Men, superheroes and church

  • Captain AmericaFor decades churches have had difficulty engaging young men. Not only are guys under 30 underrepresented in worship services, they’re also largely absent from men’s events. The usual men’s ministry lineup of Bible studies, pancake breakfasts and annual retreats seem to hold little appeal.

    So what does appeal to young men? Superheroes. Comic books, films and video games – young men can’t get enough superheroes.

    Since the year 2000, more than 100 superhero films have been released in the United States. Young men under 30 are the key audience that drives ticket sales for these flicks. “The Avengers” is this summer’s biggest blockbuster, the third highest grossing film of all time behind only “Titanic” and “Avatar.”

    After a very successful run in the 1940s and 50s, superhero films disappeared in the 1960s and 70s. The only celluloid superhero of the period was Batman, whose TV show was more of a spoof than a celebration of superheroism. It wasn’t until 1978 that Christopher Reeve revived the genre with the hit film, Superman.

    But why have superheroes made such an amazing comeback in our day? Stan Guthrie offers the following suggestions:

    • Technology (computers, social media, enhanced graphics software) has made comics easier to produce and share.
    • The phenomenon of extended adolescence has extended the attractiveness of comics as a pastime among many American adults.
    • In an increasingly complex, morally confusing world, people are drawn to media that still promote the idea of good vs. evil—a common theme in comics.
    • People want an escape from the grim and sometimes depressing news and events of the day.
    • With the dumbing down of the population due to an increasingly ineffective public education system, people today have less ability and desire to read and to think deeply, making the relatively simple themes and plots of comic books that much more attractive.
    • Despite (and perhaps because of) widespread cynicism in the culture, we still yearn for heroes.

    Every one of Guthrie’s observations is true. But there’s a deeper reason men of this generation are so strongly drawn to superheroes. Every man longs to be a hero himself – but today’s society offers men very few opportunities for heroic behavior.

    In prehistoric times, every man was a warrior—literally. Men hunted dangerous beasts for survival. Rival bands frequently raided each other’s camps. Every man was expected to pick up his weapon and repel the invaders. In the age of agriculture, farmers grabbed their implements and went to war to defend their homelands. The Old Testament is full of stories of kings mustering common men to fight the Caananites, the Ammonites, the Amalekites, and various other ites that threatened the nation of Israel.

    But in the past 150 years the role of protector has gradually been taken away from common men and given to professionals. The wealth created by industrialization funded the rise of professional, full-time armies and navies. Municipalities established the first public, salaried police forces and fire departments in the mid-1800s.

    As a result, modern men rarely have to defend themselves. The average American male will go his entire life without using a weapon to physically protect his family or property. In some nations it’s illegal to own a gun for self-protection. Battle is becoming rare even among professional soldiers. Fewer than half the U.S. veterans alive today saw combat during their military careers.

    Since most men no longer have the opportunity to be heroic, they turn to movies and video games for catharsis. Men spend billions to see on-screen heroes perform the ancient script that’s written on their hearts. And ever since Super Mario rescued Princess Peach, video games have given men the rare opportunity to reprise their role of rescuer.

    Furthermore, men just aren’t as necessary to society as they once were. Muscle power is out – brainpower is in. Male unemployment is at its highest levels since the Great Depression. Four-fifths of the job losses during the Great Recession fell upon men. With the expansion of the social safety net, modern women can rely on the government instead of a man to provide and protect them. As divorce laws have loosened, women have become much less dependent on men, initiating 70% of all split-ups. Children of divorce often absorb the message that men are troublesome, dangerous and an impediment to happiness. Young men who grow up fatherless learn to despise the masculinity within themselves.

    You would think church would be the perfect venue for men to engage in heroic acts. But unfortunately church is one of the places men feel particularly unneeded. It’s an institution dominated by women and their values. The majority of ministry opportunities involve childcare, study, cooking and music.

    Two kinds of men get the stage time in church – preachers and musicians. Men who lack these skills may think they have little to offer the typical congregation.

