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Why don’t (Tanzanian) men go to church?

The contention of the ‘Why men hate going to church’ movement is that church has become feminised. From David Murrow’s website:

With the dawning of the industrial revolution, large numbers of men sought work in mines, mills and factories, far from home and familiar parish. Women stayed behind, and began remaking the church in their image. The Victorian era saw the rise of church nurseries, Sunday schools, lay choirs, quilting circles, ladies’ teas, soup kitchens, girls’ societies, potluck dinners, etc.

Modern day church activities are ‘an emotional hothouse’ and focus on being ‘verbal, studious or sensitive’, none of which are ‘natural for men‘.  You’d hardly call this science – even social science is a stretch – but much of it seems to resonate with men and so Murrow gives some suggestions for manly church. Laying on hands during prayer is a no-go: men need their space. And you need songs which are about ‘doing’ rather than about intimacy.

Here’s the thing though: neither physical contact nor intimacy are ‘feminine’ in all cultures. For example, Tanzanian men LOVE physical contact, including with other men. (Actually, so did western men not too long ago!)  Also, they spontaneously sing, including love songs to Jesus, not just in church but even walking along the street!

Are Tanzanian men just less riddled with testosterone? Or are these propositions about men in church more cultural than innate?

I don’t want to invalidate the feelings many western men have about church. They may well be legitimate grievances within their particular cultural context.

But let me add another layer of complexity.

Despite the fact that church-type activities are not considered feminine in Tanzanian culture, men are still a missing demographic at our church in Dodoma. Men lead the church but women far outnumber men in the congregation. I don’t pretend to have anywhere near enough the cultural insight to suggest why yet. (Perhaps there are other elements of feminisation that I do not see yet!)

outside church

But I’d like to suggest an alternate hypothesis.

If we expect that Jesus gathers his followers from among the powerless, shouldn’t we expect there to be more women than men in church?

I’m not suggesting that women are the only powerless people in the world (hello, racial minorities, the mentally ill, the unemployed, etc.) but that because women are one oppressed people group, it ought not to surprise us that stacks of them end up in church.

Even in the west, where women tend to have more economic freedom than their majority world counterparts, they experience bondage in the constant public policing and criticism of their bodies, parenting, career, personalities, etc. For all the talk about men’s disenfranchisement in the church, they do not experience the same level of sexism or scrutiny that women do in society at large. Men still play the game of life on easy mode.

It may be that the church needs to do some long hard thinking about how to engage men in church, but that may have less to do with men being the victims of a feminised church and more to do with them being the ‘powerful’ in our wider society.

This is just a hypothesis – I have no idea how to test it (nor desire to do so). But with the ‘men hate church’ concept well worn and seemingly obvious in the western context, might it be worth considering? What do you think?

Categories: Tanzania Tanzanian culture Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

12 replies

  1. Thanks for this excellent post – a great rejoinder to the rather misogynistic claims about the ‘feminisation’ or ‘passivisation’ of the church.

  2. Reblogged this on An Anabaptist in Perth and commented:
    I wrote on the ‘feminisation’ of the church earlier, and why I disagree so strongly with such an analysis. Over on “Meet Jesus at Uni” blog, Tamie has a superb contribution to this debate, writing about Tanzania and how, despite their touchy-feely male culture, men STILL don’t go to church.

  3. I think you’re right that those with less power are more interested in the gospel that is open to all and that puts us on the same level. We see not only the 2M:3F ratio in Australia but a large number of over-70s, though there are other reasons for that.

    I would take that a bit further and say that you see less church involvement for people who have other options. Which is a similar thing to power. At my previous ch our youth group had many waves of kids from the school join us, but we rarely kept anyone past year 10. By then kids have other options on Friday nights.

    In your case, I would look and see if there are social settings that are men-only, and that is where men connect with each other. If there isn’t that for women, the church may be filling that role.

    I think the reasons Murrow gives are also correct but not comprehensive for the western context. We need to address them here but we can’t expect parity because men will probably always have more options.

    “And you need songs which are about ‘doing’ rather than about intimacy.” – I would go further and say you need a kind of church life that is more about doing and less about singing.

  4. Love love love this post Tamie! (for several reasons). David Murrow’s gender stereotypes are hideous (feminine = focused on home and family; masculine = accomplishment and career… wow). The very idea that making church more child/family friendly (Sunday Schools, nurseries) and hospitable (potluck dinners) alienates men is entirely ridiculous. Since when were men divorced from the needs of children or their own bellies?

    Your power hypothesis is very interesting and makes a lot of sense to me. It makes sense that Jesus’ counter-cultural affirmation of the powerless (including women) and warnings to the powerful (men) of the day would resonate differently with people who experience different levels of power in society today.

    And finally… it’s about time a woman commented on man-issues!! (I’m particularly thinking of Phillip Jensen’s Equip talks on “Being a wife” and “Being a minister’s wife”.) ;P

  5. Reblogged this on A Life Un-Lived and commented:

    One component missing from your analysis is the nature of male alliance and supernatural belief.

