Book Review: Why Men Do Not Go to Church, by Cortland Myers (1899)
Today is the age of target marketing. Savvy advertisers constantly ask themselves, “How can we make our product more desirable to the various groups who are presently unaware of its benefits?”
It’s in this vein that Cortland Myers raises the question in his book by the title, “Why do men not go to church?” This is, he says, “one of the burning questions of the hour.”
Is this just one more of the recent spate of books on the topic of men and church, like Mark Chanski’s 2004 Manly Dominion or David Murrow’s 2005 Why Men Hate Going to Church?
Not at all. Cortland Myers wrote this book over hundred years ago—in 1899! Myers was minister at Baptist Temple in Brooklyn, New York when he wrote this book. Shortly thereafter, in 1909, he became pastor at Tremont Temple in Boston, MA.
Like today’s authors, Myers gives statistical analysis to support his thesis. He claims that not more than 3 percent of the male population of New York City was a member of a Protestant church. Furthermore: “of the membership of the church nearly three-fourths are women,” and “in one great church I counted two hundred women and ten men”(x).
Apparently, the problem was such that Myers felt compelled to do more than write a book. In 1911, David Lockrow was hired to lead a Tremont Temple Brotherhood. This organization was established for the express means of attracting men to the church by offering the men Bible classes, piano lessons, gymnastics, a bowling league, and an employment bureau. One historian says of the brotherhood, “The emphasis on activity and outreach drew from current understanding of the kind of religion that attracted men.”
In the book, Myers addresses the problem of why men are not in church in three parts: faults of the church, faults of the man, and faults of society. Given both his argument and the number of pages he devotes to each of these topics, it’s clear he places the greatest burden of fault on the church.
Here, many of his observations are helpful, such as the suggestion that churches should unite around the cross (79), encourage an atmosphere of “brotherhood” (69), implement church discipline (62), and foster dependence on the Holy Spirit (83). At the same time, Myers doesn’t always use Scripture as his point of departure in making recommendations.
Instead, he seems to be something of a schizophrenic thinker. He perceives a problem, seeks to identify the causes, and then suggests what he believes are appropriate solutions. Unfortunately, little Scripture guides him, and he ends up contradicting himself in various sections of the book. For instance, he says,
The principle which lies at the foundation of every successful business is, ‘find out what men want and then give it to them.’ That same principle must enter largely into the success of the religious as well as the commercial enterprise”(21).
Yet later on, he says,
[The church] stands unique and alone. It is on earth as the Divine channel for the salvation of the immortal soul from sin and condemnation. It is, therefore, unjust and unreasonable to compare it with any of the world’s organizations (97).
BACK TO THE FUTURE?
We can sympathize with Myers’s desire to address the concerns of the church in the early 1900s. Like him, we don’t want to present truth in the most boring manner possible, and we don’t want, personally or corporately, to create unnecessary obstructions to gospel belief.
Yet Myers, like so many today, appeared to believe that getting the method right was the largest problem faced by the church of his day. He certainly doesn’t say that the gospel and personal holiness are not important, but such matters do seem to get minimized as his search for solutions leads toward the methods of the modern world.
Society, business, politics, home, and everything have undergone a marked change within the last quarter of a century. The church has lost her grip upon these times if she does not move with them (15).
The old truth is sacred; old methods may not be. Truth cannot be changed; methods must always be changing. Aggressive inventiveness is the greatest factor in success from the human side (15).
The church for the times must meet the needs of the time. It must be of the Columbus spirit, and, with consecrated determination, discover the new world. It will find the discord in the music of modern life, and bring it back to key-note and harmony. It will brave any storm, and sail any sea to reach the great continent of man’s needs, and to satisfy the longings in his heart (19-20).
Myers appears to have had a strong desire to see people come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. He protested loudly against denominational liberalism in the Northeast, and he was a staunch opponent of biblical higher criticism. But in the midst of standing against doctrinal heresy and worldliness, and correctly identifying some of the dangers of the industrial revolution, he neglected to see the more subtle forms of worldliness associated with the early 1900s, such as the gradual increase of a consumerist mindset.
Likewise today, many evangelical voices speak loudly on issues of real importance to a Christian understanding of the world. Meanwhile, we can fail to recognize when common cultural structures and practices have a damaging impact on the faith. We quickly decry national sins and seek political change, while utilizing the tools of a consumer driven culture to attract new attendees.
As the church, we must be careful to consider how we allow ourselves to be guided by today’s cultural ethos. There is less moral and spiritual neutral-ground in our culture than most people suppose there is.
As I read Myers, I couldn’t help but think of C. S. Lewis’s comments on why we should read old books:
Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. . . . We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century—the blindness about which posterity will ask, “But how could they have thought that?”—lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H. G. Wells and Karl Barth. None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books.
We often don’t see the full effect our thinking today has on the church tomorrow. Therefore, we need to fight for a historical perspective that will confront and correct our shortsighted tendencies. Without a proper understanding of our modern context in relation to the past we become, as David Wells says, “like the proverbial frog in the pot beneath which a fire has been kindled. Because the water temperature rises slowly, the frog remains unaware of the danger until it is too late. In the same way, the Church often seems to be blithely unaware of the peril that now surrounds it.”
May the Lord give us humility and wisdom to recognize our own areas of blindness.
NEW PROBLEMS OR OLD SOLUTIONS?
While various methods should change depending on the culture and context in which we minister, it is shortsighted and theologically misguided to believe that these are the primary impediments to men’s acceptance of the gospel or attendance in the church.
Instead, churches must continue to focus on the centrality of the gospel and a historically accurate perspective of the church’s role and function that does not shift from one perceived problem to another, but that instead recognizes God’s faithfulness to build his church, regardless of what we perceive as the gender breakdown of our congregations today.
1. For a more extensive history of Tremont Temple, read Fundamentalists in the City by Margaret Lamberts Bendroth (Oxford University Press, 2005). She says the following about Myers’ church: “literally housed in a theater and led by clergymen with both professional and amateur acting credentials, Tremont Temple emerged in the mid-nineteenth century as a focal point of revivalist Protestantism in Boston…at the turn of the century, Tremont Temple was approaching its heyday, its auditorium regularly filled with people eager for a good show and some spiritual inspiration along the way” (107). Then came the Myers era: “Tremont Temple was also not averse to forms of popular entertainment usually considered anathema to doctrinaire fundamentalists. Beginning in Myer’s pastorate, Tremont Temple began to meet expenses by showing feature films…Proceeds from movie nights eventually liquidated half a million dollars’ worth of church debt and financed a new organ” (117-118).
2. Surely, it doesn’t appear that Myers was doing the kind of statistical analysis that characterizes the social sciences today.
3. Bendroth, Fundamentalists in the City, 115. Bendroth’s book provides numbers on gender breakdowns based on research she did of the church’s membership records. Interestingly, it appears that the gender gap at Tremont Temple steadily increased over the course of his ministry.
4. Quote taken from http://blog.togetherforthegospel.org/duncan.html
5. David Wells, No Place for Truth (Eerdmans, 1993), 91.