    And finally, our core message has shifted in the past fifty years. In the church I grew up in, the Gospel was a life-and-death proposition. Satan was a real adversary – more murderous and deranged than the Joker. Jesus was a hero who came to vanquish this enemy and save the world from hell.

    But today’s gospel is no longer described as a heroic mission to save the world – it’s a personal relationship with a man who loves you. Men feel like they’ve wandered into a showing of “Sleepless in Seattle.”

    Today’s gospel is no longer a story of good vs. evil; it’s a formula for getting your life together and having healthy relationships. No wonder the church has become utterly boring to men.

    So what’s the answer?

    Recapture the life-and-death importance of the gospel. I know it’s not fashionable to preach on hell any more. But there must come a time when men receive the mission briefing. Our world is literally going to hell, and if heroes do not step forward evil will triumph.

    Make sure men know they are needed. As Lady Galadriel reminded Frodo in The Lord of the Rings, “This task was appointed to you, and if you do not find a way, no one will.” Men need to know that without their participation all is lost.

    Give men a chance to be heroic, and to be recognized for it. Dream big. Create dangerous ministry opportunities for men, and then praise them for taking risks.

    Tell the stories of martyrs. At least once a month every church should tell the story of a contemporary martyr who died in service to Jesus Christ. Their stories are recounted in books such as Extreme Devotion and Jesus Freaks. Almost 100,000 Christians will lose their lives this year in defense of the Gospel. Their stories deserve to be told – and these would serve as a powerful reminder to men of what the Gospel is really about.

    Use the superhero motif when marketing men’s ministry. Most men’s ministry stuff is built on a first century motif – swords and shields. Not exactly the kinds of images that excite today’s guys. Why not build your next men’s event around a superhero theme? I bet you’ll get more young men to participate.

    Clark Kent, Peter Parker and Bruce Wayne represent the men we are. Mild-mannered. Dutiful. Safe. But Superman, Spiderman and Batman represent the hidden hero that exists within each of us.

    As disciples of Jesus, we serve a righteous cause. The gospel is the story of a super-heroic man whose mission is to save the world—a man who is currently recruiting agents to assist him. He is calling you to risk everything to come under his command. And when the mission is over, a precious reward awaits. That’s the message men crave. It’s a message that’s being lost in today’s therapeutic church.



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    August 14th, 2012 | David Murrow | 29 Comments |

About The Author

David Murrow

David Murrow is the director of Church for Men, an organization that helps congregations reach more men and boys. In his day job, David works as a television producer and writer. He's the author of four books. He lives in Alaska with his wife, three children, three grandchildren and a dachshund named Pepper.

  • Douglas R Burrell

    Dave, this is one of your better pieces! Great job, I especially like the chapter where you explain that muscle power is out. If you have a chance check out my piece

  • Matt Edmundson

    Phew, at least I am ahead on this one! We are doing a men’s weekend called the hero revolution!

  • Chrisrredy

                    You speak of the frustrations I feel as a Christain man. I have been a christian for 30 years and I see the very things you write about. Where are all the leaders of men in the churches today? I feel much of church leadership has lost their masculity. Even worship songs are very fiminine, no more “Onward Christain Solders” What has happened to the Church? Many of the worship leaders seem more like women then men.

  • ansonheath

    Yesssssss! It takes more than just male decor and occasional masculine music. The pulpit needs to be fully engaged in a Christian masculine message and activities to match. Jesus was not a wimp!
    As an aside, has anyone noticed the gender and age of most muslim jihadists? Satan has a clever counterfit which appeals to the male personna and what do we do in our churches? (and schools, I might add) We try to make boys into girls! Who says that isn’t another of Satan’t clever counterfits, right in the church?
    Strong words maybe? Keep in mind, he appears as an angel of light, doesn’t he?
    I have 4 grandsons and one granddaughter, all home schooled – I call them all my Christians warriors!

