On male friendship and the local church

Why do many churches struggle to fix the crisis of American male loneliness?

This piece by Ryan McCormick on the decline of spaces for male friendship is really spectacular. I’ve read so many essays on the topic, most of which are two and three times as long as Ryan’s, and almost none of them produce the genuine insight that Ryan did. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend stopping what you’re doing and fixing that.

I think a lot about friendship and masculinity nowadays. As you can probably guess, one reason is that it’s relevant to me personally. I struggle to make friends. Leaving college was for me, like many others, a turning point; the last several years have been almost exclusively given to work, marriage, parenting, etc. The richest time of friendship in the years I’ve been married were probably the almost 3 years we spent in Wheaton, where I enjoyed getting close to a few coworkers and a wonderful small group. COVID-19 put an anticlimactic end to that, and we ended up moving back to Kentucky last summer. I can’t say I haven’t struggled with the discouragement of losing those men.

Statistically a majority of American men my age are in the same boat, and it gets worse for men when they leave their 30s. Middle-aged men are one of the loneliest groups in the country, so much so that it’s being called a legitimate public health crisis. We probably won’t know for a while the effect that a pandemic and lockdowns had on this, but it’s not hard to guess: men aged 35-64 represented 40% of all suicide deaths before the pandemic.

All right, so: Time to recover a doctrine of the local church, right? Hold on. As Ryan points out in his piece, local churches are more often than not participants in the diminishing of “third spaces” rather than solutions. Here’s a quote from his essay:

It is widely noted in my own congregation that the women have their own small groups and yearly retreats; the men have practically nothing. As Anthony Bradley noted in a recent essay on this site, the American church (even when it is pastored or governed by men) functions mainly due to the involvement of women. Consequently, the social programs that churches typically offer adhere to the norms of contemporary female friendship, e.g., small groups, where church members share life updates and prayer requests. These groups are certainly immensely valuable to men. Yet while I’ve loved each small group I’ve belonged to, they have never produced durable male friendships. What is lacking in the church are groups where a common horizon can be forged between guys.

Let me add another element to this. It seems to me that in many evangelical church cultures, women’s ministry naturally encompasses producing opportunities for friendship in a way that men’s ministry doesn’t. For one thing, as Ryan points out, men’s ministries are often sparse. A typical church’s finite resources tend to go toward facilitating events for the dominant demographic, and throughout evangelicalism the dominant demographic is female. It’s not uncommon at all to find evangelical churches that have absolutely nothing offered for men, or if there is, it is an annual event, one in which a lot of pressure is placed on men to not miss since this will be the only event of its kind for a year.

For another thing, men’s ministry is highly programmed. In the recent past I’ve noticed that my wife will come home after a women’s ministry event and have much to share about the people she talked to and their casual conversations. This is fascinating to me because the majority of men’s events I’ve been to allow little or no space for this. What matters in men’s events is being productive: doing as much Bible study or “sharing” time as possible, and programming events and groups so that men are free to come, download the content, and leave efficiently.

The impression I’ve often got from many churches is that, when it comes to the men, gathering and friendship are thought about instrumentally. They are to be valued to the extent that they represent opportunities to do the “real” stuff of studying the Bible, or praying, or sharing testimonies/accountability questions. What I don’t find in many churches are opportunities for men to come together and form friendship in a natural way, without expectations of a spiritual performance or mastery of biblical content.

In other words, in many of the evangelical church contexts I’ve seen, women are invited into friendship and encouragement, while men are usually only invited into either Bible study or accountability. And some men receive this message loud and clear, and make a point to attend church programming without forming meaningful friendships on the margins; but because these men make an appearance at the events that “matter,” the church infers its men’s ministry is doing quite well.

It should go without saying that this doesn’t describe every church or perhaps even a majority. But it’s been a consistent enough pattern in my own experience that I’ve expressed these thoughts to various people throughout the last few years, and many of them say they’ve seen it as well.

So how does the local church address itself to the crisis of loneliness in American men? I think Ryan’s essay gives an important clue. In order for the local church to become a living solution rather than a cliche to throw out when you don’t know the answer, churches have to think hard about the material causes of isolation and loneliness among men. Are men lonely because there are not enough one day conferences and Bible studies? Or are they lonely because the environments and contexts in which male friendship thrives are disappearing? Does Christian formation for men depend primarily on how much Bible knowledge they are able to put on a sheet of paper, or how emotionally transparent they can be a weeknight gathering? Or does it depend on something deeper and harder to manufacture?

As with many things, if we’re not sure of the answer just yet, we can always identify what we have been doing and ask if it’s working. Well, is it?