Go for the men and the women will follow...

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(This piece was written several years ago and published in a much-truncated form in CTi's profession journal, Leadership. Here's the larger piece with its politically incorrect portions intact. It addresses the critical problem of the tendency of pastors to abandon the men of their congregation, instead being content to accomplish everything through compliant women. -Tim Bayly)

One of the year's high holidays in towns across America is opening day of deer season. Like all holidays, preparations begin long before the actual day arrives. In September hunting paraphernalia appears on the shelves of the local True Value: rifles, shells, scent, and jumpsuits and caps in brilliant hunter's orange. The big day is usually a Saturday in November.

A young farmer warned me my first year in ministry: "Might not be too many men here next week, but don't take it personal. We'll all be out looking for our buck." Sure enough, there weren't many men in church that next week.

The women of the church kept the doors open that Sunday--along with the few men who never took to the sport or were too old to climb fences or beat bushes. Deer hunting is a male ritual; despite the occasional female hunter, it's largely the men who are gone.

The absence of men during deer season may be troubling, but it's usually just one Sunday out of the year. Far worse is the chronic absence of men from many of our churches. The United Methodist General Board of Discipleship reports that in the 1950's the membership of the Methodist Church was 53 percent female but 47 percent male. Today...

men have fallen to 40 percent of the total in the United Methodist Church. George Barna, the counter of all things churchly, notes in the 1996 Index of Leading Spiritual Indicators that, "Women are twice as likely to attend a church service during any given week. Women are also 50 percent more likely than men to say that they are 'religious' and 'absolutely committed' to the Christian faith." Kenneth Woodward quotes Protestant pastors as saying, "Women usually outnumber the men three to one."

Deer season is a hump we get over but a year-long lack of men in Sunday worship is a serious problem in many churches today. Scripture and the social sciences teach us that the absence of a father is debilitating to the human family. So also the Family of God needs fathers, sons, grandfathers, and brothers to be healthy.

We might be tempted to consider male absence a problem beyond the capacity of pastoral strategies to remedy. After all, we may think, it's produced by a tidal wave of cultural forces far beyond our ability to control. Yet pastors can take specific steps to stem the tide; specific strategies will help us keep men in our fellowships.

What are these strategies? While not exhaustive, here's a list of four that have worked in my own experience.

A. The first initiative is personal; male pastors must make their personal identity appealing to men by emphasizing their own masculinity.

Pastors often seem "sissified" to the average guy; we tend to be more verbally oriented than the average man, we work at a desk with books and paper, we have soft hands.... Our image problem isn't new. Back in the early nineteenth century Sidney Smith observed:

The French say there are three sexes--men, women, and clergymen.

Soon after arriving at my first church in rural Wisconsin I had brake problems with my car-problems I discussed with a young man in the congregation. A short time later word came back to me through his wife that he'd been impressed to learn I knew something about cars. He'd thought all pastors were incompetent when it came to anything mechanical-and was shocked to find I wasn't.

It seems strange that such an insignificant thing should provide an open door for ministry but it did. Normal men have to worry about nuts and bolts things like worn out brake shoes and they are reassured when they hear their pastor does too.

There are many ways for pastors to encourage their people to think of them as real men. Some pastors share hobbies such as fishing, softball, or home improvements with men in their congregation. Others have a commanding physical presence or a firm handshake that leaves little doubt about their gender. Whatever part of a pastor's life can be used to reassure the men of the congregation that their pastor is a man-just like they are-is something worth cultivating and occasionally drawing attention to.

An acquaintance of mine who ministers in a Dutch community is an avid hunter and has a well-trained hunting dog. One Sunday during morning worship he had the dog go through his paces right there in front of the whole congregation as part of his children's sermon. You can be sure the picture of that man with his dog didn't quickly leave the minds of the men and boys who were there.

2. Some programs should be specifically aimed to appeal to men.

Advertising agencies aim their campaigns at specific population groups; certain beer ads are made to appeal to blue collar workers, others to Genies. This is why few suburban managerial types drink Colt 45 while not many migrant workers sit down at the bar and tell the bartender, "Gimme an Anchor Steam."

The same principle holds true for the church; if we want to attract men to the church so they can be led into spiritual growth, we need to make certain situations or programs in the church appealing to them. To do this, some of the following tactics might be helpful.

a. Men like to be away from women at times. It's good to have certain places where the pressures of relating to the opposite sex in a social context are absent. Hunting season provides a time when men can be with other men and boys can be with their fathers. And while the men are out hunting, I might add, their wives spend time with other women.