  • Brian W

    Wonderful stuff!  WE must train and mentor the younger men to ‘Do Hard Things*’ and too avoid the ‘extended adolescence’ that is occuring today with young and 20-30s men.  Whether it is superheros or being a sports fanatic, (we all have our favorite sports jersey don’t we? ) we all yearn to be the provider and protector that God has made us to be.  Just don’t trivilize your daily committment …. you may wake up and come home in the dark to and from work, you discipline and train your children inspit of being weary and heavy laden, you attempt to pray and lead your family, etc.,.  You are a hero.  Keep serving.  Keep doing.  Keep leading.  Matthew 11:28-

    Note: * Go see the book by the Harris brothers. 

  • Jeremy Davis

    I really liked what I read in this one until you suggested having a superhero-themed men’s event. Really?  You’ll get a pretty narrow audience demographic if you do that.  Where most guys will go see a superhero movie, most guys will NOT go to a superhero-themed event, unless it is a private party on Halloween with their friends.  You might get the nerdy Cosplay crowd – you know, Trekkies and Anime lovers who are looked at as wannabes (with good reason) by the average Joe.  Worse than having a narrow crowd, you would make your church and your ministry look like you were trying too hard and lump yourselves in with the wannabes the event attracts. You certainly won’t get the typical American man.

  • Jeremy Davis

    I really liked what I read in this one until you suggested having a superhero-themed men’s event. Really?  You’ll get a pretty narrow audience demographic if you do that.  Where most guys will go see a superhero movie, most guys will NOT go to a superhero-themed event, unless it is a private party on Halloween with their friends.  You might get the nerdy Cosplay crowd – you know, Trekkies and Anime lovers who are looked at as wannabes (with good reason) by the average Joe.  Worse than having a narrow crowd, you would make your church and your ministry look like you were trying too hard and lump yourselves in with the wannabes the event attracts. You certainly won’t get the typical American man.

  • David Murrow

    Has anyone tried this?

  • David Murrow

    Has anyone tried this?

  • Danny

    David you have done it again. I was only thinking this the other day. Young men want to make their mark on the planet but are held back by churchly kings who will not go to war. Brilliant – I want to use this as per normal.

  • Mark Munsey

    Thanks David – great piece and spot on. Something that’s become apparent to me as well in men’s ministry is that we’re too often playing it safe, like we’re playing not to lose rather than to win. This is what that looks like. Some activity that appeals to men rankles some women in the church, so, instead of defending the men’s appropriate draw to this thing and expecting the women to grow and acknowledge the need for genuine masculinity in the church, the men are not allowed to “officially” join in the activity, and that under the guise of “not causing the weaker brother (in this case, sister) to stumble.” The messages to men: 1) Masculinity in the church is…well, it’s not really welcome. It’s so messy. 2) Please don’t make trouble – try to just fit in because we just can’t tolerate that much deviation from the status quo. 3) We’re not willing to risk that much for you. It’s so very predictable that a man will not risk if his doing so is unilateral. During WWII morale dropped among Navy pilots  because a decision was made that they wouldn’t be rescued if they had to ditch in the ocean – it wasn’t seen as cost effective. So the pilots started playing it closer to the vest wanting to assure their safe return since the Navy wasn’t going to go out of its way for them. I believe this is at work in today’s church as well.

  • Mark Munsey

    Not exactly that, but showing “guy flicks”. However, often times these are war movies rated R due to war violence and language. There are some truly great true stories in these movies that show men living like William Wallace: “I’ve come back to raise crops and, Lord willing, a family. If I can live in peace, I will.” Well, the times dictated they couldn’t live in peace but had to fight. Because of an R rating I’m unable to show them any longer. But until that stricture was imposed, the turnout was enthusiastic.

