Herb: David, it’s great being with you. You’re a wonderful friend. I’ve known you for years. What a blessing you are to me and what an honor it is to be able to do this interview.
David: Thank you, Herb. It’s great to be with you.
Herb: You’re the author of one of the most well known books on men’s ministry, Why Men Hate Going to Church. How many copies have sold now?
David: Over 125,000 and it’s in ten languages.
Herb: Wow! What led you to write that book?
David: Just my background. I have a degree in anthropology and then I went into marketing. And so, you put those two together – the study of human culture and marketing – and I just realized one day in a moment of clarity that the culture surrounding my church was targeted at a middle aged female, everything from the way the pastor spoke, to the decorations in the church, to the ministries we offered, to the programming we offered, to what we would and wouldn’t do, was all designed to keep that woman engaged, giving and volunteering. And that’s really the case in a lot of congregations. The target of Christianity is a middle aged female. And as a result, the average church in America draws an adult crowd that’s sixty-one percent female. So, we have a lot of work to do in that regard to get more men involved.
Herb: You have had a number of years now to see what kind of response you’ve been getting. In what ways have the responses been what you expected and in what ways have they been otherwise?
David: I really kind of expected to be savaged. And although there has been some opposition – I know there are whispers – Christians are pretty polite people. So I really don’t get openly attacked a lot in the church. Although I know a lot of people are skeptical. Because I tend to focus on the more practical aspects, like paint color and decor. And people read that and they go, “What? This is the church of the Holy God. What matters is the Spirit and prayer and giving.” And I absolutely agree with those things. If the Spirit is in a church, it doesn’t matter if the pastor wears a pink tutu, men will come. But on the other hand, the practical does matter. If you started a church that had an eight hour sermon and a twelve hour worship service, you’re probably not going to do well in the United States of America in 2013. So it’s both. It’s the spiritual and the practical.
But back to your original question, I’ve had some negative reaction, but it’s been overwhelmingly positive. And probably the most gratifying thing is going around the country and meeting people and they see my name and their eyes light up and they go, “I read your book. We’re doing the things you say in our church and we’re growing.” And that’s always the greatest payoff, is to be able to contribute to the kingdom that way. And this idea that you have to be more intentional about reaching men is really starting to get rolling in a lot of churches. And I think it’s going to be very good for our congregations and good for our men.
Herb: I was interested in one of your graphs in your book that denominational churches and non denominational churches and the percentages of men and women in them. What was interesting to me is the non denominational churches had less of a gap between men and women. Yet at the same time, it doesn’t seem to me that non denominational churches are consciously attempting to reach men more than denominational churches.
David: Probably the better way to look at it is theology. Conservative theology, but bathed in grace – not legalistic – is the sweetest spot for men. As you move more liberal, which is where most of the established denominations tend to go. The trajectory is always from conservatism toward liberalism. No church ever started liberal. It always moves that direction, and that’s when you start losing your men. Men are much more interested in certainty and provability. Some guy said, “Men have an instinctive BS detector.” When things go soft, they head for the exits. So I think that’s why we see the established denominations doing more poorly with men. That’s one reason.
And the other thing is just over time, churches tend to lose their mojo. They tend to move inward instead of outward. Men are definitely more about mission than they are about just endless meetings, endless committees, ministry silos, programs. So that’s the other reason the non denominational churches are doing better than the denominational, because they’re newer. A lot of them are plants. And they just haven’t got into that institutional rut that drives men crazy.
Herb: Do you feel like the church in general is making progress in the area of reaching men?
David: I do. I think a lot of churches are getting onto the bandwagon with men. I think a lot of pastors saw men as a threat. Quite frankly, a lot of pastors probably got into the pastorate because they knew they wouldn’t have to deal with very many men. Perhaps they were the bookish type of man who got slammed into a locker by the jock. And so they go into the ministry precisely because they will never have to deal with the jock again. But that sort of thinking is being replaced by a desire to see growth. They really want to see people enter the kingdom. And the way you do that is you bring men into the church. The original church growth strategy has not changed. You go out and find twelve guys and you build on them. So I’m definitely encouraged by some of the trends we’re seeing in the church.
Herb: It seems to me that in many ways the problems that the church has with men are mirrored by the problems that our culture has with men. Would you agree with that?
David: That’s exactly right. I think we have a crisis in boyhood education. We’re not teaching the way boys learn. And the church was first with that. Our Sunday School programs for a hundred years definitely favor the girls over the boys. That’s one of the reasons we’ve seen huge attrition over the last generation. Boys come into this system that is not geared toward their interest or their skills. And there’s still a crisis going on in youth group, as we move more toward emotional praise and worship, weeping, hands in the air, music oriented – the number of boys who are into that is fewer than the number of girls. So that’s driving young men out. So there’s definitely these counter currents that are pushing men out.
Herb: When you look at our culture and you look at the icons of male culture, it tends to be the sports figure, action hero, even the gang leader – these stand out in my mind as being some of the prime ideals of maleness.
Herb: Right. How is it that the church as messed up so much in this area? Why?
