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Why Men Throng Rallies, but Not Pews

Promise Keepers events stir rethinking of church's gender appeal

With "Jesus Lives" emblazoned on his T-shirt and "truth" inscribed on his hat, Dan Cote Jr. surveyed the sea of men surrounding him at the Promise Keepers rally this weekend and offered a prediction.

"Men are going to find their place here today," said the blue-collar worker from Alton, Ill. "They are hungering for God. They don't want to play 'church' any more; they want something real."

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The exuberant hugs, tears, and prayers at the all-male Christian evangelist gathering - estimated to be one of the largest assemblies ever held in Washington - showed vividly the thirst of American men for spiritual guidance in their lives. But it also underscored how many men with religious hankerings are flocking to football stadiums and mass outdoor rallies instead of to the sanctuary of their hometown churches.

As Mr. Cote and hundreds of thousands of other men return home, many wonder how they'll adjust to the more staid, predominantly female cultures of their local congregations - raising important questions about the interplay of masculinity and religion in America today.

By their own account, 86 percent of American men say religion is "very or fairly important" in their lives, according to a recent Gallup poll. But only one-third attend church. By contrast, women are more loyal worshippers. Nearly half of all women regularly attend church.

The visible absence of men from the pews, combined with the rise in the 1990s of men's parachurch groups such as Promise Keepers, has prompted soul-searching among men's ministries in mainstream denominations.

"There is a real spiritual renewal with men today ... but they are not looking for [renewal] within the institutional church," says Douglas Haugen, president of the North American Conference of Church Men's Staff in Chicago, the country's largest ecumenical body for men's ministry.

"People are realizing that the old model is not working for men," agrees Curtis Miller, the associate for men's ministry of the 2.7 million-member Presbyterian Church (USA) based in Louisville, Ky.

Men's disaffection with church is rooted in a "feminization" of religion in America in the early 19th century, scholars say. Churches, although usually led by male pastors, steadily fell into the women's sphere during the period 1800 to 1860, as men pursued westward expansion.

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As public and private life grew more separate, "religion became associated with the home, the individual, and personal choice ... it became the province of women," says Mark Muesse, associate professor of religious studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn.

Not only did women attend church in greater numbers; increasingly, traditional feminine virtues came to define the popular image of Christians. "They are humble, self-sacrificing, nurturing, and kind of weak and passive," says Evelyn Kirkley, assistant professor of theological and religious studies at the University of San Diego.

This religious gender gap gradually led many Americans to view Christianity and church-going as unmanly. "For men to be involved Christians, they have to ... reject many qualities their culture says are masculine," Professor Kirkley says.

Churches naturally tailored Bible studies, retreats, and other programs to meet the needs of the women who formed the core of most congregations. Men's ministries, if they existed at all, were small and often limited to dry, traditional formats such as speaker luncheons and dessert socials.

As a result, men as a whole have often looked to their church in vain for spiritual and emotional support in recent years, as they grapple with job insecurity, family instability, and shifting gender roles, Haugen says.

"Men are searching for what it means to be a man in the 1990s, and the church is one place where there should have been some dialogue," he says. "If we have fallen down somewhere, it has been in interpreting what is going on in the larger culture within the congregation."

It was this spiritual void that Promise Keepers (PK) and other Christian parachurch groups stepped into in the early 1990s, amid the rise of a broader American men's movement. Seeking converts in football stadiums and selling T-shirts with slogans like "Men of Integrity," and "A Man's Man is a Godly Man," the overarching PK message is to affirm both manhood and patriarchal Christianity.

"Promise Keepers is trying to articulate a religion that ... says, 'it's fine to be male, and here's a way to relate your faith to being male in a positive way,'" says David Roozen, director of the Center for Social and Religious Research at Hartford Seminary in Hartford, Conn.

At Saturday's six-hour rally on Washington's Mall, speakers hailed the huge crowd as an "almighty army" of men chosen by God to lead their families, churches, and communities. "We are the church," PK founder Bill McCartney shouted to the crowd. "We are the brotherhood of believers."

At the same time, the men were encouraged to let down their emotional guard, hold hands, sing, and sway together in a show of brotherly camaraderie. "I can walk up to any man here and tell him I love him and I'm not going to be called a queer - I'm probably going to be hugged back," says Cote.

Yet as Cote and his friends ride their bus back to Alton, church leaders face the challenge of how to tap the enthusiasm of PK followers while integrating them with local congregations. Several large denominations are now cooperating on a video and training materials designed to help clergy assimilate such men back into the church, Mr. Miller says. They are also working to make existing men's ministries more relevant, he says, adding that last year alone, 26,000 Presbyterian men attended PK events.

"If nothing else, the parachurch organizations have created a focus on men's ministries that there hasn't been in many years," he says.

Officials at leading denominations say the men's religions revival movement is energizing their ranks and bringing some new converts. "Promise Keepers has helped us to see that the excitement of the ball game can be carried over into our excitement in our relationship with Jesus," says Thomas Wright. Mr. Wright oversees men's ministries for 16 million Southern Baptists. The Alpharetta, Ga.-based organization has officially endorsed Promise Keepers.

One 1997 survey indicates that male baby boomers returning to the church fold are largely responsible for stemming a long decline in overall church attendance figures, according to Barna Research Group of Oxnard, Calif.

Still, some PK attendees have grown dissatisfied with their local churches and quit. "If a person finds a really invigorated sense of God at a PK event, it may make their local church look boring," says Mr. Roozen.

Some mainstream clergy complain that small men's ministries can't compete with the high-energy Promise Keepers events, which one, Presbyterian minister likened to "drinking from a fire hose."

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