THE challenge for the New Evangelization: bringing men back to church

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Feb 17, 2015

Here’s a simple formula, tried and true, for getting families into church: If the fathers come, the wives and children will come, too.

Steve Wood, who founded St. Joseph’s Covenant Keepers, cites research done by Southern Baptists on bringing families into churches:

  • If a child is the first in the family to become a Christian, there’s a 3.7 percent probability that the rest of the family will become Christians.
  • If mom is the first in the family to become a Christian, there’s a 17 percent probability that the rest of the family will follow.
  • If dad is the first in the family to become a Christian, there’s a 93 percent probability that everyone else in the family will follow his lead.

Wood found the same result in a Swiss study: “The study found that the one overwhelming critical factor is the religious practice of the father.” He concludes: “If a father does go regularly, regardless of the practice of the mother, between two-thirds and three-quarters of their children will become churchgoers (regular and irregular).’”

But don’t take Wood’s word for it; consult your own experience. Chances are, you know several families in which the mother goes to church regularly with the children, but the father doesn’t. Do you know any families in which the father goes, but the mother doesn’t? Offhand I can think of several families that fall into the former category, but not one in the latter.

Try another exercise: Think of the families you know that don’t go to church. Try to guess which parent would be more likely to respond favorably to an invitation. If she went, would he? If he went, would she?

Finally, stand at the door of your parish church on Sunday and take a quick count of men and women filing in or out. If the women don’t outnumber the men by a substantial margin, your parish is very unusual.

If we want to draw families into the Church (and keep those who are already there), we need to attract fathers. But to attract fathers means attracting men. And that’s not something the Catholic Church has been doing very effectively.

For three or four decades now, there has been a lively discussion in Catholic intellectual circles about the role of women in the Church. Only rarely does one hear about the urgent need to bring men into the active life of the Church. The discussion of women’s roles is usually focused on questions of ecclesiastical authority: on the need to have women serving on Vatican dicasteries and diocesan councils. For the vast majority of Catholics, however, the life of the Church is lived out at the level of the parish. And in most parishes, women are definitely not under-represented. Men are.

Yes, lay women have very little direct control over the decision-making process in the Church, but lay men have even less. Leaving aside the clergy, who are the people who shape the life of the ordinary parish? The parish secretaries, religious educators, lectors, extraordinary ministers, music directors, CCD teachers, housekeepers, and cantors are predominantly female. The pastor may have final authority, but his advisers—and the people to whom he will have to explain any tough decision—are mostly women.

The most important challenge facing the Church today, as three successive Popes have told us, is the New Evangelization. We urgently need to revive interest in the faith in societies such as our own, where the influence of the Church has been receding. We must stop the exodus of young people from the Church, the closing of parishes, the disappearance of religious orders and institutions. We must begin bringing people into the Church. In order to do that, we must make our parishes more attractive to men: to the fathers who might lead their families back to the active life of faith.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: stephen-o-rino - Apr. 08, 2015 6:35 PM ET USA

    i spoke to a man a while back asking him why he didn't go to Mass and he told me "my wife goes for me"! The men need to participate and lead the church. For starters let's hear the men's voices when we sing the hymns at Mass. Let it not be only a quiet woman's song, but the full throated song of the men also. "I am not ashamed of the Gospel". Are we afraid the world will laugh at us? Many men have become wimps in the face of the 'world's' perceived criticism for being an active Christian

  • Posted by: phil L - Feb. 26, 2015 11:08 AM ET USA

    Just to clarify: When I speak of "other Christian denominations" I am not speaking of the Catholic Church.

  • Posted by: Frodo1945 - Feb. 19, 2015 1:00 PM ET USA

    Years ago we had an aux bishop visit our parish and he noticed that there were many men serving as lectures, extraordinary ministers, etc. what was his response? He ordered our pastor to get more women in these ministries. then he celebrated Mass and feminized the liturgical prayers. It is the only instance in my 69 years where I was offended during the celebration of the Mass. "Goodbye Good Men". That is our problem.

  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - Feb. 18, 2015 11:20 AM ET USA

    I am sure the Church knows what men find attractive in worship. Is it touchy, feely emotional outpouring? I can guess...... NO! So if the Church knows what men want and need then why doesn't the Church provide what is needed? Now you have asked the proper question. The new Evangelization is simply providing a worship environment that is not toxic to the male character. The Church knows what that is but is not moving in that direction. Why? Why? Why?

  • Posted by: garedawg - Feb. 18, 2015 10:38 AM ET USA

    Even in our relatively small Byzantine Catholic congregation, I can think of several men who come without their wives and some of those men have children with them. There is something about the Byzantine rite that especially draws men.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Feb. 18, 2015 6:30 AM ET USA

    In the mid-1990s I was a catechist and an aspiring director of religious education (DRE). The first meeting of archdiocesan DREs that I attended was an informative experience. I walked into a room filled with middle-aged women and saw one timid man (I knew him from deacon training) sitting in a corner. A kind woman asked me who I was looking for. I answered, "the DRE meeting." She turned to the other woman and exclaimed: "Imagine that. A gentleman DRE!" I then thought to myself: "Imagine that!"

  • Posted by: filioque - Feb. 18, 2015 1:41 AM ET USA

    Parishes that celebrate the Extraordinary Form,the Traditional Latin Mass, don't seem to have this problem. There are lots of men and lots of young families with lots of children. Can't imagine why....

  • Posted by: swtemmet3324 - Feb. 17, 2015 9:38 PM ET USA

    One way to support the New Evangelization is through men's groups. At my parish, we are in our second year of a program entitled "That Man is You". I highly recommend it. Visit http://www.paradisusdei.org/index.php/programs/tmiy/

  • Posted by: shrink - Feb. 17, 2015 8:57 PM ET USA

    The virtuous male holds the family and society together, and by extension he holds the Church together. The collapse of western society was caused by the collapse in the numbers of the virtuous male. This was predicted by the collapse in the clergy in the West and the concurrent rise of feminists who have been empowered in the university, media, government and the Church.

  • Posted by: Gil125 - Feb. 17, 2015 6:34 PM ET USA

    How politically incorrect. But how perfectly true. But when the pastor of Star of the Sea Church in San Francisco decided to use only boys as what we must now call altar servers, the uproar was intense---and still is. The decision is over a month old and only this morning the SF Chronicle ran yet another screed in opposition to it. (I am a male more-or-less daily communicant with three children, two of whom are practicing Catholics in their 50's. We pray for the third.)