with quilts and flowers and ribbons and lace doilies and the Sunday school rooms look like something out of a kindergarten classroom,” he explained.

“They’ve got construction paper and yarn. It’s a very feminine space that they create and there’s a lot of talk of nurture and relationships. And then the ministry opportunities, the volunteer opportunities typically revolve around female roles — caring for the sick, preparing meals for potluck dinners.

“The whole enterprise is pitched towards a middle-aged or older woman with an empty nest who wants to spend time with kids. So men, particularly young men, come into those little family churches, they see the décor, they see the opportunities and they find nothing for themselves. One of the things the megachurches did is they intentionally focused on young men and particularly these would be men with young families,” Murrow said.

Two megachurches Murrow said that have done a great job in appealing to men are Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California, and Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois, founded by Bill Hybels.

Warren reportedly designed his church based on his own door-to-door survey of 500 residents. He found that his target audience was “Saddleback Sam,” a prototypical yuppie who believes in God but has not attended church since childhood. The “Sams” told him they weren’t going to church because sermons were boring, people were aloof, childcare was a problem and pastors were too interested in money.

“They had a mythical parishioner named Saddleback Sam. I mean they went straight for this guy. He was a guy who represented all the values of Southern California — he’s overextended in time and credit. God is OK but he’s not interested in church or religion,” Murrow said.

Willow Creek’s target was a “mythical parishioner named Unchurched Harry,” Murrow noted.

“They were focusing on that guy because they realized something. When you attract the man of the family you tend to get the rest of the family on the deal. And so they made their churches not macho, they didn’t turn their church into a monster truck rally or anything like that. All they had to do was sort of take out the cues that were saying to men this is something for your wife and kids and really engage the men on a heart level,” he said. “And then growth took care of itself and that’s really been the secret of the megachurches. It’s their ability to attract and retain men and in the process retain the entire family.”

Of the estimated 344,894 churches in the United States, only about 1,750 of them are classified as megachurches with 2,000 or more members.

Murrow said about 15 years ago, his own church in Alaska got rid of the old model of Sunday School and rebranded it Adventure Land in an approach that involves more movement with male teachers leading boys and female teachers leading girls and they have seen a lot of success.

“This model has been very successful in reaching young men. The tragedy comes when we move into junior high and high school ministry,” he said, which involves a lot of singing to Jesus, which boys don’t like.

The power of fathers

Citing research such as The Demographic Characteristics of the Linguistic and Religious Groups in Switzerland, which reviewed the results of a 1994 survey of Swiss religious practice, Murrow also argued that the most effective way for parents to lead the spiritual life of their children is through their own personal witness. The study also highlighted the outsized influence of a father in the transference of faith to the next generation.

In that study, for families where neither parent attended church, only 4% of their children ended up attending church regularly. Some 15% went on to become irregular attendees while more than 80% did not attend at all.

When the mother attended church in families but the father did not, some 2% went on to attend church regularly, 37% attended irregularly and 61% not at all. When both parents attended church regularly, 33% of their children when on to do the same regularly, 41% irregularly and 26% did not attend at all.

In homes where the father was a regular church attendee and the mother’s attendance was irregular, the study found that 38% of the children went on to regularly attend church, 44% attended irregularly and 18% did not attend at all. The results showed that fathers who attend church more faithfully influences more faithful church attendance in their children.

“There is really nothing to compare with it. We can have all the youth groups, the retreats, … the praise and worship extravaganzas and all those things help,” Murrow said. ”But the one thing that towers above all other factors in a child’s decision to follow Christ as a young adult is whether his father was following Christ. And so that would be the most effective thing a church could do is to equip fathers to be witnesses to their children."

He urged believers who are concerned about the way their church is serving their sons to try to engage their leaders under the guidance of the Holy Spirit as conversations about these issues can be delicate.

Making a cultural shift to help boys

Tim Wright, pastor of Community of Grace Lutheran Church in Peoria, Arizona, who authored Searching for Tom Sawyer and created a rite of passage for boys with Gurian called Following Jesus: Heroic Quest for Boys, said he was inspired to become an advocate for boys by Murrow’s book, Why Men Hate Going to Church.

