Where Are the Men?
By: Lyle E. Schaller
The most comprehensive collection of data on religious congregations in America was published by the United States Government Printing Office in 1910. This was the report of the Census of Religious Bodies based on data for 1906. The previous effort by the Bureau of the Census covered the calendar year of 1890.
The number of religious bodies was 186 in 1906, of which 164 were Protestant. The two dozen Lutheran denominations included 12,703 congregations, up from 8,585 in 1890. The 15 Methodist denominations included 64,701 congregations, up from 51,489 in 1890, while the 14 Baptist bodies included 54,880 congregations, up from 42,909 in 1890, and the 12 Presbyterian denominations included 15,506 congregations, up from 13,471 in 1890. In fifth place, in terms of the number of congregations, was the Roman Catholic Church in America with 12,492 parishes, up from 10,239 in 1890.
The Gender Ratio
That Census of Religious Bodies of 1906 asked for the number of members of each congregation and also for the number of male members and the number of female members. A total of 92 percent of the 210,418 congregations reported their membership by sex. The females outnumbered the males by a ratio of 16.9 million to 12.8 million or 57 percent to 43 percent. For Southern Baptists, that ratio was 59 percent female to 41 percent. For all Lutherans, it was 52.6 female to 47.4 males. For the Episcopalians, that ratio was 64 percent female to 36 percent male. For Roman Catholics, that ratio was 51 female to 49 male. For the Congregationalists, that ratio was 66 percent female to 34 percent male. For the dozen Presbyterian denominations, the ratio was 63 percent female to 37 percent male. For the Methodist Episcopal Church, the largest of the 15 Wesleyan denominations, the ratio was 62.5 percent female to 37.5 percent male. Unfortunately, that religious census of 1906 did not ask for statistics on worship attendance by gender.
What's the Question?
One response is, "What else is new? That's been the pattern for at least a hundred years." The big difference is back in 1906, while the women and young children went to church on Sunday morning, the men were milking the cows, cleaning the barn, taking care of the farm, restocking the shelves in the general store, or getting the factory ready to resume production on Monday morning.
A common explanation in that era described the place of women with three words in German that translate into English as kitchen, children, and church. The big difference is today on Sunday morning men are less likely to be working and more likely to be playing golf, fishing, hunting, sleeping, gambling, attending sports events, working on their favorite motor vehicle, or sorting their junk while women go to church. In this age of egalitarianism, women do what they do best, while men do what they do best.
That Third Place
One of these contends most Americans organize their lives around three "places." One is the home and family. A second is the workplace. The third is where "I am perceived to be a unique individual, rather than identified by my family tree or ancestry or my employer or my job or profession. This is the great good place where I go to enjoy a cup of coffee three times a week with a couple of close personal friends." It also may be the high school or a mall or a street gang or a bowling team or a prayer group or a service club or a volunteer ministry team or an adult Sunday school class or a "pickup" amateur basketball team or a fishing lodge or the corner tavern or the lodge hall or the municipal swimming pool or the club house on the golf course. For many men, the workplace has turned out to be both the second and third place in their lives. For many women, the church is the third place in their life.
One value of a long-term perspective is in evaluating short-term or simplistic explanations. For example, one common explanation can be condensed to this sentence: "Ever since they began to give women a greater role as policy makers and eventually authorized the ordination of women, we have seen a shrinking proportion of men in worship." A hundred years ago, men dominated both congregational and denominational leadership roles from Sunday school superintendent to trustees to lay elders to pastors to bishops, but they constituted only a minority of the membership. Men also dominated the political and economic culture in 1906 when women accounted for a majority of Christian church membership!
What Does Systems Theory Suggest?
A related systems theory explanation is those high-expectation, high-commitment congregations with a precisely defined belief system and a high threshold into voting membership tend to (a) report their average worship attendance exceeds the number of full members, often by a 2-to-1 or 3-to-1 ratio, and (b) attract about as many males as females to weekend worship.
Another systems theory response is the majority of congregations and most denominational systems are designed to be more attractive to women than to men. One facet of that is, as a group, women are more likely to have a larger friendship circle or personal social network than are men. One consequence is women are more likely than men to enjoy a larger friendship circle at church than are men. That reinforces the woman's allegiance to a particular congregation.
A parallel explanation is wives who are experiencing the aftermath of a divorce or the death of a spouse are far more likely than husbands to look to the church for the comfort of a support group-and, the typical congregation in American Protestantism is far more likely to be prepared to fulfill that need for women than for men. Divorce and widowhood are not identical experiences for men and for women!
One consequence is that, as a group, women are more likely than men to view "going to church" as a meaningful social experience.
The music is more likely to be meaningful to women than to men. The sermon frequently is a message delivered orally to listeners. Since women, as a group, tend to display a higher level of patience and competence as listeners than men, that tends to attract a larger number of women.
One alternative is to use projected visual imagery to illustrate points in the sermon, but that requires an exceptionally high level of competence to retain the attention of the worshipers, as the primary channel of communication is switched from the spoken word to the visual imagery to the spoken word to the visual imagery to the spoken word to a combination of the spoken word and visual imagery.
Preaching that excels in content, relevance, and delivery is in greater demand in American Christianity than ever before in American church history. The migration of younger generations from the religious tradition in which they were reared to a different religious tradition is one consequence. One part of this pattern is the criteria for evaluating preaching have changed. Television has supplemented the oratory of the 1930s and radio in expanding the number and variety of reference points used in evaluating communication by the spoken word.
One product of the combination of color television plus the power of projected visual imagery plus the erosion of inherited institutional loyalties plus the demand for excellence plus the national shortage of highly competent preachers plus the emergence of the regional megachurch is the multisite congregation. One model calls for this self-identified "missionary church" to offer two or three dozen worship experiences at 10 to 20 sites every weekend with the same message delivered at all services each week by the same messenger via projected visual imagery. One way to reach more men is to be more competitive!
Does Anyone Here Look Like Me?
The 23-year-old single man moves to a new community because of an attractive job offer. He had been a regular churchgoer through high school but had "dropped out of church" during his college years. A few weeks later, he visits a nearby church affiliated with the denomination in which he had been raised. Scattered among the worshipers that Sunday morning are three or four generations of females ranging in age from elementary school children to mature widows. Most of the adult males are accompanied by a woman who appears to be their wife, but there is a notable shortage of single men in their 20s. That next Sunday, a 23-year-old single woman, who also is a first-time visitor to that church, looks around and sees two-thirds of the worshipers are female, and they represent all age groups. Which of these two is the more likely to return a week later?
The Personal Faith Journey
With many exceptions on both sides of that gender line, women, as a group, tend to be at a more advanced stage than men in that personal faith journey. A natural tendency in most Christian congregations is to organize the ministry plan to be attractive to those at the three most advanced stages of their personal faith journey. That also helps to explain that 60-40 ratio of women to men at weekend worship.
Lyle E. Schaller is a retired parish pastor and parish consultant. His most recent book, From Cooperation to Competition , was published by Abingdon Press in May 2006.
Copyright 2008 by Lyle E. Schaller