Why do men not go to church?

Published June 11, 2015

(This story was first published in the September 1929 issue of the Canadian Churchman.)

In his latest book published but a few months before his death, “The Warrior, the Woman and the Christ,” Studdert Kennedy related that one day as he was conduction a soldiers’ service behind the lines, a perky little private asked him if he was going back to take mothers’ meetings after the war. Amidst a roar of approving laughter, Mr. Kennedy replied, “Look here young fellow my lad, you seem to think that you are more important than your mother. You come off it. I’d rather talk to your mother than to you any day of the week, Sunday included.”

But the remark set Studdert Kennedy thinking. Why does the warrior always associate the woman and the parson? Why does the Christian religion appeal, as it has always appealed more powerfully to women than to men? Why don’t men go to Church in the numbers in which women go?

Searching for an answer to these difficult questions Studdert Kennedy came to the conclusion that the Church too often presents Christianity almost exclusively in terms to which the feminine nature naturally responds, ignoring the aggressive and courageous qualities of Christ’s extraordinarily manly character. For Christ combines in Himself the ideals before which the man of strength and energy as well as the woman of constructive patience stands in awe and admiration. Christ is the ideal warrior of infinite energy, intellect, skill. But He is not a destructive warrior. All these warrior qualities were consecrated by Him to the creative purpose of establishing the Kingdom of God. In Him both man and woman find the fulfillment of their aspirations.

When we have pondered over Studdert Kennedy’s thesis, and have reached a conclusion as to the reasonableness or otherwise of his argument, we shall be prepared to consider other reasons advanced by thoughtful men for their indifference towards the Church. They do not find God there, they say. The Church services are, to them, barren of spiritual reality. They are unable to discover in the Church service the spiritual power and energy which flow from a conscious relation to God, and which, if possessed by those officiating, ought to flood the service with the light of god’s presence even as the face of Moses shone after he had conversed with God. Going to Church, these men declare, is too often spiritually unrewarding and mentally fatiguing. So Thomas Hardy felt after attending a service at a Cathedral and finding there no sense of God’s nearness or reality, his sad soul poured out its loneliness in poignant verses ending with the lines:

“O doth a bird deprived of wings
Go earth-bound willfully?”

Although Thomas Hardy did not blame the Church for her failure to convince him of spiritual power, although he thought that the fault might be some hindrance in himself, it would be well for the Church to consider if this failure is not sometimes caused by the lack of reality and joyous reverence with which the services are taken.

Other men say that they don’t go to Church because their slender powers of concentration are unequal to the length of the service and the dullness of the average sermon. Undoubtedly many parsons have no talent for preparing sermons and no happiness in preaching. Their gifts are in other directions; in pastoral work in visiting the sick, in converting individual sinners. The custom – for it is no more than a custom – of tagging on a sermon to every service is as wearisome to them as to the man in the pew. Because there are notable preachers with powers of eloquence admirably suited for instructing and stirring large audiences, must every parson preach? When the parson in love with his pastoral work but with no mind for study or voice for preaching is engaged all day in exercising the various functions of his ministry must he, even when his preparation has been woefully insufficient, “exhort the brethren on Sunday?”

Perhaps, in this day of specialization the suggestion of Miss Sheila Kaye-Smith is worth of unprejudiced consideration. “As a step towards recovering for the sermon the driving power and inspiration it has largely lost, I would venture to suggest,” she writes in the interesting volume of essays “If I Could Preach Just Once,” that the sermon be no longer served as a common dish, but be set apart for special occasions.

Other men admit quite frankly that the complexity of modern civilization does not leave time for the accomplishment of everything they would like to do and therefore the things of lesser interest are crowded out. There are so many things to do in our modern day that it is impossible to do them all and Church attendance suffers because of the multiplicity of activities inviting men to seek entertainment and pleasure.

One of the finest of our young men, brought up as a boy to attend worship at least once every Sunday, writes to the Canadian Churchman [sic] on this subject as follows: “The intelligent man of today must be conversant with a great many more topics than he was fifty years ago. He must know his business, some sports, belong to clubs, play bridge, know some books, music, shows, geography, history, politics, stocks, automobiles, science and one hundred and one other things. To be a congenial companion of the average man in the world one’s information must embrace most of these items. I am not claiming that any one of these is as important to a man as religion, but these are the things in which the crowd is interested and most people just follow the crowd. There are not enough hours in the week for the average man to accomplish the things he would like to do, and so Sunday becomes an extra weekday.” After giving a formidable list of his engagements for the next week this young man concludes: “I make no defence of my neglect of Church. Invitations and events just pop up until my programme is filled for another week. That’s a week’s schedule, and the week is an average week and I am an average man.”

If we are going to compare the Church with our social activities, deciding their relative values by their power to entertain and amuse, it is inevitable that the theatre, the golf links, the bridge club, and the tennis court will be given first place. The problem here is to convince men who have allowed themselves to drift into habits of judging everything by the interest they feel in them, that worship is the most interesting and the most profitable activity in which they can engage.

Not distinguishing between religion, i.e., the relation of the soul to God, and theology, i.e., the attempt to give a coherent account of religion, some men stay away from Church because they do not believe what they think the Church teaches. Other men honestly facing the difficulty – they would say impossibility – of following the Christian ethical standards in their business, do not attend Church on Sunday because they do not intend to organize their business on Christian principles. In these circumstances to go to Church appears to them to be inexcusable hypocrisy. Yet other Christian business men [sic] are giving profound attention to the problems of industry and declare that readjustments aiming at bringing industry into harmony with the teaching of Jesus are slowly being made.

Perhaps, too, men absent themselves from Church because the present in breaking with the past has not yet found new ideals to take the place of the ideals they have thrown aside. Sir Phillips Gibbs has recently said that only by the faith responsible for the ideal of the past, “reawakened, strengthened by science, reaching out across the world, controlling the machines and instruments of power, working for peace and raising the standard of charity, in the spirit of Christ, may we go forward to meet the unknown future, unafraid.” When, in the forward march of time, such faith is once more in the ascendency and new ideals are firmly in possession of our minds, men will no longer present, to the same extent as to-day, the puzzling problem of their indifference to the Church.



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