    Some famous men’s alliances include the YMCA, the Boy Scouts, fraternities (male greek letter organizations for undergraduate students), and the Freemasons. Women’s rights groups routinely co-opt these organizations and alter them so that women (or girls) may be admitted, such as with the admission of women to the UK Scouts in 2007, versus the ongoing barring of boys from the Guides. By 2011, more girls than boys joined the Scouts, although the Guides still claimed a larger membership. It makes one wonder where all the men have gone. Similar pressure at the university education level has reduced both attendance and graduation rates of men to the point that women outnumber men in both attendance and graduation. It is worth noting that the language of female-exclusive groups generally includes exhortations for “safe-spaces” for women, but universally ignores the notion that men need “safe spaces” also.

    Another interesting bit of data concerns rates of atheism. Men are more likely to be atheist than women, and women are more likely to believe in supernatural causes for events. The rates of supernatural belief are also higher among homosexual men and women, than among heterosexual men and women – another correlary that would not encourage heterosexual men to associate with churches. Interestingly, atheism, liberalism (defined as concern and willingness to aid strangers), and monogamy (yes, monogamy) are traits found among the most intelligent men, and negatively correlate with intelligence. While atheism and liberalism correlate to intelligence in women, monogamy doesn’t. Given the tendencey of religious cults to blur the lines of sexual exclusivity (fundamentalist mormons come to mind), it doesn’t surprise me that women of all types might accept a supernatural proposal as the basis for an exclusive community, while a man, an intelligent man especially, might conclude such communities do not serve his interests – even his concern for general welfare which isn’t group-specific. If supernatural belief and atheism correlate along with out-group welfare concerns, it might also explain why most religious communities are ethnically uniform.

    Women interested in men who value monogamy, un-biased charity, and strict rejection of supernatural claims (and making unfounded supernatural claims upon a woman’s liberty) might do well to avoid churches and seek good men among avowed atheists. Leaving one’s childhood religion might also open the door to more ethnic diversity in pair-bonding with a man.

  6. Seems like if someone distinguishes between what is masculine and what is feminine then they’re going to to get heavily criticized. The only acceptable thing to do in society anymore is say there isn’t much of a different which of course is untrue. The stats don’t lie.

    1. Jared, when you say ‘society’ do you mean western society? Gender differences are pretty easily distinguished and rigidly drawn here in Tanzania!

      1. I speak of the western culture(my culture). Is the lack of men at church in Tanzania low all around or is it just this one church? I would have to go to the church myself to see what is going on. I do know, for me, that it was men’s ministries that made me truly come alive. The services paled in comparison. I’ve read Murrow’s book “Why men hate church” and I agree with it wholeheartedly because, unbeknownst to him, he was explaining my story. How effective is Murrow’s ministry? Is it bringing men back to the church? I would say yes it has. It has for me at least.

        We know that God has made man and women in his image, yet separated them as male and female and gave them different needs and desires (of course there is overlap as well).

        We know that masculinity and femininity are reflections of God’s image, so we know it’s not purely a social construct made by man.

        We know that people go where their needs are being met.

        So, if masculinity often has different needs than female ones, then we must conclude that the masculine men are not getting their needs met in church — otherwise there wouldn’t be such a split between male and female chruch attendance.

        You most definitely can be onto something, but from my experience, I have benefited greatly from men’s groups, men’s ministries, Murrow’s insights etc. . . and it’s led me to stay in church because I know I can relate to it on a much deeper/more masculine level. There may be other reasons that cause Tanzanian men to not attend church, but from my experience it can only be an add-on to Murrow’s teachings and not a debunking of it (more and/both than a “this or that” logic I believe).

        And what if the culture of what a man is to be in Tanzania doesn’t fully resonate with the masculinity instilled within them by God? Just because something seems to be so, doesn’t necessarily make it so.

      2. Jared, it’s great to hear that Murrow’s stuff has so helped you stay connected with church. :)

        As for Tanzanian masculinity, I guess that is a much bigger question which neither you nor I (nor David Murrow!) are equipped to answer.

  7. It is interesting. You can put down one hypothesis but then you still have to explain the gender imbalance. Yes, the Gospel is always more attractive to the poor (by definition powerless). Personally I would put that down to being less focused on retaining possessions and wealth. Fear of loss leads to loss of faith. However, you still don’t provide an answer. If you follow your logic, if everyone became powerful, then the church would be empty. That view is also not very kind to faithful followers of Jesus who happen to be rich/powerful.
    From our experience in New Zealand, while David Murrow does not have all the answers, he is a lot further down the trail on thought leadership on the issue of men and church than most others. A lot of the points he has made are right on the money, even among different cultures here like Pacific Islanders who are more communal than Pakeha (European origin) New Zealanders.

    1. Hi John

      Thanks for your input! I’m glad you’ve found Murrow’s stuff so helpful for your context.

      To clarify, I don’t think the church is only for the powerless – that would exclude educated men like the apostle Paul or rich women like Lydia or those who are poor in spirit but wealthy like Zaccheus!

      Nevertheless, I do think there’s a strong biblical theme of God’s preferential option for the poor/oppressed – I’m thinking of Hannah’s song, the calls for justice in the minor prophets, the NT’s honour/shame language, etc.

  8. Sister, thank you so much and it is inspiring me much, you are doing great for our Lord. Babu.

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