I believe there are two main reasons as to why our churches seem to be full of women but very few men: the Christian faith can come across as feminine and men can have a problem with being vulnerable and surrendering themselves in the way Christianity demands they do.
Where are the men we can look up to?
We desperately need good examples of godly men within our churches, as well as our wider communities, which is why I started 4:12MEN in 2017. The name comes from 1 Timothy 4:12, which says: “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity.” By gathering young men together, I believe there is a real opportunity to for us to grow, take responsibility for our choices, understand that real change starts with us and use our influence positively both within church but also in our communities.
We gather as 4:12MEN on Monday evenings, creating a safe space for men to have honest conversations and build deep friendships. We take time to wrestle with the subjects that affect us daily. For instance, I recently held a session on the power of visuals. We discussed how the paintings we have of Jesus give us a mental picture of what he was like, which we take on board subconsciously. He can come across as quite feminine due to his long, flowing blonde hair and because he is often depicted surrounded by children. This can be perceived as passive and weak, which we respond to negatively. Also, being influenced by our social constructs of what masculinity means – strong, focused, self-made and driven – we can find his messages of turning the other cheek and loving our enemies pretty off-putting. Such teaching doesn’t seem appealing or natural to us, and so it discourages men from following him. However, following Jesus’ teaching takes real strength – and courage. That’s the message we need to put across.
We need to learn to recognise the subconscious messages we have taken on board and challenge them when necessary, because they make it harder for us to follow Jesus. For example, too many men have allowed their egos to run riot and therefore do not see their need for a saviour. Also, many young men either have poor male figures in their lives, or have grown up without fathers, which makes it much harder for them to submit to someone they can’t see (Jesus) and listen to a man in the pulpit they may not actually know.
What young men need is other men they can sit and talk to, side-by-side. Without this, church becomes a place of disillusionment and questioning. I know so many young men who have wrestled with questions such as: Who can I talk to here? Why aren’t there men who are like me? I’m from a single-parent home – who can be an example to me? Churches seem to promote what’s already in existence, which in many cases is a majority women congregation. This builds an expectation that things won’t change, which means that men can drift away. Churches need to make more of an effort to reach out, and listen to what the men in their communities need. If you are a man and you are in church, make it a conscious mission to engage with other men, particularly those who are younger, and work to build a sense of community.
The need for strong leadership
A lack of men in churches affects society tremendously, as it also means there are less Christian men leading within their households – and these are the bedrock of community. I strongly believe that many of the world’s problems are due to a lack of leadership (including servant leadership!), and that if we can fix this in our culture, for example, we will see a completely different society.
We need godly men in all areas of life, which is why I have also initiated an annual event, Groom2Husband. Current grooms (or those who have been married for two years or less) can gather together with more seasoned husbands, to discuss the realities of marriage honestly – the good, the bad and the ugly. As they build up a rapport, this provides them with a community of men they can trust and who can help them to prepare for their wedding day and married life beyond that.
I remain hopeful that, as we learn to imitate Christ’s example and disciple one another, we can raise up new generations of strong, Christian men who will change the legacy within our churches.
Ayokunu Oduniyi is an award-winning photographer who runs the media company A&O Studios. He is the founder and director of 4:12MEN, a Christian men’s organisation that meets every Monday. He also founded the church A NEW THING LDN in October 2019. Follow him @byayokunu on Instagram and Twitter.