There are good reasons to provide male-only times within the life of the church. Men have deep spiritual needs but rarely share them openly when there are women around. When I was in high school we had an intensive small group emphasis in our youth group. We met in mixed groups where we discussed spiritual matters and shared needs quite openly-but I don't ever remember sexual temptation and failure being discussed on a personal level in any of those groups. That only occurred when the guys were alone and totally open. There are challenges, fears, and temptations common to men which aren't common to women, and if we as pastors want our men to grow in these areas, we need to give them an unthreatening context in which to share and "bear one another's burdens."

b. Men like to eat. Mothers used to teach their soon-to-be-married daughters a little rule: "The road to a man's heart goes through his stomach." The church successfully ministering to men understands this principle. Men and boys develop pretty radical commitments to people or places that make their stomachs happy.

In the Parable of the Shrewd Manager Jesus taught His disciples that they should outdo the world in "us(ing) worldly wealth to gain friends for (them) selves." Jesus said: "...the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light." (Luke l6) This same principle applies today; if the world can use food for temporal purposes the Church can use it for eternal purposes.

Some years ago I got involved in leading a Bible study for high schoolers. We had a good turnout for a while but then we lost a few of our boys-and in this group boys were a precious commodity. I began to ask around trying to find out why they weren't coming anymore. I learned that another church in the area had begun a weekly youth fellowship program that our boys were attending.

"But why there instead of here?" I asked.

"Because they serve the kids pizza each week," I was told.

c. Men like to get physical. Studies have shown that mothers and fathers play with their children in different ways; mothers tend toward fantasy play but fathers roughhouse on the living room floor. What does this mean for our churches? We'd do well to provide an outlet for our men and boys to get physical and spiritual at the same time.

When I was in high school I had two different youth pastors. One of them was masculine, through and through. He presented us guys with a model of what a Christian husband and father should be, and he also gave us a model of Christian manhood. Consequently, the number and quality of boys involved in the youth group was exceptional.

He never hesitated to be physical; wrestling, water-skiing, running, and throwing people into the water were standard fare for any of our activities, and he was frequently an instigator. At times eyeglasses were broken and feelings were hurt, but the message got through: the family of God is open to men being men and boys being boys.

This same youth leader arranged summer mission trips to some of the poorer counties of Kentucky for thirty to forty high schoolers every year. During the day we worked-hard. In the evening we led revival services. Each service featured a sermon preached by one of the guys in the group.

Then my senior year we lost our youth leader and another man came in. He never made it, and the commitment of the kids fell apart. Why?

There were a variety of reasons, not least of which was the normal crisis that ensues any time a dynamic and popular pastoral leader moves on. But it's also true that the next youth pastor was unable to present a model of masculine strength in his leadership, either physically or morally. I'm convinced this lack was central to the decline which came during his ministry.

I've often heard farmers lament the passing of the days when the rural agricultural community worked together haying, threshing, raising a barn, clearing tree stumps, or picking stones. They remember the wonderful sense of community built by working together and they fear such neighborliness is gone for good. By providing a time for physical work within our churches we allow the community-at-large to identify the church as the center of that community-and we give the men of the church a chance to minister in a uniquely masculine way.

d. Men want to be challenged. Don't sell them short or coddle them. I once had the privilege of spending an evening with a veteran pastor who had pastored five churches in his forty years of ministry, a man respected in his denomination who routinely took dying churches and turned them around.

We were discussing visitation and I was surprised to hear him describe his current visitation program: He was visiting six to ten homes a week-visits set up in advance for times when he could be sure the fathers would be there, as well as the mothers. During these visits he would ask such questions as: How often do you attend worship? How often do you lead your family in devotions? Do you yourself have a time of Bible reading and prayer each day?

Why was I surprised?

Because just the thought of doing something similar in our churches caused my face to blush as I thought of the embarrassed responses I'd get from many of our members. "In fact," I told him, "if I pulled a stunt like that in my church I might not last much longer as their pastor."

"You know," he responded, "one thing I've learned over the years is that people do what you expect them to do."

What do we expect from our men? Do we expect them to be faithful to their wives? Do we expect them to discipline their children and to command the respect of their teenage sons and daughters? Do we expect them to lead their family in devotions each morning or evening around the table? Do we expect them to be self-disciplined in their own devotional life? In short, do we look to the men of our churches to lead-in their marriages, in their homes and in God's Household? What unique role or function have we given our men which shows them how needed they are at home and in the church?

Jesus called twelve men to follow Him and be His disciples but He didn't just hang out with them; He told them right from the start what His expectations were: "Follow me and I will make you fishers of men." (Matthew 4:l9) And after a time of training He sent them out, two by two, expecting them to do what He'd taught them.

