I’m reading a fascinating book titled Muscular Christianity: Manhood and Sports in Protestant America, 1880-1920. The book catalogs an earlier movement to restore the masculine spirit in mainline Protestant churches. The movement was large and widespread, and ushered in an unprecedented period of health and prosperity for the churches that participated.
Since the late seventeenth century, American churches had more women than men. By the Victorian era, churches were practically bereft of men. The clergy had become dominated by feminized, bookish men who were described by one observer as, “pallid, puny, sedentary and lifeless.”
In response to the lack of masculinity in pulpits and pews, Christian men of the era founded such male-oriented organizations as the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), the Boy Scouts, the Knights of Columbus, and many others. The first church camp opened in 1880, and soon there were Christian camps all over the country. Disciples of Jesus invented new sports such as basketball, volleyball and bodybuilding.
The purpose of these innovations was to reinvigorate American Christianity through “The Strenuous Life.” President Teddy Roosevelt was a leading force behind muscular Christianity. Evangelists such as D. L. Moody and Billy Sunday crisscrossed the country, combining their passion for sport with a gospel presentation.
Muscular Christianity stood in contrast to the faith of the colonial era. Puritans, Calvinists, Quakers and Anabaptists were a serious lot who focused solely on work, duty and study. They were suspicious of physical body, sport and recreation. Fun and pleasure were out; serious theological study was in.
Believe it or not, the liberal mainline churches were the greatest exponents of muscular Christianity. These churches (Episcopal, Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, United Church of Christ, et. al) built gyms and sponsored sports leagues. They also focused attention on something they called The Social Gospel, and began performing good works outside the walls of the church. The Salvation Army was born of this movement. The “Social Gospellers” rejected the Puritan view that Christians achieved holiness by isolating themselves from the polluting influences of the world.
What did Muscular Christianity achieve? It drew men. In addition to the many men’s organizations it spawned, perhaps its greatest legacy was the spectacular success of the mainline churches after World War II. Postwar mainline congregations brimmed with men. Not coincidentally they grew to historic size, expanding their ministry and influence. Meanwhile, the churches of the colonial era died out. (How many Puritans, Calvinists or Anabaptists have you met lately?)
Now the cycle is repeating itself. The mainline churches are losing their masculine spirit. Presbyterians are the new Puritans. Men are fleeing, denominations are shrinking and congregations are dying. Many blame this decline on their infidelity to scripture, but what allowed this to happen in the first place? The lack of rule-oriented men in pulpits and pews is certainly a contributor to this theological drift. (This is not to say the feminine spirit is synonymous with heresy, but women tend to elevate relationships over rules. Too much of this and your theology begins washing out at the foundational level.)
Today’s version of muscular Christianity is found in the non-denominational churches. Megachurches are particularly successful at attracting and motivating men. Relevant teaching, opportunities for men to be active, and a focus on mission all motivate guys.
I visited such a church last October: Christ’s Church of the Valley in suburban Phoenix, AZ. The church started a quarter-century ago, built on sports leagues. Even today, thousands of athletes compete on CCV’s well-tended grass fields. A visit to their web site reveals the importance they place on guys: men’s ministry is the first thing you’ll see.
Has the focus on men paid off? CCV has grown to over 11,000 in weekly attendance, and owns a beautiful campus in Northwest Phoenix. CCV sends thousands of members on short-term mission trips all over the world. It plants new churches every year. Best of all, it’s got hordes of committed men.
Jesus showed us the way: if you want a healthy, growing church you must attract men. Women and children will follow. If you don’t want your church to go the way of the Puritans, begin taking steps to make your congregation man-friendly.