I’ve studied high-performance organizations for nearly three decades, most recently examining churches that have grown by appealing to men. Here’s one of the most surprising commonalities among the man-friendly churches I’ve researched: None of them has a formal “men’s ministry.” Instead, they have retooled church life at its core to attract and disciple men.
It’s a rational but rare strategy in a society where, according to Pew Research, about one in five men attends religious services weekly and where, according to the US Congregational Life Survey, women constitute 61 percent of churchgoing adults.
The pastors of these churches told me that attracting men, while important in its own right, also brings in women and children by the vanload. Get the man, and you get the family. My preliminary conclusion is that they’re not part of a “masculinity movement” to reclaim some CrossFit Christ. Rather, they’re simply pragmatic, structuring themselves to reach the unreached, and in the process they strengthen families and communities.
At Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, I took my seat as the band opened with 30 seconds of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir,” morphing into an upbeat worship song. Lead vocalist and pastoral scion Zach White later told me that’s typical. “A few weeks back, we started the service with the intro to [AC/DC’s] ‘Thunderstruck.’ It was gonna be an intense message, so we wanted to set an intense tone.”
Welcome to “Meck,” a multisite congregation 10,000 strong that targets men who don’t like church. Zeppelin is merely one step on the church’s stairway to heaven. Everything there is choreographed—from the music to the colors to the website—to resonate with men, now about 60 percent of the church’s adult attendees.
Similar to other churches in this study, Mecklenburg avoids worship lyrics like “I’m desperate for you” and “Jesus, lover of my soul” and other “Jesus is my boyfriend” songs, as one worship pastor put it.
Meck also targets men in its marketing and platforming. Every picture in their visitors’ guide features an under-40 guy or children. “We started this on day one,” said founding pastor Jim White. “You attract what you platform, whether that’s the people parking cars or at the door or on stage.” Or in the kids’ ministry, where nearly half of their volunteers are men.
At all these churches, however, targeting men also extends to the sermons. Messages are concise, 23–33 minutes, and replete with sports metaphors, workplace wisdom, and practical theology. (“I have the biblically illiterate, f-bomb dropping guy in my head with every talk I write,” Jim White says.) Services last an hour and offer unvarnished truth, bluntly calling congregants to step up.
“Friends,” I heard Jim White preach at Meck, “the church is a ship designed for battle, not for a cruise. We’re a combat vessel. If you want to be in on that, you’ll change the world. If not, I suggest you find a pool deck somewhere.” The guy next to me nodded in unison with his teenage son.
Christ’s Church of the Valley (CCV) in Phoenix, one of the largest congregations in America, has been a man-friendly church since its inception in 1982. Teachers there are called coaches and “an adventure with Jesus” is preferred to “personal relationship with Jesus.” The church’s original red-and-black logo was designed by juxtaposing ads from men’s magazines. Its décor is all earth tones and hardwood.
For a while, founding pastor Don Wilson replaced floral arrangements in the lobby with three Harleys. “Seeing the motorcycles,” he laughed, “men started to think ‘this is a normal place.’ ”
This, too, makes it “normal”: CCV’s sprawling café looks like a sports bar, sans the suds, with a different game on every television. Some guys hang out there Saturday after Saturday, sacrificing footlongs at the altar of ESPN before eventually braving the sanctuary.
Wiping mustard from my lips, I grabbed a nosebleed seat in the service and learned about world-view through Super Bowl commercials. The upcoming series might also tempt café dwellers: “See how Jesus wants you to look at the adventure of your life through his eyes, the eyes of a lion.”
Passing ‘the beer test’
In Chicago’s suburbs, I found a man-friendly church that’s pastored by a woman. Fifty-something Jen Wilson arrived five years ago at Wheatland Salem United Methodist Church after gently transforming another United Methodist church into one that’s teeming with testosterone.
“I understand guys and I don’t give up on them,” she said. “They’re taking it on the chin every day, so we’re here for them.” She calls her primary target “42-year-old Chad—a regular guy who hasn’t been to church in a while. Maybe he works downtown or in the suburbs; maybe he’s Asian or Indian, white or black. But if he feels comfortable and respected here, he’ll stay and his family will follow.”
Unlike Meck or CCV, Wheatland still incorporates traditional hymns, but leaders ask middle-aged men on the worship team to recommend the songs. If the guys on stage like it, they believe, so will the guys in the pews.
This may be part of Jen Wilson’s success as well: She seems to pass what Jim White called “the beer test—if a guy feels he’d like to have a beer with me, then I’ve connected with him.” She’s a football and exercise fanatic who understands business and habitually encourages those in the trenches.
Overall, Jen Wilson’s approach is more subtle, but the demographics suggest that subtle can work: Her congregation is 57 percent men in a denomination that’s 57 percent women.
Forgoing ‘men’s ministry’
The pastors at these churches don’t seem to view dedicated men’s ministries as necessary for reaching men. They are instead opting to fully integrate men into the church.
“Find a way to plug in men using their gifts,” Jen Wilson said. “Are you a musician, a mechanic, a manager? Give them something to do they’re good at.”
Mecklenburg’s Jim White agrees. His church incorporates men in teams ranging from parking to guest services to social justice. “Most men are more comfortable being on a ‘serving team’ than in a small group,” he explained.
At CCV, Don Wilson’s masterstroke was sports ministry, which has now grown to 13,000 kids and 1,000 volunteer coaches, most of them CCV men.
Importantly, none of these churches seem to draw men at the expense of women. Jen Wilson said she has heard “not one peep” from Wheatland women about her approach.
Jim White goes even further: “I’ve heard it a thousand times: ‘I can’t believe my husband actually wants to go to church. Even when I don’t go, he goes and takes the kids!’ Women love it when I talk to their husbands, and they love what this is doing for their family.”
Michael Zigarelli is professor of leadership and strategy at Messiah College and the author of 11 books. He also runs a ministry for Christian leaders, christianity9to5.org.
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