Jesus didn't say to His disciples, "Meet me here every week at 11:00 sharp and I'll teach you for an hour." No, He spent a significant amount of time-three solid years-living, loving, working, crying, eating, drinking, and walking with the Twelve and this constituted His leadership and teaching style. When He ascended into heaven He left them an eternally important worldwide responsibility: "Go ye into all the world to preach the Gospel...." (Mark l6:l5). He challenged them at every step while He was with them and then He expected them to be leaders. This was their role.

There is a tendency in the Church today--closely related to a tendency in our culture at large--to expect too little of people. This is especially evident in much of the Church's work with children and men.

Think of the memory work routinely required of children in Sunday School or catechism classes just a generation ago and then look at the pitiful amount of memory work expected of our children today. Certainly this isn't because our children are no longer capable of such concentration. Rather, it's because those of us who are the children's teachers and parents aren't willing to give the time and energy at Sunday School (or at home) to help carry out such difficult tasks.

The same is true with men's leadership in the Church. Ruling elders aren't involved in discipline partly because pastors don't want to take the time to teach them how to do it, but even more because pastors don't want to place their jobs in jeopardy. It's easier for the pastor to do it alone, or more likely, to avoid doing it at all. When we push our elders or deacons to initiate discipline with a straying sheep, we know it's risky. Richard Baxter, the seventeenth century puritan divine J. I. Packer calls "the most outstanding pastor, evangelist and writer... Puritanism produced," in his classic on pastoral ministry, The Reformed Pastor, put it this way:

It is a sad case that good men should settle themselves so long in the constant neglect of so great a duty (church discipline). The common cry is, "Our people are not ready for it, they won't bear it." But, isn't it rather the fact that you will not bear the trouble and hatred which it will occasion?

What a loss for our homes and churches, though, if we fail to challenge Christian men to lead spiritually-including the leadership of discipline. Today there is a crying need for loving and wise men in positions of leadership demonstrating to millions of little boys and young men (who have grown up with abdicating or absentee fathers) that the Household of Faith still has fathers who govern that household with tenderness and courage, keeping watch over the souls God has placed under their charge as men who must give an account. Building challenges into the church starts with the challenge pastors present to their officers to be faithful in their leadership, especially with discipline.

Many other examples of building challenges into our congregations come to mind, though.

Think of Evangelism Explosion, the Bethel Series, or the Navigators 2:7 Discipleship Training. All these programs are immensely successful, not only in numbers but also in bringing men (and women) to spiritual maturity. What do they have in common?

Standards which every student is obligated to meet. Each person who enrolls is expected to work the program and it is indeed work; reading, memorizing, praying, and being disciplined in one's attendance.

3. Resist efforts to emasculate the Bible, the great traditional hymns of the faith, or the content of our sermons and teaching.

The ideological climate of our day is one that renders certain of the challenges we face unique, without historical precedent. One Sunday I was preaching on a Scripture passage which emphasized spiritual warfare. The sermon ended with a call for all of us to fight for the Lord, to be faithful warriors, to strive for the Kingdom without fear and to boldly oppose the forces of darkness. The closing hymn was "Onward Christian Soldiers."

Later that week a leader in the church told me that as soon as the hymn was announced one of the older women had exclaimed to those sitting in her general vicinity, "I hate this song!"

This wasn't a total surprise to me; earlier that week when I was getting the order of worship together I'd hesitated choosing this particular hymn knowing there were probably some who thought it was sub-Christian. "But," I thought to myself, "Is this kind of language and imagery biblical, or isn't it? That's the question. And if it is biblical, how can I justify being ashamed and keeping it out of our worship?"

Open any hymnal and we find a wealth of hymns in which battle themes are central; "Battle Hymn of the Republic," "Am I a Soldier of the Cross?" "Who Is on the Lord's Side?" "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God," and "Fight the Good Fight." Today, however, such hymns often seem hopelessly militant and masculine. "We are to love, not fight. We are to bring peace, not battle. Let's get rid of such inconsistencies," is the opinion of many.

Yet the are numerous reasons why pastors shouldn't abandon these hymns and other aspects of military imagery in the life of the church.

Military imagery is appropriate, first and foremost, because it's biblical imagery. Count the number of times the Bible uses such terminology to speak of the pursuit of godliness; it's an endless theme.

Not only is this theme a divine one but bold statements concerning the war which is waged for the souls of every man and woman appeal to the male understanding of spiritual reality, just as the male relates positively to other forms of competition and conflict. It's not accidental that many of the ads aimed at men appear in the sports section of the newspaper. So the loss of such themes from the church would be another setback for men because it would remove another point of reference which is distinctively masculine.

The constant pressure our generation faces calling for the removal of the language of battle from the House of God is nothing less than the emasculation of our liturgy. We must resist it. God's revelation is trustworthy, not just in principles but also in imagery and metaphors.

