The Diocese of Oxford recently put up a short blog on their website – which has since been taken down – giving out tips for putting on a ‘man-friendly’ Christmas service.
Points one and two were to keep the sermon to less than 15 minutes, and the whole service under an hour. Also in the list were singing songs in a key deep voices can hit, talking about the “adventure and danger” of Jesus’s mission, using “masculine imagery and language”, playing a clip from an action film, and focusing on Christ the man and his power rather than meek baby Jesus.
So, apparently men have tiny attention spans, are utterly self-centred, consume just one kind of popular culture, and can’t engage with a God who does not resemble themselves.
You won’t be surprised to read that I, along with literally billions of men, don’t recognise myself in that description. But more than that, it’s patronising and insulting. It tells me that if I were true to my gender I would amount to little more than an easily-bored and self-centred pair of biceps. And, given I have happily attended a variety of churches all my life without being repelled by the overwhelming girly-ness, I must be an effeminate drip.
But as clumsy as this blog is, it’s only following the men’s ministry mantra that has been with us for decades. You know how it goes: the Church is too lovey-dovey and feminised it says – making sweeping assumptions about what it means to be a woman in the process. To bring back the men we must get down to their level, strip away all the pastel shades and language of courtship and go at it mano-a-mano.
As it happens, I quite like curry nights, table football and the theology of Christus Victor, but it’s such an astonishingly narrow and stale vision of what it means to be a man. It’s a pale pastiche of masculinity; a two-dimensional maleness, as portrayed by cheap Hollywood thrillers and those awkwardly sexist adverts from the 1950s.
To be clear, most of the ways we engage with men aren’t wrong – curry is a great way to gather people together after all and I agree that services aimed at non-churchgoers should be kept short. But it’s the idea that this is the only way to reach men that is the problem.
We blokes might just benefit from a theologically rich sermon once in a while and some of us quite like singing about how much we love God. It’s even possible that one or two women might actually enjoy some of those quintessentially male pursuits too. For just as men are insulted by stale men’s ministry, so are women demeaned by the implication that they are not interested in adventure or standing up for justice.
I’m not opposed to ministry directed at men, but it has to grapple with masculinity on a much deeper level than this and go beyond the tired stereotypes. Our analysis of why more women attend church than men has to be more thoughtful. Is Christianity really overly feminised, or have we just mindlessly bought into this trope through sheer repetition?
Both men and women deserve – and need – a church that speaks to them as they truly are. That understands people of either genders are invariably complicated, nuanced and impossible to pigeonhole. A church that actually believes the people of God thrive the most when they grow together rather than in gendered silos.
But all we get is the same tired clichés. It’s time that changed.