Late in 2008, Todd Carmichael staggered to the South Pole after covering 700 uphill miles in 39 days. He arrived with damaged gear, frostbit lungs, extreme exhaustion—and a world record! His discipline and determination, endurance and exhaustion, are truly amazing. Equally amazing, however, is whom he beat. Her name is Hannah McKeand, and Carmichael bested her record by 104 minutes—a margin comparable to winning a marathon by less than 4 minutes.1
Whether these adventurers are Christians, I don’t know. Their exploits, however, turn my mind to a frequent accusation commonly called “the feminization of the church.” As neither an extreme athlete nor a sociologist of religion, I will not attempt to provide authoritative answers to questions such as “Is the church being feminized?” and “Would that be so bad?” Instead, I’ll simply state my two cents and strive to base these thoughts in common sense. My intent is to unveil the futility of two popular solutions to the so-called problem of what some say is “the feminization of the church.”
Feats of Strength
The reason Carmichael and McKeand bring this issue to mind is that many church leaders believe the solution to this “problem” involves feats of strength and daring. The theory is that men will clamor to congregations that sponsor activities such as kayaking and hiking. Why? Because such events are manly! And what is the goal of manly outreach? To put it bluntly, it is to target men rather than women so that the gender ratio will invert and the church will experience less female influence.
I wanted to test the theory that men are more interested than women in rigorous and even dangerous recreation, so I devised a stealthy experiment and formed a hiking group. Anyone is welcome to join this group, but all who express interest are told we do not take leisurely jaunts. Instead, each outing has some significant challenge, the most common being distance—our longest hike, for example, exceeded 26 miles. Other obstacles have included bitter windchills, steep climbs, sheer descents, black bears, yellow jackets, and two territorial rattlesnakes.
I sent invitations to an equal number of men and women. The list has grown and now consists of 20 men and 20 women. I tell people we hike to stay in shape, rise to the challenge, enjoy God’s creation, and get away from it all. While all these are true, I haven’t till now shared one other important goal of mine: to track the ratio of female to male participants. After 19 monthly hikes, having invited an equal number of men and women to join in rigorous outdoor adventures, 33 men and 57 women have taken up the challenge. Surprised? Me too! I thought the ratio would drift toward 50-50.
Some aspects of our adventures are indeed 50-50. Our two most capable hikers are a man and a woman. Twice someone has nearly not finished—one man and one woman. Two people stretched our marathon hike to 30 miles—one man and one woman.
In summary, my informal experiment suggests that men are not decidedly more interested in demanding and dangerous outdoor recreation than women. It follows that recreation-based attempts to defeminize the church are destined to fail—and praise God for that!
Proposed solutions to “the feminization of the church” tend to include not only rigorous recreation, but also manly music. Mark Driscoll, preaching and theology pastor at Mars Hill Church in Seattle, Washington, believes contemporary worship music is overly feminine:
I am not supposed to say this, but most of the worship dudes I have heard are not very dudely. They seem to be very in touch with their feelings and exceedingly chickified from playing too much acoustic guitar and singing prom songs to Jesus while channeling Michael Bolton and flipping their hair.2
Less abrasive is David Murrow, author of Why Men Hate Going to Church. “Lyrically and stylistically,” he writes, “praise music resonates with a woman’s heart. Men can and do enjoy praise music, but it’s an acquired taste.”3
Murrow cites the 1913 hymn “In the Garden” as a prime example of “a decisive move toward the feminine,” protesting that “Christ has put down his sword and picked up a daisy.”4 That this hymn is by a man (Charles Austin Miles) doesn’t give Murrow pause. He supports his view by listing six songs he considers so feminine that they require “mental gymnastics” from the men who sing them.5
One might assume, following Murrow’s logic, that these six songs are written by women. In fact, Murrow’s songs are by a surprisingly gender-balanced group: three men, one married woman, one couple, and one trio that includes a woman.6
Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI) lists the 100 most frequently used songs in its database. If contemporary praise music is problematically feminine in both lyrics and tone, as the Driscoll-Murrow crowd avers, we should expect the top 100 list to be dominated—or at least infiltrated—by women. In fact, however, the list includes 145 male and 16 female composers.7 Thus more than 90 percent of the composers writing today’s most popular praise songs are male!
