Wednesday, September 15, 2010

From the Archives: Church is for Women… Or is it?

Authour's Note: As I explained in this tab, occasionally I'll be wading through old articles I've posted. Part of that is to help me chronicle my own journey, and part of it is to shed light on just how much our views change through the years as we experience different things and learn from past mistakes. This article was posted originally on Saturday January 20, 2007, nearly three and a half years ago. Aside from the writing, which needed some editing but still didn't thrill me, the view here is one I now disagree with in a variety of ways. Following the article, I'll post my follow up, which I'll keep to five hundred words. (And if you've been on this blog before, you know that five hundred words is truly a summation for me.)This post, by the way, is dedicated to my friend Zack, who suggested this idea. Hope you enjoy the new feature, everyone. As always, comments are welcome.

Church is For Women

The door jingled as I walked inside Blessings, the small Christian bookstore I'd found when I'd first moved to Ottawa. I strolled through the store, amidst the tables of nic nacs and Jesus figurines while the music played softly in the background. Every time I entered a Christian bookstore I had a strange sense that I was walking into a women's section of the library. It hadn't bothered me in the past, as I was more at home in quiet bookstore than I was in a garage. Lately, however, I'd started to notice things. Mainly, I'd come to notice just how feminine the church had become.

I headed to the men's section. I browsed through the titles, and went to another aisle before realizing that the men's titles were all located on just the one shelf. Slim pickings. As usual. It wasn't the publisher's fault however, as every Christian writer knew that women purchased more than 85% of any books sold through Christian retail. No wonder they tailored their stores – with the soft music and rose colored walls – towards women. Still, it made me shake my head. When I finished my shopping and headed out a few minutes later, I wondered if my friends would have been comfortable in a store like that. Might as well be buying flowers.

Lately I'd been doing a fair bit of reading about the church, in particular the place of men within the church, and lately I'd begun to notice some discrepancies, discrepancies that had me and some others worried. Particularly the lack of men, especially 'manly men', in the church. I'd never really noticed it before, but there was a reason for that. The statistics for church attendance were alarming. George Barna had found a gender gap of over 13 million (more women attending church) in the U. S. As well, twenty to twenty-five per cent of married women in the church were going alone. Any one who had worked in a church understood this. I remembered my time as a pastor. I remembered the women who came alone, and I remembered how much we (the pastoral staff) leaned on the women to run the programs. Except for the deacons, it was hard to find men consistently in the building. Perhaps one of the greatest misperceptions of the modern church was the idea that it was patriarchal. More like a frosted cake, below the frosting of ministers and clergy, still predominantly men, most of the church's programs were run by and for women. This whole idea about men 'missing' in the church was something of a revelation to me, understandable I suppose for the fact that I related to the men and women who attended church quite well. I was artistic. I liked small conversations. I liked teaching. I also enjoyed singing and music and learning. Unfortunately, most men just weren't built that way. I decided that the next Sunday I would step back and take a closer look at the Sunday service, which so many authors seemed to suggest had only become increasingly feminine.

The first thing that struck me was how NICE-ly everything was arranged, how NICE the people were, and how it fit with the elevator style music softly leaking over the sound system. I hung up my jacket and strolled into the sanctuary, greeting people along the way. By the time the service started, I'd already had about ten small conversations filled with warm fluff and lots of smiles. After brief announcements, we started singing. We sang for a good thirty minutes before one of our pastors and some others delivered some more announcements, all of which were presented in soft, smiling voices. Our senior pastor finally rose to speak, and after a short prayer, delivered a forty-five minute teaching that was both interesting and long. I say 'long', because as I imagined myself as a non-artistic man in the congregation, I wondered how good it felt to be back in school for an hour and a half every Sunday morning. Not only school, but taking a feminist course on relationships and submission and passive interaction. And then there was the soft music, the emphasis on relationships and small talk, the almost desperate longing for people to be NICE. And through it all, if you listened closely enough, you could almost hear the unconscious murmur... Don't rock the boat. We're all safe here. What was dangerous and manly about that? Where was the adventure and pulsing life that men longed for?

Church, for whatever reason, had become an exercise for women and artists and passive types who relished security over risk, who longed for relationship over greatness, programs over projects. Something had happened between now and that daring New Testament church that was filled with 'manly men', risk takers and adventurous types who understood that becoming a Christian did not mean more tea and crumpets. I wasn't sure what we could do about it, but it was something I needed to think about, because the more we excluded men from our churches, the more feminine they would become...


A Feminine Church? Huh?

You notice it most often when you go out to a bar or pub and people are drinking, and therefore more uninhibited, but you see in restaurants, too. The harshness in conversations, the veiled threats, the simmering arguments, the passive aggressive comments, all made by people who have voluntarily chosen to be out together. Family, friends with friends, or worse, two people involved in some kind of romantic relationship. Coming out of the church "bubble", the one thing you notice almost immediately is how often people are NOT nice to each other. And while we can argue that too often we use "niceness" as a measurement for a person's character, it is the sign of social discipline to be in a place where niceness is prevalent, and it has nothing to do with gender. It's about safety.

When I wrote that piece nearly four years ago, I was immersed in church culture. Since then I've changed cities and moved twice, and haven't really found a church home yet. These days I'm well outside the bubble. I'm outside the safety of a place that's warm and welcoming and filled with genial small talk. I no longer see it as some kind of challenge to my supposed "manliness", whatever that means, but a welcome respite from most days where that social discipline does not exist.

The idea that a church needs to be more "manly", is frankly ridiculous. And while some of the erotic tendencies within the "worship music" industry are disturbing – as a straight male, singing about Jesus as my lover is, err, uncomfortable – the service itself no more reflects a feminine nature than a library (the woman section of the library, was I kidding?) or gym reflects its purpose. The purpose of meeting together each week as Christians is not to raise our own particular idea of gender awareness and compensate for our insecurities. It is a time of encouragement, meditation, and corporate prayer designed to help us push each other towards a life that better reflects that of Jesus. Or at least, our idea of Jesus.

The idea that "church" is feminine speaks primarily to men who feel that they have somehow lost the "adventure" within their own lives, which is a result of feeling emasculated by either their jobs or relationships. But addressing it through gender stereotypes is a disaster waiting to happen. In fact, I can't think of another, single thing more capable of destroying both individuals and relationships than this emphasis on what is male and what is female. A quick glance at other cultures and history books reveals that gender distinctions are as real a dividing line as the Prime Meridian. What they end up doing is creating more insecurity in those who do not "fit" the normative male or female patterns. (I love to dance. I love to read and write. Does that make me feminine?) According to my old way of thinking, women not only don't like adventure, they don't enjoy challenges or anything outside of shopping, flowers and children, either.

Understand that none of this has anything to do with what it means to be a Christian. Sure, it gives us a sense of being safe in our roles, but the problem being safe is what walked us down this road in the first place. Want more adventure in your life? Stop taking crap from others telling you what to do and who you should be, get on your knees, and figure it out. Involve yourself in programs with people who need help, people who will challenge you. And when you go out for dinner, just listen to the conversations around your table. More often than not, you'll wish you were in church.