4. Make the men of the congregation a top priority in the work of discipleship.

Years ago as a young pastor I received a piece of advice from an older pastoral leader for whom I had the utmost respect-my father. His advice: "Go for the men and the women will follow."

Through the years I've often thought how wise Dad's advice was. Changing his advice so it's more palatable to our 1990's sensitivities we might say, "Pastors, lead the men of your congregations to spiritual growth and their wives, mothers, and daughters will be grateful to you for the changes that come to their homes as a result."

So often pastoral leaders focus their time and attention on women. At the Roman Catholic Synod on the Laity held in Rome in the 1980's, the New York Times reported an American priest giving the following warning:

Because it is so much easier to win fruitful response from women, a priest can allow his ministry to become comfortably centered on an exclusive circle of women. It is tragic whenever this happens.

This tendency is equally evident in Protestant churches. It's easy for us to give our attention to the places where we can most easily see results and to neglect those places where it appears that long-term efforts will be required. Pastors see women who are faithful workers and, quite naturally, we tend to focus our attention on these servants of the Lord. Yet often the husbands of these same women have little or no involvement in the church, and with some of these men one wonders how long it's been since a pastor paid them any attention.

If we want our churches to restore men to active roles in congregational life we must make them a top priority in our pastoral care. In most cases we needn't worry that such an emphasis in our ministry will cause the women to fall away. Think of how many women attend church without their husbands, but how very few men attend church without their wives. This is a lopsided problem, making the side which needs attention quite clear.

Count the cost.

We've looked at some tactics and strategies to bring the men back to church, but before implementing changes we must recognize that certain costs are involved. The United States is polarized over a number of issues such as abortion, day care, parental leave, and sodomy. Each of these issues centers on what can be broadly referred to as our understanding of sexuality. Sexuality is a volatile issue and initiatives to bring men back to church can quickly bring out conflicting views that are held with great fervor. It's wise to be prepared for a backlash, and to count the cost before proceeding.

This brings us back to Jesus, though. Was our Lord afraid of conflict? Did he ever consider an issue too volatile to address? Did He only lead in directions which would be well received? Hardly.

To appeal to men and to challenge them to follow your leadership, just as Jesus challenged His disciples, will require boldness and courage. We'll need to anticipate adversity and it won't come only from those who feel too much time is being given to the men of the church; it will also come from the men in whom we are investing ourselves as we see them fail-at times horrendously. But Jesus' disciples also failed in some horrendous ways.

Major changes--wherever they occur--are fraught with danger; the danger of being resisted by those who like things as they are, and the danger of bringing disastrous results, at least as far as they can be judged by earthly standards of success. But our primary question when considering change shouldn't be, "Will leading in this direction cause an attack on me or a fight in the church?" Rather we should ask ourselves the question, "If I lead in this direction will I be honoring the Lord, and will the Family of God be stronger, spiritually, as a result of men being restored to our church family?"

My first year in the pastorate was the year I learned to play golf (I play about twice a year). I was taught by a man who had the patience of Job. He was an excellent teacher and for every one of my mistakes he had a pithy saying. The most memorable was the one he used when I was putting the ball too lightly: "Faint heart ne'er won a lady fair." I've grown attached to that saying as it applies to the pastorate. It's become increasingly clear to me that faintheartedness can have a devastating effect on pastoral leadership.

The absence of men from our congregations is a serious problem that needs to be addressed vigorously by the pastors of our nation.

Some years ago we were facing a major problem in my rural church. At a meeting of leaders within the congregation there was a discussion of the need for positive role-models for many of the children in our Sunday School who came from bad home situations. If the church was going to continue to reach out to some of these families, we needed to provide some quality time for these children to be around solid Christian men who would be loving, sensitive, and firm. The women present in the meeting suggested that one solution to our need could be for all the women who had been teaching Sunday School for so many years to go on strike.

What started as a half-joke quickly became a serious discussion. Eventually the suggestion made in jest was implemented. The following year all our Sunday School teachers, with one exception, were men. There were a couple of teachers who initially had negative reactions but after they had the whole venture explained they were glad to go along with it. And what did we gain?

For starters, ten men who began studying their Bibles every week in preparation for their classes. Then too, ten classes of students who were granted a weekly model of Christian masculinity. Ten classes of students who saw that Jesus, the Bible, and the House of God weren't just for sissies and girls. After all, Chuck Dykstra--the pre-school teacher--was one of the best trap shooters in the county and the guy you would call if you wanted to know where the fish were biting or what bait to use. Lee Barden owned the dairy farm right down the road from the church. Joel Staveness was a barrel-chested steamfitter and strict union man. Yet every one of them was leading a life which gave clear testimony to his love for Jesus Christ. It was worth the short-lived controversy.