The plight of young American men has become a serious concern of late. They’re earning fewer college degrees compared to women, falling out of the labor market, and dying from overdose or suicide more often than women. Many are addicted to porn, video games, or online outrage.
They’re “trying on new identities, many of them ugly, all gesturing toward a desire to belong,” writes Christine Emba in an incisive essay for The Washington Post. “It felt like a widespread identity crisis—as if they didn’t know how to be.”
What’s the cause of all this trouble? Some argue for a purely materialist explanation by looking at the decline of manufacturing jobs that used to provide a steady income for men without college degrees. Others suggest that men are merely entitled brats—so accustomed to patriarchy that now “equality feels like oppression.” Still others, like Richard Reeves in The Atlantic, point to problems with our education systems.
The sheer scope of the problem has led to “manosphere” influencers who offer a vision of masculinity and the steps to achieve it.
Aaron Renn has been a persistent critic of the church’s overfeminization, accusing both liberal and conservative Christians of “vicious negativity towards men and excessive pedestalization of women” that “repels men.” The popular psychologist Jordan Peterson has shaped these conversations for years. On the far right, Andrew Tate, the former champion kickboxer indicted on charges of sex trafficking, has a massive social media presence built from vulgar hedonism and brazen materialism.
If their collective followings are any indication, it’s clear that many young men are attracted to a vision of masculinity that draws more from Nietzsche than Jesus Christ. American Reformer contributor John Ehrett calls it vitalism.
Some commentators are warning that the post-Christian Right will seduce aimless young men grasping for a sense of self. They urge the church to embrace a “masculine Christianity” that emphasizes dominion, male leadership in the home and the church, and physical fitness to keep men from being drawn into the vile world that sees women as sex objects and pushes Nazi propaganda about superior races.
I won’t argue against positive role models and physical health. But here’s where these critics go wrong: Christianity can never compete with vitalism on vitalism’s terms, just like a church service will always be less exciting than a rock concert on a rock concert’s terms.
If a young man wants an ideology that allows him to treat women with contempt and consider himself Nietzsche’s Übermensch, social media gurus will always win out over Scripture. You can have a men’s conference with fireworks and a working military tank, but the Bible will still show us that the greatest man who ever lived submitted himself to a humiliating death and told us the meek are truly blessed.
The masculinity crisis has major consequences for the church. It feels harder than ever for young Christian women who want to get married and have children to find young men who make decent husbands and fathers. More broadly, congregations are suffering as young men that could be blessing the church are instead wasting their lives away in front of screens.
How should Christians respond?
The church has always struggled with gender imbalance, as Lyman Stone notes. As far back as the Roman era, more women than men have flocked to sanctuaries, and finding marriageable Christian men has never been easy.
Furthermore, every church is different. On the extremes, some still operate according to a more rigid gender hierarchy while others ignore the idea of God-given gender differences.
As a missionary in East Africa, I can tell you that a culture where gender differences are still respected doesn’t draw more men to church. Women still outnumber men here too. And the cultural commitment to traditional sexual ethics brings lots of problems, including much higher rates of violence against women.
The simplest fix might be to erase any gender distinctives and encourage each young man to simply be “a good person” rather than “a good man.” There’s some truth to this, as church is the place where men call themselves a bride and women can say they’re more than conquerors. The fruit of the Spirit are the same for both sexes.
However, as Emba puts it in a follow-up essay, “young men and boys are telling us, often literally, that they desperately need and desire direction, norms, and a concrete rubric for how to be a man.”
In theological terms, we are created in the image of God, male and female, and that distinction has consequences for how we think about ourselves. When one set of cultural currents is trying to erase those distinctions altogether by telling men their manhood isn’t real or meaningful, many of them will simply be discouraged from even trying to be good people.
In The Toxic War on Masculinity, Nancy Pearcey calls for a greater ministry focus on boys without fathers, and she’s absolutely right. Rather than compete with manosphere influencers who think expensive cars and sexual conquests define masculinity, we need Christian families to invite young men into their lives and homes. There, they can learn about the virtues of masculinity by observation rather than didactic (and often harmful) instruction.
Single people, elderly couples, and families with children can all participate. Helping care for others’ kids, sharing life together, and talking about something other than social media will do far more for young men than any blogs or podcasts. (Pro tip for young men who want to find a Christian wife: Do the dishes after dinner. Trust me on this one.)
The crisis of masculinity is real, and the church has a role to play. Rather than complaining about feminism or “beta male” pastors, we need to participate in mentoring and building relationships with young men. Military hardware and empty admonitions to “be a man” can’t substitute for genuine connections between people. The church has a calling to celebrate the goodness and beauty of God’s choice to create us in his image, male and female, and those distinct identities emerge best in community.
As we attend to the masculinity crisis, opening our doors and making space at our tables is something we can all do to keep lost boys from going astray.
Matthew Loftus lives with his family in Kenya, where he teaches and practices family medicine. You can learn more about his work and writing at matthewandmaggie.org.