A report from the American Council on Education finds that U.S. colleges have lost millions of men in the past decade. In 1996, the male-female ratio on U.S. campuses was 50-50. By 2004, the ratio was 43-57 male-female. The college gender gap is growing by almost 2% per year. Some student bodies are now 2/3 female. USAToday put it this way: “To a data expert accustomed to the drip-drip of annual changes, that’s the sound of a waterfall.”
I believe churches and universities are having trouble attracting men for the same reason: both are in the business of dispensing precious knowledge in a classroom setting. Today, fewer men are in the market for this type of experience, which they find boring and irrelevant to their lives. Allow me to explain.
Young men are the demographic least enamored of a classroom learning experience. Imagine an 18-year-old named Stan. After 12 years of sitting in classrooms, reading books and listening to lectures from a predominantly female teacher corps, Stan is ready to do something else. The prospect of four more years of reading, study and lecture couldn’t be less appealing. Add to this the fact that skilled tradesmen have never been in higher demand, and you create a perfect situation for men like Stan to opt out of higher education.
Modern Christianity is built on the same educational model as the university. Have you ever stopped to consider how much of church life revolves around reading, study and answering questions? We operate from the position that people need knowledge, and many of our structures are designed to impart that knowledge. Churches offer Bible Studies, Adult Sunday School, electives, seminars, etc. The centerpiece of a Protestant worship service is the sermon, a lecture from an educated person with a seminary degree. Just like universities, Christians have their own bookstores.
In a related finding, the Department of Education’s National Assessment of Adult Literacy reported that over the past decade, women gained literacy skills while men headed in the opposite direction. We may be unwittingly denying men access to Christian discipleship, because today’s Jesus is found through books and study. Thus, the men who really shine in evangelical congregations are those who are good at reading, speaking and praying aloud. But most men lack these skills, and may feel they just can’t cut it in church.
Here are some ideas to battle the flight of men:
Short lessons that are built around objects. The Bible says that Jesus never taught the crowds without using parables. Why? Men remember them! I’ve timed the parables of Jesus as recorded in the gospels. The average length of a parable is just 38 seconds. The longest parable can be spoken in less than two-and-a-half minutes. So keep lessons brief and build them around common, everyday objects if you want men to retain them.
Think experiences instead of just study. The default men’s group today is a book-on-the-lap study. We sit in a circle and read, talk and share. No wonder young men are bored! Why not copy Jesus, and take to the streets? Why not use cultural elements as a backdrop for teaching? For example, if you want to teach men about the futility of materialism, take your men to a junkyard. As you examine the wrecked cars, describe the pride and excitement the original owner experienced when he “drove this baby off the lot.” You’ll burn a lesson into men’s hearts they’ll never forget.
Let men ask questions. Don’t just give men the answers. Ask them great questions. Men want to discover truth for themselves. They also love salty and frank debate. Don’t restrict discussion to polite Christian themes.
Hit men where they live. Men appreciate a challenging, direct message that prods them to action. Robert Lewis tells the story of a rough-and-tumble construction worker who approached him after a Men’s Fraternity meeting. He stuck out a calloused hand and said, “Man, every time I come in here you just crush my toes. You’re just livin’ in my jock shorts. Everything you talk about is right were I live.” Generally speaking, the more frank and hard-hitting the teaching, the more men like it—as long as it doesn’t stray into condemnation or moralism.
Those of us who teach and lead men would do well to recall the words of St. Francis, “Preach the gospel. If necessary, use words.”