'Why doesn’t church appeal to men?'


In the second of three articles about gender imbalance in the church, we consider male psychology and personality traits, and how these might relate to church attendance

While we know that far fewer men than women attend church – as discussed in part one of our three-part series  – and that men may favour different types of churches than women, we need to dig a little deeper to understand why churches are turning off men, particularly single men.

The most recent research into church attendance finds that it’s not so much about gender as about personality traits. For instance, in general, more men than women display the personality trait of seeking adventure – which tends to be the opposite of church culture.

Why men say they don’t attend

We don’t fully understand why men are less likely to attend Christian places of worship, but recent research is allowing us to gain more insight. Fewer men say they believe or practise any kind of faith – and even if they do, they don’t always choose to attend a church. So there are issues of both faith in general and in practice.

There are many anecdotes and suggested reasons for this being the case. In our survey of 3,000 single Christians (the UK’s biggest ever research project of its kind, conducted by YouGov and analysed by David Pullinger, director of Single Friendly Church), men commonly offered the following as reasons for not attending church:

  • Feminisation of the church – for example, worship that is perceived as “Jesus is my boyfriend” songs, which may put off men who are more “masculine” or driven
  • A lack of masculine role models
  • The lack of men with whom to form friendships
  • The church encourages passivity and it’s hard to be a “proper man”
  • Outreach is mainly female-friendly, such as family/toddler groups and social events. More male-focused events such as curry nights and men’s breakfasts are not always seen as helpful, or possibly “boring”

The US book Why Men Hate Going To Church by David Murrow has the following key points in a similar list*:

  • The church is formed for the stereotypical woman (i.e. feminised)
  • Services requires long attention spans of a particular kind, which are unsuited to men
  • Men fear they need to give up their masculinity – both as a man and as a provider
  • There is a lack of male leadership – no guy’s guys

‘There are no real men’

In our survey, many single Christian women complained that the men they met in church were not “real” men. Examining this more closely, they were often complaining that men in church were perceived to be passive, compliant and obedient (even using the expression “being controlled”). 

There are two possible explanations for this. The first is that single men are observed in a context where they are required to be unnaturally passive (for a man) – neither physically active, because they have to sit in a pew; nor active in conversation, because debate with the preacher is generally discouraged (the opposite of the Socratic method of discourse – learning through questioning and debate). In order to see men as they really are, women may need opportunities to see them outside of a worship service and the current expectations of behaviour in church. 

The second explanation may be that the church in its current state attracts and keeps only those men who are willing to be on the more passive end of the spectrum. It may be possible that the church attracts particular kinds of personalities and not others – and that men generally fall into the personality type for whom church is not attractive. In other words, perhaps it’s not a gender divide so much as a personality one.

Thrills and adventures

The question will continue to rage in academic circles about whether behaviour, such as going to church, is the result of gender, personality differences or social conditioning. There may be both biological and psychological explanations why, for example, women generally display higher empathic concern, avoid dangerous situations that might harm them or their families, and are more willing to seek help (attributes of psychological trait E [emotionality] in the HEXACO model of personality structure).

However, faith is not solely rooted in biology – it’s a social behaviour. A recent study of undergraduates at the University of Warwick found that gender differences in religion may be attributed to a personality measure associated with levels of impulsivity and sensation-seeking. This includes risk-taking, non-planning, liveliness, seeking thrills and adventures, intolerance of boredom and restlessness. In general, these factors are the opposite of our church experience (although they are completely aligned to the Christian faith as we read it in the New Testament). Greater religiosity is observed to go hand in hand with lower levels of this personality measure, and women (on average) display lower levels of these traits. However, it would imply that women with less passive and more adventurous personality types will also be turned off by church for the same reasons - see note on Gender at the end of this article.

This study is mirrored by many similar pieces of research that show single men are likely to feel particularly out of place in church. If the church wishes to attract and keep single men, it needs to find ways to integrate levels of impulsivity and sensation-seeking into the life of the church in a healthy way. 

How men experience singleness in church

In our research, we found significant differences in how men and women experience singleness. In general, single men reported feeling less happy to go to social functions, and less likely to want to be around married couples and children. They also had fewer social interactions. This may reflect the kind of churches men choose and whether they belong to a church at all.

Men seem to find singleness more difficult than women overall. They are more likely to think their life is on hold and they won’t be happy until they get married. Singleness also negatively impacts men’s faith more than women. In fact, women are more likely to say that being single is positive for their faith.

It seems that family- or community-focused churches might be particularly difficult places for some single men. And if pastoring is not addressing the difficulties people have with singleness, this could also put them off.

Differing views about sex

Our research found that Christian women are more likely than Christian men to believe sex before marriage is wrong. However, men are almost twice as likely to report feeling guilty about their sexual behaviour, and say they struggle with their thoughts and feelings about sex.

Churches often teach that there should be no sex outside marriage, but are they giving members the teaching and support to achieve this? If the church is holding people to a particular standard, without equipping single members to follow through with this, it is likely to simply increase guilt and condemnation, and push people away from church. Pastors need to back up their principles with practical teaching and support.

So is it all the church’s fault?

A male friend who is a new Christian told me he thinks men are more independent and less willing to humble themselves and depend on God. So there may be aspects of men’s culture that also play a part, and the church isn’t solely to blame for repelling men.

However, we can’t argue with statistics. For some reason(s), men are not coming to church as willingly as women. We need to start discussing this issue in our church councils and home groups, and consider how we can help more men to know the gospel. In part three of this series, we give some practical suggestions of how to do that.


*This is the second article in a three-part series on single men and the church.

Part one is on the statistics of church attendance among men and the types of churches men favour.

Part three continues by looking at practical ways churches can become more attractive to men.

A note about gender differences:

Concerning gender, it is tempting to either exaggerate or diminish the differences between men and women. Media fanfares announce first that there are inherent differences, and then that there aren’t. We do know that whatever is said about one gender is true of at least some of the other, and differences may sometimes be very slight. However, small differences change our perception, and even minor variations will lead to the other gender being perceived as “more this or that”. Even when we know individuals may not be characteristic, our brains generalise our experiences to the gender. The research would suggest that modern church culture is also putting off women who like adventure, challenge and risk.


Much of the data in this article comes from our own research, which can be found at https://www.singlefriendlychurch.com/research/research 

To read more about how respondents feel about the gender imbalance in church, visit https://www.singlefriendlychurch.com/gender-imbalance-in-church/gender-imbalance-in-church

For more about the University of Warwick study of gender and religion, visit: http://wrap.warwick.ac.uk/81722/1/WRAP_why_are_women_more_religious_than_men_revised_30_july_2015.pdf


*Acknowledgment: Thanks to Louis Elton, our 2016 intern, for his summary analysis.

David Pullinger 24 March 2017