  • Steve Hample

    I haven’t tried these things with our men’s group however I did a series with teens that I took around (I speak at different churches across the country) and it was a HIT !  Interestingly enough I did a survey the first night asking who were your favorite superheroes and why…AND if you could have any superpower what would it be.  Who are your real life heroes and why. The results from that survey was amazing. The secrets shared…the hurts, etc. (I am sure men’s responses would be even more so) Then I was able to spring the lessons off of those answers meeting the groups/individual needs.  The series was called Heroes to Save Us and the wrap up message was being real heroes ourselves to our friends, family and church (would just as easy be towards wives, who also need us men to step up and show our powers)  The subtext and closing was that Jesus died for us so we could live for him.  HE ROSE to SAVE US.  I am currently working on a VBS program along the same lines…so the challenge now is developing it for the men’s group.  Thanks for the inspiration to do that as well.  There are quite a few books that are geared this way, one being The Gospel According to Superman.  

  • Jeremy Davis

    I could see a “hero” theme working – where it is about being a hero in real life.  I could also see movie nights were you showed a superhero film working well.  It would all depend on how you marketed it and how the content was presented. But a truly superheo-themed event (that was not on Halloween) would not be attractive to your average Joe and especially not those who identify more with a jock perspective.

    That being said, a superhero-themed event would resonate with church men since they tend to see “unmasculine” themes as appropriate and unproblematic for men to participate in. (citation – Rev. Dr. Woody Davis “Toward a Truly Inclusive Language; 199)

  • Danny

    The funny thing is, we dont have problems with the ladies at all in our state wide ministry to men. its churchy guys that give us all the grief – does anyone else get this or are we the only one?

  • Mark Munsey

    Danny – if I hear what you’re saying right, I should have said, “…rankles churchy guys in the church…” Did I get that right? I could believe this – no trouble at all. This is probably a both/and rather than either/or.

  • joel

    I think a big part of the problem is that very few men in our culture join the military anymore. It’s one of the few institutions in our society that can build discipline and purpose in a young man. Superhero and/or war movies and video games are a poor substitute for the real-life military experiences that forged manhood into our fathers and grandfathers. Can a vision for real-life Christian warriors, those who fight against evil and for country, become a reality again in a feminized and relational church culture?

  • Mark Munsey

    If you haven’t read Eldredge’s “Fathered by God” you ought to. He outlines developmental stages in a boy’s path toward manhood. Lacking an understanding of this leaves us with a lacking vision for manhood. The extended adolescence is a symptom of this occurring in our culture, even the church. We’re not giving our sons (I generalize) an adequate vision of their roles as men. Interestingly, this is not a problem in tribal cultures (read Gordon Dalbey on this).

  • bryan

    I’m dealing with this myself right now. My daughter was just now playing “Jesus Loves Me” on her keyboard, and I’m so glad that Jesus loves me. BUT, I’m really feeling pretty bored with life. My job pays well, but it’s really not very rewarding – and has little challenge to it (especially after doing the same thing for 20 years). And church – my Pastor’s favorite term is “beautiful”. Sure, God’s love is beautiful – but where’s the rest of the story? Where’s the “powerful, awesome, victory”? Where’s the battle, the challenge, the fight, the competition (and I don’t get these things at work either unless I’m willing to make my career first place in my life, which I am not). I’m basically pretty bummed with life in general right now.

  • Christian Mens Assoc

    Developing a theme is more about putting the message into a particular framework, in this case a masculine one! It doesn’t have to mean guys dress up as super heroes, wear masks, and bring in comic book memorabilia. But I totally understand your concern. You don’t want it to become a geek-fest. I think it’s a great idea, especially for younger men. In fact, it’s already being done with conference titles like, ‘Mighty Men of Valor’, and ‘The Sons Of Issachar’. In the back, the young men and boys simply enjoy the more comic book version of it all.

  • David Murrow

    That’s exactly what I’m thinking. So what if you named your next men’s event “HEROES” and used comic imagery to promote it?

