I periodically hear the accusation that the church is too feminine, and I always find this claim bewildering. As many have quipped, how is it possible for the Bride of Christ to be too feminine? More seriously, only about 10% of churches in America have women as senior pastors, which means that for most church-goers the dominant voice on any Sunday morning is male.
Yet the claim persists that the church, and indeed American society more broadly, is too feminine. A recent survey found that among white evangelicals, 53% agree that society is “too soft and feminine.” This number is higher than any other group; 42% of all Americans agree that society is too feminine, while only 30% of religiously unaffiliated Americans agree. And while this survey addressed American society more broadly, it seems reasonable to suppose that those who see society as too feminine are likely to see the church in the same way.
In this piece, I want to tackle the question of what it means to suggest that the church is “too feminine”: what does this claim mean, and does it have any merit? What does this idea of excess femininity suggest about how the church interacts with cultural ideas about masculinity and femininity?
The one fact that might support the idea of a feminized church lies in church attendance. Although very few women fill the role of senior pastor, studies of church attendance show that more women than men attend church on a regular basis. The gap between women and men’s church attendance is, however, shrinking: women are entering the ranks of the un- or de-churched at a higher rate than men.
While this trend should be concerning to churches, women do still outnumber men in the pews and, often, in the ranks of the volunteers whose labors enable the smooth functioning of many different ministries. And this gives rise to the sense that, with more women than men attending services and volunteering their hours, churches prioritize women’s needs. Prioritizing women’s needs then causes men to feel less welcome, continuing the cycle of higher attendance among women.
The number of women’s ministries is often presented as evidence that churches cater to women, and certainly in my experience most churches do have more activities for women specifically than for men specifically—although if there are more women in a church, this shouldn’t be surprising. The existence of women’s ministries, even if they outnumber men’s ministries, is hardly evidence that the church prioritizes women above men.
A look at the shifting demographics in churches raises the obvious question: if churches are catering to women, why are women leaving in greater numbers than men? The answer to this question is undoubtedly complex, but it seems that churches as a whole are not as sensitive to the needs of women as the charge of feminization would suggest.
In addition to the purported general focus on women, two aspects of worship services or small groups are often cited as reasons why the church is too feminine: first, a focus on feelings and second, worship songs in the “Jesus is my Boyfriend” genre—the songs that could, with very minor changes, describe passionate romantic love. Talking about feelings and singing about passionate love are, according to some, evidence that churches are too feminine.
Now, I must confess that I, even as a woman, dislike the “Jesus is my Boyfriend” songs; I find the conflation of divine and erotic love problematic, although that’s a topic for another day. (I am equally uncomfortable with the militaristic hymns proposed as a counterbalance, such as “Onward Christian Soldiers”.) But my objection is not due to the emotion of the songs in the abstract, which seems to be the main concern of those who raise the “too feminine” objection.
This charge that any discussion of feelings is too feminine deserves some attention. The association of men with reason and women with emotion is deeply rooted in Western culture and often unexamined in today’s churches, as we see when apologetics (rational and logical defenses for Christianity) are promoted as ways to bring men into the church.
In this line of thought, any spirituality that is emotional must be feminine and thus weak; masculine spirituality, by contrast, is rational and robust.
And yet these associations of the feminine with emotion and the masculine with reason arise from Greek philosophy, not the creation narrative in Genesis. They are culturally assigned characteristics, not created distinctions. As the church, we affirm the wholeness of each person: creation in the image of God means that we all, men and women, have the capacities of reason and emotion.
Jesus is a prime example of this integration. In his life, he engaged with people both rationally and emotionally, teaching the crowds and weeping along with Lazarus’ mourners, disputing with Pharisees and flipping the money-changers’ tables in anger.
Churches that fail to engage the rational mind are, of course, not fully engaging all aspects of their parishioners—although the focus on preaching in most evangelical churches suggests that rationality is alive and well in the church. Yet men who prefer to not engage their emotions in worship or discuss their emotions in small groups are buying into the cultural, but not biblical, notion that displaying emotion somehow diminishes masculinity.
Thus, under the charge of “too feminine” is a fear of emasculation, a fear that spiritual engagement of the whole person (rational and emotional) somehow makes men less manly. And this rests on an implicit denigration of women, or at least femininity. “Too feminine” clearly indicates a problem, while “too masculine” seldom presents itself as a possibility, let alone a problem. But this reflects cultural valuations of masculinity and femininity rather than an embrace of both men and women as human beings created in the image of God.
Calling the American church “too feminine” certainly calls attention to demographic imbalances, and it may be that churches need to make adjustments in response—although the number of women leaving the church suggests that churches haven’t been doing a particularly good job of addressing their needs. But mostly, the charge of “too feminine” reveals the ways in which we still associate women with emotion and emotion with weakness. Thus “too feminine” becomes a problem that must be corrected, not an assertion whose underlying assumptions deserve closer analysis.
To be clear, I am not suggesting that churches prioritize emotions over reason. I am personally uncomfortable with public displays of emotions (my midwestern heritage!), so I sympathize with anyone, man or woman, whose palms start sweating when it’s time to share in a small group. But we are to worship God with our hearts and our minds, and it is not “too feminine” to have a spirituality that embraces both. Despite our cultural valuations of emotions and reason, engaging heart and mind is a profound affirmation that, male and female, we are created in God’s image.