By Don Wilson
Churches in America are concerned about the loss of future generations.
Some say our youth programs do not adequately prepare students to defend their faith as they encounter secular professors in universities. Others say young people cannot relate to the church’s outdated methods. And beyond that, organized sports are competing for our children’s attention on Sundays and throughout the week.
While these and other issues are concerning, I believe there is a more significant and fundamental problem that is often overlooked. I’m referring to the influence fathers and men can have on the decisions their children make about a lifelong commitment to follow Jesus.
Research has shown that when a father attends church regularly, the children have the greatest likelihood of faithfully attending church services as adults. In short, the study clearly indicated that the father’s regular attendance, rather than the mother’s, most determines the future church attendance or absence of the children.
When I served as lead pastor at Christ’s Church of the Valley in Phoenix, Arizona, we decided to prioritize reaching men. I was not aware of the just-cited statistics when we made that decision. I was in favor of making this change because I realized how much my father and other godly men in my life had impacted my faith.
My parents were faithful servant leaders in our small, rural Kansas church. My mother played the piano every Sunday. My father was an elder, a Sunday school teacher, sang at funerals, mowed the church lawn, and did whatever needed to be done. I don’t think my parents missed church five times in 50 years. They led by example. My dad was my hero. My fondest memory was seeing him read his Bible each night before he went to bed. All of this impacted my faith.
When our church prioritized reaching men, it started to grow tremendously. Not only that, our youth and children’s ministry began to grow, and many young people decided to enter ministry.
Few churches model such men’s values as risk and reward, sacrifice, action, and adventure. Without a masculine spirit and presence in the church, it tends to adopt the feminine characteristic of nurturing. While nurturing itself is good, a nurturing church is not attractive to men because men don’t see it as a place where they will be challenged to lead.
How Can Churches Reach More Men?
What can we do to reach men more effectively? Here are seven specific things we’ve learned along the way:
1. Churches must adopt a discipleship model instead of a teaching or academic model. The main focus must be on modeling and accountability, rather than education. Men change more through experiences than by what they are told. Men follow men, not programs. Send men on short-term mission projects where they build something or share experiences. There is a big difference between a men’s ministry and men in ministry.
Men love to lead and serve together. Men should be leading small groups, serving in safety and security teams, helping to park cars, and being part of first-impression ministries. They need to be leaders and role models for our next-generation students. A goal in our church was to have a man in every children’s classroom to serve as a role model, since many young children were from homes with absentee fathers.
2. Make sure the interior design of your church appeals to men and not just to women. When we opened our new worship center, I observed there were few things to which men could visually relate. So, for one month, I had three Harley-Davidson motorcycles placed in the lobby to see what would happen. It didn’t take long for those bikes to become the “after-church” gathering place for men.
3. Take a close look at your weekend worship experience. What type of man does your pastor reach? This leadership principle applies: You attract who you are, not what you want. Does the pastor’s message appeal to what you know, what you feel, or what you do? Most men are attracted to a pastor who challenges them to do something. When you have testimonies from your members, how many of them feature men who are leading? Does your worship music focus more on feelings or action? Evaluate all of these things.
4. Understand that women want a relationship, men want an adventure. I read Why Men Hate Going to Church by David Murrow several years ago, and it made me rethink my preaching vocabulary. When I ask people, especially men, to make a decision to become Christ followers, I ask them if they would like to begin an adventure with Jesus, rather than asking if they want a relationship with him. The global church needs to look at things differently if the goal is to reach men. Of all the world’s religions, only Christianity has a consistent shortage of male involvement.
5. Evaluate your small-group ministry. If a man is embarrassed in some way, rarely will he come back to a group. Ask a man privately ahead of time whether he’d be willing to pray aloud in the group rather than putting him on the spot. My wife and I noticed the women in our group were usually the first to pray, whereas the men rarely prayed. So, we decided to divide the men and women for a prayer time at the end of our discussion. She took the women into the kitchen to pray together, and I kept the men in the living room. To my surprise, every man prayed! Why? Men like to win, and if we can’t win, we often won’t play or participate. Most men believe their prayers are inadequate when compared to prayers by their spouses, and that feels like a loss to them, so they are reluctant to pray in a mixed group.
6. Rethink what happens on Father’s Day. In most churches, women are admired and praised on Mother’s Day, but most men feel discouraged and inadequate when they leave church on Father’s Day. Consider ways to change those impressions.
7. Improve the children’s ministry. Many homes today center around children and what they want to do. That means churches should work hard to offer excellence in ministries to children and students. If children love going to church, parents often will make attending church a priority for their sake.
What if Churches Don’t Reach Men?
For many men, church is a place to worship God, see their friends, help others, and be encouraged to live a moral, upright life. It is not a place where they expect to achieve significance. As church leaders, we need to make church a relevant opportunity for men to feel challenged to up their game.
Here’s an illustration of what churches should not do.
Before becoming president of the United States, Teddy Roosevelt was a Sunday school teacher. One day a boy showed up for class with a black eye and admitted he had been fighting. The boy said he observed his sister being repeatedly pinched by another boy, so he took a swing at the offender. The future president told the boy he was proud of him for standing up for his sister and gave him a dollar. When word got out what Roosevelt had done, he was removed from his job as a teacher.
When men lead like men, they sometimes get censored in the church.
So how can we attract more men to our churches? By taking risks and dreaming big. In less than 40 years, men have gone from being confident in their maleness to no longer being sure about their role and purpose. Men were created to be protectors and providers, and if churches don’t find ways to keep them, they will eventually lose the children.
It looks like this:no men = no family = no children = no faith = no church.
If your church is serious about reaching and keeping the next generation, leaders need to ask what the church is doing to reach men.
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A Woman’s Perspective
By Sue Wilson
My husband has always attracted men to church. I believe this is the reason: He is the same person whether he is on a stage, in a restaurant, at a ball game, or at home.
Most men who attend church are looking for people similar to them: “real” people. Not perfect, preachy, and judgmental people, but encouraging, challenging, and authentic people who can describe the difference God makes in their lives. I’ll quote the old saying, “People don’t care how much you know; they want to know how much you care.”
When our church began specifically targeting men, some called us “chauvinistic.” Over time, however, that began to change. Wives saw their husbands stepping up to become the spiritual leaders in their families. Parents watched their children grow in faith and show excitement that church had become a family priority. Men left church each week feeling challenged and encouraged.
When these changes occurred, people began to understand that God created men to lead. Women are also leaders, of course, and husbands and wives must work hand-in-hand to lead their families. But if you ask women, most will say they want their husband to lead the family—not in an authoritarian way, but as one who provides overall direction. Wives and families desire a man who leads with strength and love.
Churches would be wise to evaluate all aspects of their ministry to determine what changes can be made to help men become the leaders God created them to be. And if they do, it is highly likely the men in the area will come, bringing their families with them.
Don Wilson retired in 2017 as founding and senior pastor of Christ’s Church of the Valley, a multisite church in the Phoenix, Arizona, area. He and Sue founded Accelerate Group, a nonprofit organization created to encourage and support pastors and their wives.