David: That’s one of my great frustrations. Christ is a perfect male archetype. If you honestly look at the gospels, he’s a wrecking ball, an absolute wrecking ball. Yet, because our target audience in the church is a middle aged woman, and we need her money, and we need her volunteering, we tend to soft play that aspect of him, because middle aged do not like wrecking ball men. They’re probably married to one. They want loving, gentle men because they don’t have any in their lives. So we basically remanufacture Jesus to keep that woman happy and volunteering.
Now the tide is turning on that. Church plants definitely go more for guys, because they realize they can’t get young families if they don’t get guys. But once a church begins to cater to grandma, all is lost. Grandma is wonderful. We need her. We need her prayers. We need her gifts. We need her volunteering. But she cannot become the focus of the church. In the mainline [denominations] grandma is becoming the pastor now. The Church of England ordained more women than men last year and the average age of those women was fifty-five. So how are we going to grow with grandma running the church.
Herb: It fascinates me how, when you look at Jesus, at his life and ministry, he really did not focus a lot of attention on family ministry.
David: O, he was very hostile to it. If you see the things he said about family – I don’t think Dr. Dobson’s going to put those things on his show.
Herb: And yet, you look at the church, and the church is almost completely focused on family ministry.
David: Okay, interesting thing. Fifty years ago, the main product of the church was personal salvation. Come to church, escape the flames of hell, and go to heaven. And the reason it was that way is because we had not conquered all the diseases yet. People dropped dead suddenly all the time – small pox, malaria. We didn’t know why people died. They just died, all the time. They’d be fit as a fiddle on Monday and dead as a doornail by Friday. So when the pastor stood in the pulpit and asked, “If you were to die tonight?” That worked! Wars were lethal. The Civil War took over a million lives. WWII took half a million lives. The Iraq war took 4,000 lives. You can see, death tolls are going down. So about thirty years ago, that pick up line stopped working, because people knew they weren’t going to be dead by next Sunday.
So we had to come up with a new core product, and we came up with it in the seventies. It was family harmony. We had Marriage Encounter. We had Family Life. We had James Dobson. And they saw the new wave coming. So the core product went from, “We’ll save your soul” to “We will save your messed up family.”
When I was a child and a teenager growing up in the church, never once – never once – did I hear a sermon on relationships. Never. Most pastors considered it not even worthy of the pulpit. Last New Years, three churches in my area sent me postcards on sermon series in January and every one of them was about relationships. It’s the number one topic.
Herb: I saw an ad in our paper a couple of years ago, it was a church ad, and it said, “If you like Oprah, you’ll love our church.”
David: See, there you go. Who are we targeting? We’re certainly not targeting the guy! It was probably effective, though.
Herb: I think every guy knows that there’s more to life than just marriage and family. And yet, everywhere I go, that’s what I see.
David: Yes. And it’s criminal. Because it started with that metaphor we use for discipleship, “A personal relationship with Jesus.” Even today, you and I are at a men’s conference, one of the speakers got up and said, “My goal is to challenge men to fall more deeply in love with Jesus.” And I wanted to go up there and pull his tongue out. Where does he get this metaphor, “Falling in love with Jesus?”
Herb: The bridal metaphor.
David: It’s not even appropriate because the bride is the church. I’m not the bride. So this idea of relationship with Jesus, this idea of falling in love with him, spending time with him looking into his eyes, it’s all designed to attract women. Because that’s what women want out of life. They want to be wooed and loved by a man. Men are looking for a mission. Fifty years ago we were all about saving souls. Today we’re about saving relationships. And it’s just not compelling to men.
Herb: Are you working on any new books?
David: No, I’m not. Let me tell you what I’m working on right now. I believe in my heart that there is an undiscovered or untapped way of doing ministry to men. It has not been done since Bible days. So I have a prototype out there. It’s on the web at mensleague.org. I call it Men’s League. I want to find a church that will take me on in the fall of 2014 and will allow me to prototype this out in their church. As simply as I put it, I find three men, a Peter, a James and a John. The three of us disciple twelve men and take a year. Disciple them, not through studies, but through ordeals. That’s the cool part. And then the final is we find seventy-two other guys who may or may not know Jesus. Lead them through the same ordeals.
And then we see what happens. So this has been on my heart for seven years and I’m just looking for a church in 2014 that will bring me on and allow me to experiment and do this….and fail or succeed wildly. Because if we succeed, then we’ve created a whole new way of reaching young men. That’s the question we’re grappling with here at this men’s conference. I look out at the group and most of the men are in their fifties and sixties with a lot of bald heads and grey hair. And so we keep trying the same methods over and over again and we’re just not reaching the young men. “Here, study this book. Read this book.” It’s not working.
Herb: Well, David, I just want to tell how much I appreciate your friendship. What a blessing you’ve been, not only to me, but to thousands and thousands of men in churches all over the world.
David: And thank you, Herb. I appreciate what you do. I talk about it all the time: the brilliance of just four men serving for three hours a month. That’s just terrific. I tell people about New Commandment all the time.