Hallo again to all.
Who knew that chaps in the UK would prefer shopping for lingerie to singing hymns? But so it is, according to a recent survey:
'Somewhere along the way church has become all about wet handshakes and weak tea,' said Sorted magazine founder Steve Legg. What to do to convince young men to consider venturing into a church? Sorted magazine proposes to do something about it. Modelled on GQ and Esquire, the graphics are hip, the prose sassy, and the men inside mostly muscular. None look as if he'd give a wet handshake.
It's easy to smile at Sorted and find it not to one's liking, especially if one's liking involves Evensong, seemly Anglican vestments, the Book of Common Prayer, and tea. But it is a fact that the church teeters on the brink of extinction with every generation, unless we find some compelling and engaging way of making new disciples. Whilst children are still within our familial grasp, we can insist they attend Sunday School. As they grow older, we can plead with them to join 'the youth group'. And we may even cajole them into Confirmation. But after that, we lose them. Our sons might easily become the guys who find a hospital more appealing than a pew.
No matter how good the Sunday School and how engaging the youth group, part of the dropping away from church no doubt comes from living in a defiantly secular world, which dares Christians to defend their belief in a 'fairy-tale sky god'. Some of the dropping away is surely from peer pressure, often a focussed force to play sport, to go shopping, or simply sleep in on a Sunday. As church slips away and our children grow older, the relentlessly busy pace of their lives can crowd out church. And for some the excuse for not venturing inside is undoubtedly the elderly-ladies-and-tea-cups reputation of many Anglican parishes (whether mythic or not).
In families where there is no religious tradition, the work of attracting young people, especially young men, to church is even harder. Sorted is one approach*. If it errs on the side of testosterone, we can still approve the attempt to speak in a non-churchy language to people whose image of Jesus is vague and whose idea of church is skewed. So many of us aren't even asking the questions, never mind trying to address the misperceptions. And trying is a tricky thing indeed. An appeal to one sex or the other can slide into stereotypes of the worst kind. Manipulating images of Jesus to appeal to a target demographic is theologically wrongheaded. But it's equally wrongheaded to keep doing what we've been doing and expect a different result.
Christians of the early twentieth century like Woodbine Willie and Dick Sheppard exercised a straightforward directness and clarity that caught the attention of both men and women, yet they were probably perceived as 'masculine'. (Sorted cover material, possibly.) But both embodied a gentleness and tenderness in their pastoral ministries that could be simplistically called 'feminine'. The most charismatic figures in Christianity, we daresay, have embodied characteristics we tend to label 'male' and 'female', as did Our Lord himself. In Christ there is neither male nor female, Greek or Jew, slave or free, but we can only draw people into the fullness of Christianity when we first get them through the door of our churches. If there are massive misperceptions, we need to recognise them, talk about them, and see what it is we can do about them.
This goes beyond male and female stereotypes, of course. All of us deal every day with the exaggerated caricature of Christianity that
comes from the headlines, from hypercritical parishioners and priests, from a distasteful moral righteousness that repels more than attracts,
and from our own failings that get in the way of Christ's love. Every day we've all another chance in our own worlds — whether we're
'in school or in lanes or at sea; In church or in trains or in shops or at tea' — to try to erase the caricature a little bit.
And that's Muscular Christianity indeed.
See you next week.
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