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.