Conversations About Masculinity – Real ‘church’ is for Men
I am a regular church goer. A few years ago when I started to get serious about my commitment to becoming a Unitarian Universalist minister, I figured that a more frequent appearance than Christmas Eve was probably a good idea.
Going to church is not a big stretch for me. I come from a fairly churchy family and was a regular until I was 13. Even when I left at that tender age, I knew that I wanted to return some day. But as an adult things have been different. Before entering seminary, I often felt that I didn’t have the proper time on Sunday to go to Church, which made it difficult. Even now, I’m writing this blog on a morning where I’ve had to make a choice between getting my school work done and being part of my church community. I think many men struggle with this. Work all week; ‘honey do’ list on Saturday…leaving Sunday as the one day that you can be unscheduled. Of course Sunday options are limited: watch or play sports, read, shop, do more work (case in point)…or, as a last resort, go to church. Most men choose the sedentary version of the first on this list (sports), making it ‘their time’ and even though most professional games (whether they be baseball, football or basketball) don’t begin until well after even the late church service has ended, there’s that thinly veiled excuse out there about not wanting to miss the game, which requires watching the pre-game and the pre-game pre show and of course you have to get as much rest as possible leading up to that, so really there is no time for church.
Now, I am not at all writing this as some kind of holy roller, Bible thumping, hellfire and damnation preacher who wants to blame men for the downfall of religion in America. No, really, organized religion is doing a good enough job of imploding itself without any help from men. As I said, I am in seminary, but I’m studying in the Unitarian Universalist faith and for those of you who don’t know about UUs (as we call ourselves), this is as good as saying that I might (stress might) just decide to wear clothes to church and if I do choose out of my free will to be clothed, my garments will most likely include sandals and some form of fair trade hemp. You see, among the Unitarian Universalist seven principles is the free and independent search for truth and meaning (although contrary to popular belief, most of us go to church clothed.) We genuinely believe that everyone is welcome at the table…even if they don’t believe in a God, or a supreme being…or tables. So, my reason for wagging my finger at men who don’t go to church and choose football instead is simply because a lot of men have walked away from the church experience for the reasons I listed before and in doing so, have left themselves out of something that is damaging men everywhere. This absence of men in the pews supports a bizarre cultural stereotype that church and therefore spiritual connection is somehow only for girls. And lets be clear here, I’m not talking about supporting the challenging and historically oppressive patriarchy that has come out of some traditions. My point is that the real spiritual life of men and masculine identified people matters; in fact, it is more important now than it ever has been…hence the title of this piece, and we owe it to ourselves and the world around us not to ignore the spiritual and communal aspect of our humanness.
When I’m referring to “church” here I am definitely referring to small “c” church. In fact, I also mean to include temple, mosque, prayer garden and any place that people gather or put themselves to engage in a spiritual experience. But this dearth of men in what are traditionally shared spiritual experiences is most visible in Western Christian churches. We are currently in an age when, in Western culture, increasing numbers of people have no church affiliation and a significant portion of those people are male identified.1 As a seminarian, I spend a lot of time reading about this and talking to people about why or why not they attend church. Fairly consistently when I speak with men, they mention that their mother always wanted them to do it growing up (guilt) or if they are married to a woman…their wife goes (she’s holding the place for both of you), but they aren’t interested and more than anything how they find it boring (no beer, smashing heads or cheerleaders.)
But I would conjecture that it is not so much church that is boring as what Western men have been trained to look for in church that is boring. After working all week long when you are asked in your job to follow rules, or fulfill needs or meet deadlines, why would you go to a place that is going to tell you about more rules, make you feel guilty for the needs you haven’t met in others and put you on a schedule that makes you get up on the one morning when you can choose to stay asleep? By these standards, church (still small ‘c’) is the antithesis of what Western men want to do with their free time. I was just reviewing some more great statistics from the Pew Forum. On the surface, the numbers tell the story where 59% of men in America identify as “Unaffiliated” where as only 41% of women identify as such. Jehova’s Witnesses and the historically black church lead the way with the percentages of women who identify with these traditions outnumbering men by some 20%.2 But then in the same chart, we see Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim and Hindu men outnumbering the women in their self identifying by nearly the same margin. At first glance one might look to the prominence of men in each of these traditions to be the reason behind these numbers. The male role in each of these non-Christian traditions is worthy of several dissertations let alone a Sunday morning blog post. Plus, each of these non-Christian traditions maintains a certain amount of rigor in terms of practice (prayer rituals, rites of passage) and lifestyle (diet, clothing) which on the surface appears to be significantly more time consuming and restrictive than being asked to teach Sunday school once a week or simply put a dollar in the collection plate. But at the same time, each of these traditions, and their many variants, also offer a more specific connection to cultural and racial identity. It is certainly worth asking how this element plays into keeping men identifying as Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu.
In the long run, what I’m really talking about is what I call capital ‘C’ Church. It is bigger than any one tradition or organized group, though it includes and welcomes them all. You might call it “spirit” another might call it something else all together. Regardless of the word or language or tradition, this is a connection to one’s inner life; a connection to one’s community; a connection to one’s family and taking the time to embrace and acknowledge these; a connection to what it means in an authentic sense to be male identified and how it is neither a burden nor a privilege, but one of the many states of human being to be celebrated and cherished without hubris. This ability to connect to the web of humanity, is something that can be beautifully experienced with others through ritual, or it can be experienced in solitude alone on a beach. What matters is that this crucial part of what makes us, does not go un cultivated and under nourished. We are even seeing Atheists in growing numbers, who are coming together to acknowledge the need and desire to enrich themselves through acknowledging their humanity. Many of these “New Atheists” are indeed men, although in a recent series of Salon.com articles the prominence of men in Atheism is called into question as a symbol of patriarchal structures held over from other traditions3…again, another dissertation.
Ultimately, most American men are spiritually out of shape. What they need to realize is that there are options for how to tone up the spiritual flab and yes, it might mean missing a football game or two. By occasionally praying to something other than the Heisman Trophy, one might just find a deeper connection to and understanding of themselves, other men, masculine identified people and the women and children in their lives. If you choose to go to church on Sunday morning, instead of going like a petulant brooding 12 year old, go like an adult who is looking to invest more deeply in the experience here on earth or in the next life or whatever will take you into your particular spiritual place. Even if you don’t attend an organized formal service, or if you don’t do organized religion of any kind, it is important to find the time in your regular routine to check in with that part of yourself that’s not all about yourself. Going to your particular ‘church’ and understanding ‘Church’ as it relates to your masculinity is as important as a prostate exam. You might be uncomfortable at first, but after probing around, you will feel much more at ease knowing that you’ve really got a handle on what’s going on in there.
1. “Nones” on the Rise – PewResearch: Religion & Public Life Project, October 9 2012
2. Religious Landscape Survey – PewResearch: Religion & Life Project
3. 5 reasons there aren’t more women in Atheism – Salon.com, July 29 2013