Moreover, some of the most “masculine” songs are written by women (and some of the most “feminine” songs are written by men). Consider Twila Paris’s “He is Exalted,” Jennie Lee Riddle’s “Revelation Song,” and Brooke Fraser’s “Desert Song,” all of which employ metaphors of power. In contrast, Lenny LeBlanc and Paul Baloche’s “Above All” and Martin Nystrom’s “As the Deer” both feature elegant melodies and calming images from nature.
Going back to the 19th century, Fanny Crosby’s lyrics are not predominantly what we would call “feminine.” And William Bradbury’s melodies are not especially “masculine.” In search of a nonscientific test for these statements, I asked my mom for her five favorite Fanny Crosby songs and my dad for his five favorite William Bradbury songs. I thought perhaps a woman’s favorite songs written by a woman would be characteristically feminine, and a man’s favorite songs written by a man would be characteristically masculine.
My quick survey’s mixed results indicate that Crosby, Bradbury, and my parents don’t share Driscoll and Murrow’s view. My mom’s favorite Fanny Crosby songs are “Blessed Assurance,” “To God Be the Glory,” “Praise Him! Praise Him!” “Redeemed!” and “Draw Me Nearer.” My dad’s favorite William Bradbury hymns are “Savior Like a Shepherd Lead Us,” “Jesus Loves Me,” “The Solid Rock,” “He Leadeth Me,” and “Sweet Hour of Prayer.” Judge for yourselves, but I believe the list of hymns by Crosby is more vigorous and Bradbury’s list is more intimate.
I conclude, therefore, that a central problem with the manly music argument is that men both write and perform the overwhelming number of songs that Driscoll, Murrow, and others consider too feminine. If anyone is guilty of feminizing the church’s music, it’s not women!
Questioning the Assumption
The usual assumption behind the claim that the church is being feminized is that this is bad. One glaring example is the book title, The Church Impotent: The Feminization of Christianity.8 If the church manifests feminine characteristics, and if it does so more than it once did, then why would this make the church impotent? Such a claim is not only illogical, but offensive. Surely it is ungentlemanly to say to women that the problem with the church is that it’s becoming more and more like them.
I hope my informal investigations have sufficiently deconstructed the feats of strength and manly music arguments that typically accompany laments about “the feminization of the church.” If, however, you remain almost persuaded,9 I offer a final piece of evidence. At my congregation the worship minister’s favorite praise song is “Hungry,” which is written by Kathryn Scott and includes intimate lines such as, “Broken I run to you for your arms are open wide.” The worship minister, by the way, plays rugby and bench presses 265 pounds.
1See Darren Reidy, “Alone Across the Ice,” Men’s Journal, 24 April 2009; www.mensjournal.com/alone-across-the-ice.
2Mark Driscoll, Confessions of a Reformission Rev.: Hard Lessons from an Emerging Missional Church, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), 146.
3David Murrow, Why Men Hate Going to Church (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2005), 140.
5Murrow, 139, 140.
6“The Power of Your Love” by Geoff Bullock; “Breathe” by Marie Barnett; “Let My Words Be Few” by Beth and Matt Redman; “Here I Am to Worship” by Tim Hughes; “Oh Lord, You’re Beautiful” by Keith Green; “You Are So Good to Me” by Ben Pasley, Don Chaffer, and Robin Pasley.
7Christian Copyright Licensing International Inc., accessible at www.songselect.com to those with a membership. Statistics are from 5 September 2010. Every name has been counted once. A song by Beth and Matt Redman, for example, counts twice, once for a man and once for a woman.
8Leon J. Podles, The Church Impotent: The Feminization of Christianity (Dallas: Spence, 1999).
9A phrase which brings to mind not only Acts 26:28 but also the flowing melody of the hymn “Almost Persuaded,” written in 1871 by male composer Philip Paul Bliss.
Jeffrey Miller is associate professor of Bible at Milligan College in Tennessee. He holds a PhD in biblical interpretation and has held worship ministries in Nebraska and Tennessee.