“I read the book and I was so challenged by it that I invited David to Arizona to speak,” he told CP.

“He spoke for eight minutes and he was holding eggs in his hand. And his sermon was about boys and the disconnect of boys from the faith. And he kept dropping eggs and he said ‘now in the eight minutes I’ve been speaking, these eggs represent the number of boys who left the church.’ And so I did some quick research and found that the statistic is anywhere from 70 to 90% of all boys who leave the Christian church in their teens and 20s and most won’t come back and that really got my attention,” he said.

He eventually learned about Gurian and his use of brain science research to talk about boys and girls and how they learn.

“I hired him as a consultant and we became such good friends that we moved away from a consulting relationship and we became partners in creating different products for people,” he explained.

He argued that society needs to stop functioning as if girls are still behind educationally. While that may have been the case decades ago, Wright said, it is no longer true.

“Back in the 1960s we recognized educationally that our girls were behind our boys in part because of the feminist movement, in part because we were looking over all these different experiences with our daughters and seeing them fall behind. The whole country, metaphorically speaking, came together and said ‘we’ve gotta fight for our girls and get them caught up in school.' The federal government at that time committed $100 million to helping our girls get caught up,” he explained.

“And here’s what happened. The great news — I raised a daughter, I’ve got two granddaughters; I’m all pro-girls and we want to make that clear and Michael had two daughters — in 1982, girls not only caught up to boys but they flew right by them. And now in 2020 our boys are behind and they are behind significantly our girls in every area of education from pre-school to graduate school,” except for perhaps STEM, Wright noted.

“The problem is that we still think culturally, we have so ingrained in us that our girls are behind … that when they caught up and passed boys we still live with the old story that our girls are behind, our boys are OK. And because of that, we tend not to see our boys. They become invisible,” he said.

“The challenge in terms of advocating for boys is we still sort of believe boys are doing OK when they are not. They are dramatically behind, not just in education but they are falling behind emotionally. They are falling behind economically. In almost every area of life, boys and men are doing worse,” Wright added.

Pointing to the disparities in how girls and boys are being served by institutions in the AFS research, Wright said he believes it’s this disconnect that, for example, is causing families to rank sports clubs as better institutions for boys over churches.

“We have gone far more to the female brain than the male brain in our churches, in our schools and that’s why sports are doing so well. And really, sports have become the new religion for men and for boys. I see that in my own family with my son and his kids. They are far more engaged with sports than they are with church because sports is movement, it’s teamwork oftentimes, but it’s also character building,” he said.

“It’s not always 'aww, you're just great because you’re great.' It’s 'hey, that was a great play, you missed that one; you let the team down' and it starts to forge character,” he explained.

“We’re afraid of that for some reason. And what’s happening now is our boys tune out from things like school or church and if they don’t have good men or even good women who are both building up their character and calling them out when they’re not being boys of character, the boys sort of just check out or they make it up on their own. 

“Most of our culture will never say this but increasingly in a world where feminine values have become the benchmark, boys and men are feeling left out. We can’t articulate our feelings the same way and if we want to articulate our feelings, they are not the right kinds of feelings.”

When asked what would happen if churches and schools were able to collectively make the cultural shift to better serve men and boys, Murrow said he believes it could be seismic.

“A lot of the dysfunction in our culture comes from poorly socialized men. There are more men in jails, men are more likely to commit suicide, more likely to commit crimes and this is not just the United States, this is the world over. And this goes back to thousands of years. The great question of every society is how do we socialize and harness the power of men to social good and not toward mayhem,” he told CP.

“My background is in anthropology so the first thing they teach you is the whole purpose of society is to socialize men. So if we had a church and we had schools that were more successful in engaging men, I think the result would be a kinder, more loving society. It would be a fairer society and it would be … a lot less family distress, way fewer men falling through the cracks,” he said, noting that women would also be able to find more suitable men to marry.

“Study after study shows that when men embrace religion in general, they tend to be more kind and considerate. They are less likely to gamble and drink to excess. A host of anti-social and negative behaviors fall away when they become engaged in the church and that’s the sociological reason for creating an environment where men and boys feel more welcome. And they feel like it’s something for them and not just something for women.”

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