  • danny

    I cant say its either or either – nope, its 100% churchy guys, we get no opposition from the ladies at all. They actually come upp to us and say, yes, you are right, sometimes I wish I could put a bomb under my husband to man up! I must admit that alot of guys in the christian church in my country are pale faced and very feminate. Australia is a very feminate culture politically speaking anyway – lots of rules and regulations. The church men are very into family in a kind of obsessed way. They have no contact with men outside the church or in the church for that matter. That recent study showed that women place family above faith – did you see that one? It therefore follows that to be overbalanced tipping in favour of family above faith action is a feminate characteristic.

  • letsmanup

    In thinking about the whole Men and Church situation I am convinced that most churches and their leaders simply do not know what to do with the men in their congregations. What churches need is leaders who will learn how to or have a man or men in leadership roles that know how to lead men. My writing this is not to come down on our Pastors and Leaders out of a critical spirit but only to say us men need leaders who will model and train us to be more like Christ. We need only to look at the scriptures to see how Jesus walked, trained, modeled and disciple the men in His life.Jesus did Life with His men, He had a great plan for them so He needed them to know what it meant to be follower of Christ. This was important so they would then teach and train the men in their lives. In a culture that sees loving masculine male leadership as outdated and feminism even male feminism as the new vogue it is no wonder our young men are confused heck I am 53 years old and I feel confused. It is time for leaders in our churches to capture a fresh vision for the men in their congregations before it’s to late…Pray and ask God to send men of integrity to help in leading your men. Follow the example of Jesus…..His plan works..

  • Christian Mens Assoc

    A C3 church did something similar for their guys back in 09.

    Very interesting promo they have here:

    C3 Mens Conference Promo : Influence

  • David Murrow

    Nice promo…thanks for sending the link

  • Brother Eddy

    David,, your book “why men hate goin… has been the greatest driving force in our church. Solid Rock Fellowship out west. We have got th masclin spirit back. And lots of men driving forward. Thank you. God bless. Pastor Eddy Elliott

  • Spencer Homan

    First Pres Fairbury just finished a month long “Superhero” Sermon Series and it was a HUGE success. All month long we used Batman, Superman, Spiderman, and Wonderwoman to teach us about a few of the Superheros found in the Old Testament. In conjunction with the series, we took photos of the kids in “super” poses and photoshoped them to look like real Superheroes. A funny thing happened. We had adults begging to have their picture taken. We had college kids e-mailing us their photos so they could be included too. The sign out in the front of the church got so much attention that I had two other pastors ask about the series. This was a HUGE touch-point for the men in our congregation. It is not something reserved for a small subculture. Like David said… look at Avengers!

  • Katharine Ellis Tapley

    I agree with a lot of what you’re saying, but I have to admit, when I read “With the dumbing down of the population due to an increasingly ineffective public education system, people today have less ability and desire to read and to think deeply, making the relatively simple themes and plots of comic books that much more attractive.”

    I thought “If you think of comic books that way, you haven’t been reading that many for about 15 years. The plots and themes have gotten far more complex.”

    And don’t underplay the first century swords and shields stuff. I think lots of young men are into that, hence the popularity of Game of Thrones: Knights/Superheros/ Cowboys…they’re all classic masculine archetypes, and they can all be used to draw young men.

    Also, when you say “Today’s gospel is no longer a story of good vs. evil; it’s a formula for getting your life together and having healthy relationships. No wonder the church has become utterly boring to men.”

    I do agree with you about making sure the church uses all the messages of the Gospel, but I think you’re sort of selling men short. Hollywood tends to do that. If there aren’t explosions and fights, men will get bored!

    I think the problem is SIMPLIFYING what men need from the church (people in general, but men for the purposes of this article). To stress the nurturing as more important than the heroic, and vice versa, only creates a one-dimensional faith, and Jesus was so far from one-dimensional. He was the protector and comforter: He was Whole!

    This was a very interesting read. I’m realizing I only see comments from men, so I hope mine will be allowed to be posted, or at least that you’ll get to see it.

  • David Murrow

    We welcome comments from both genders. Thank you.