Book Review: Why Men Hate Going to Church, by David Murrow
Why do men hate going to church? Even for this reviewer—who attends a church with no discernable gender gap (48 percent male)—the topic is pressing given the female-preponderant membership of many churches. Why Men Hate Going to Church, by David Murrow, explores the elements of American church life that discourage attendance and engagement of men.
His conclusion? Churches have shifted toward a style that is comfortable for the stereotypical woman—at the expense of the stereotypical man. And by men, Murrow is referring to masculine men: “Tough, earth-working guys . . . high achievers, alpha males, risk takers, and visionaries” as set against “the quiet, introspective gentlemen who populate the church today” (6).
Arguing from data and anecdote, Murrow describes the elements of today’s church that are unattractive to unchurched men, and then prescribes a solution.
AN ENLIGHTENING DIAGNOSIS
Murrow’s description of church elements that are foreign and uncomfortable to men is enlightening and useful. And some of the changes he calls for turn out to be quite biblical—including changes largely derided by more theologically “progressive” denominations such as the Presbyterian Church (USA) in which Murrow serves as an elder.
Murrow points to four categories of church elements that clash with the temperament of most unchurched men.
1. Church makes men feel uncomfortable because it emphasizes feminine values
Murrow states that many elements of modern churches—from music to vocabulary to the dress code—emphasize values that are more easily associated with femininity than masculinity. For example, sentimental songs that celebrate the intimacy of relationship with Jesus Christ bring a more feminine style of worship. As Murrow writes, “Think of the mental gymnastics that must take place inside a man’s subconscious mind as he sings lyrics like these. He’s trying to express his love to Jesus, a man who lives today, using words no man would dare say to another, set to music that sounds like the love songs his wife listens to in the car” (139).
A second example of overemphasis on feminine values in the church is a desire for comfort at the expense of risk. Murrow writes in chapter 4, “Velvet Coffin Christianity is the real cancer in the church today. Its key characteristic is comfort. Everyone is so nice to each other. And we choose a church based on how comfortable it makes us feel . . . Men gag on this kind of religion” (27).
Murrow’s reaction against this overemphasis is one of the high points of the book: “Today’s church is all about safety. What’s our top prayer request? ‘God, keep us safe. Keep our kids safe. Watch over us and protect us.’ God’s job is to keep our well-ordered lives flowing smoothly” (162). Churches that focus on their own comfort will cease to attract men, Murrow warns, and churches without men are prone to turn inward, away from their call to change the world.
2. Church forces men to do things that they find uncomfortable
From asking men to sing in public, to sermons that are longer than the space between television commercials, Murrow showcases elements of church life that are uncomfortable for most unchurched men.
3. Men assume that church will require them to give up masculine traits
Murrow lists a number of men’s misconceptions about what they must give up to become part of a church. They assume church will make them “dorky” and “nerdy”—the equivalent of the evangelical Christian Ned Flanders from the Simpsons cartoon.
4. Church does not present a compelling model of leadership
One assumption that underlies much of Murrow’s thinking on leadership is that “If men are to return to Christ, they need strong, godly laymen to help them in their walk . . . For too long we have asked men to follow our teaching, our methods, and our theology. Men do not follow these things. I’ll say it again: men follow men.” It is difficult to argue with the premise that visionary leaders are the source of much change in this world. As a result, Murrow castigates the church for its inability to inspire men to greatness.
AN UNHELPFUL PRESCRIPTION
Murrow’s descriptive analysis is eye-opening, and should provoke that wonderful masculine trait of wanting to offer a solution. Yet finding a solution requires us to determine which elements of church life are unnecessarily off-putting, and which are a natural result of the church’s mission.
Yet at this point the book under-serves its readers. Murrow’s conclusions never engage with the church’s God-given mission—demonstrating the power of the gospel by acting in a way that is utterly distinct from the world. In fact, the book ignores both the God-given distinctiveness of the church and the power of the gospel that propels it.
To take one example, Murrow refers to two men who became Christians after first serving in churches in order to make this point: “the lesson is clear: if we want to win more men to Christ, ask them to deploy their gifts in the church, even if they are not yet in Christ ” (209). Yet I fear that asking non-Christians to serve as a part of the church’s regular ministry will only confuse the world about the distinction between the church and the world. If the mission of the church is to make worldly men feel comfortable, then this recommendation—and many others in the book—makes sense. But if that mission is to corporately showcase God’s glory to a fallen world, then such prescriptions have no part in God’s church.
Yet not only does Murrow ignore the distinct nature of the church’s mission, he ignores the power of the gospel that is the primary attractant of men (and women) to the church. While the book routinely examines the reasons why a worldly man might choose to attend church, it never examines the role that lives changed by the gospel should have in that attraction—something that should be central to this book. For instance, Murrow observes that large churches have less of a gender gap than do small churches. He asks, “Do men attend because the church is large, or does the church grow large because men attend?” (58) It sounds as if any church will have the ability to change lives if only men will participate. But what about a third option: churches will attract people (both men and women) when the true gospel is preached and believed and lived out.
The sad truth is that many churches call themselves Christian with no practical understanding of the Christian gospel. Some are so theologically “liberal” that they have renounced the reality of sin. Some are so theologically “conservative” that their legalism suppresses the life-changing power of the gospel they profess. Without the gospel, a church is dead.
In conclusion, Murrow’s descriptions are useful and adept. But the book’s usefulness declines dramatically as it turns to prescription. Murrow roots his recommendations in doing away with what rubs worldly men the wrong way—rather than viewing this challenge within the context of the scriptural mission of the church and the biblical principles God has ordained to govern the church.
God calls the church to be in the world but not of the world—not unnecessarily offensive, but separate and distinct. Simply fitting the church to the surrounding world inevitably sacrifices one of God’s greatest evangelistic tools: the fact that the church is a community that operates with a set of values that are foreign to those of the surrounding world.
At times, Murrow pays lip service to the fact that we cannot tune the church to suit every masculine desire, but his determination that Scripture is impractical in this endeavor is tragic (10). Accordingly, he spends few words exploring how to reduce the offense of the church in a way that does not sacrifice its mission.
There is a gender gap in the majority of American churches—suburban and urban, Protestant and Roman Catholic, theologically conservative and liberal. Why Men Hate Going to Church provides an eye-opening look at the elements of church life that push men out the door. Yet because Murrow moves from description to prescription without safeguarding those elements that are essential to the church’s Scriptural mission, the hard work of setting out recommendations in light of this mission remains in the hands of the reader.