While parents in general believe institutions serve their children well, many are worried the majority, like churches and schools, have been serving their daughters better than their sons under norms of gender equality, new research suggests. And the only institutions where at least white parents believe boys are served slightly better are sports and other clubs.
Data from the 2020 American Family Survey, released in September, show that a striking minority, just 36%, of parents believe churches are serving their sons well. This share is almost equal to the 33% who say the same about how the criminal justice system is serving their sons. A minority of parents also believe churches are serving their daughters well but that number is five percentage points higher at 41%.
Daughters were also shown as being better served by every other institution highlighted in the survey, including the education system and friend networks. The only exceptions were sports and other clubs, which some 42% of particularly white parents believe are serving their sons well compared to 37% who say the same about how they serve their daughters.
The latest American Family Survey, was conducted between July 3 and July 14 in a partnership between the Deseret News and Brigham Young University’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy. The study explored several areas of family life, including relationships, economics, politics, health and culture. Market research and data analytics firm YouGov interviewed 3,251 respondents who were then matched down to a sample of 3,000 to produce a final dataset reflective of a sampling frame based on gender, age, race and education.
Jeremy C. Pope, co-director of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy and one of the lead investigators on the survey, told The Christian Post that he was particularly surprised by how poorly parents rated the church in serving their children, especially their sons.
“My first reaction to that institutions data was I was surprised churches didn’t do so well. I didn’t really think about this deeply ahead of time but I thought that churches would do a little bit better than they did,” he said.
“I was not surprised that the criminal justice system was low but to be honest, churches are kind of in there with the criminal justice system and that surprised me. In future years, we want to follow up on that because it suggests a bit of dissatisfaction in how churches in particular are serving sons.”
Pope, who is a father of three daughters, said he was also struck by the data showing almost all of the institutions underserving boys and he believes the push for gender equality could be “blinding us to problems with boys.”
“It’s striking to me that daughters tend to be served better by virtually all the institutions except for sports or other clubs and it is also striking to me that friend networks, which you wouldn’t necessarily think is fantastic, dramatically outperforming churches in terms of satisfaction with how it’s serving their kids,” he noted.
“I think within the norm of gender equality, that may be blinding us to problems with boys and problems facing boys that the public knows are out there but is sometimes reluctant to talk about because nobody wants to favor boys over girls.”
Pope further argued that what the data reveals is an increasing concern about the well-being of boys and he doesn’t believe the concern is misplaced.
“I have three daughters. I don’t worry a ton about them. They are great young women,” he said.
“The thing that I think this survey highlights this year about gender is that increasingly I see signs that society is concerned about boys. I have a feeling that that concern is not misplaced. I think we should be concerned about how our sons are doing, what their prospects are in life. And it probably means that parents and maybe more as a society [need to think] about what it is we need to do to make the environment for sons hospitable to them, helpful, what sort of skills do they need to acquire? What sort of expectations should we be setting for them because it does look to me that there is some sort of dissatisfaction out there with how our sons as a society are growing up.”
The largest disparity between how parents believe institutions serve their sons and daughters was reflected in the education system where 63% of parents said it served their daughters well but only 55% said the same about their sons.
A small experiment
Pope and his colleagues noted in their report on the survey that to gauge the overall concern about boys and girls among respondents, they conducted an experiment where some were questioned only about their worries over girls, while others were asked about boys. Another group of respondents were asked about both boys and girls.
Parents who were only asked to think about their worries about girls responded with concern only 30% of the time. The group asked about both girls and boys responded with concern almost equally — 35% for girls and 36% for boys.
When respondents were asked only about boys, however, the level of concern shot up to 45%.
“This experiment highlights something key about society and it is a topic we plan to follow up on in future years. When the public is simply asked about boys and girls they tend to follow an ethic of equality. They will claim to have similar levels of worry about both genders. However, when only asked about girls the percentage of the public with concerns shrinks a bit and when only asked about boys the percentage of the public with concerns grows substantially,” the report on the survey said.
“What is the best way to characterize these results? Are people concealing concerns when asked about boys or girls? We doubt it. Our assumption would be that each of the responses is genuine it’s just that people do harbor some latent concerns about boys that come out when asked the question in a slightly different way. There is, probably, more concern about boys and young men in our current society but it can be masked by norms of gender equality,” the report added.
Michael Gurian, a social philosopher, family therapist and corporate consultant, called the AFS findings “absolutely accurate” in an interview with CP.
Gurian co-founded the Gurian Institute, which trains professionals who deal with the developmental aspects of childhood. He is also the author of 32 books, including The Wonder of Boys: What Parents, Mentors and Educators Can Do to Shape Boys into Exceptional Men and The Purpose of Boys: Helping Our Sons Find Meaning, Significance, and Direction in Their Lives.
As a social philosopher, Gurian pioneered efforts to bring neurobiology and brain research into homes, schools, corporations and public policy. He has provided information on the educational needs of boys and girls to the White House and briefed members of the 114th Congress on the boy crisis in America.
“We’ve found this for more than 30 years. These findings are absolutely accurate and would corroborate what a number of us have been looking at for decades,” Gurian said.
He explained that systems in institutions like schools and churches reflect the overwhelming influence of women who populate them.
“These systems are set up more toward female brains in a number of ways. One is to a great extent they are populated by females. The women are great people but they think like women,” Gurian said, noting that training, which his institute has done successfully overtime, has helped address these disparities in both schools and churches.
“Without training, they (female teachers) walk into systems and their behavioral expectations for boys. When you add on boys of color, black and brown boys, then that’s a different data set; … the stats are even worse than for white boys. Even when you take race out of it and [look at] just boys, it’s kind of grim,” he explained.
“Not that they’re malicious, it’s just that they are women who think like women and teach to the behavioral academic and even spiritual expectations of females and so it’s kind of gradual, taking place over a period of decades. Of course, 100 years ago, churches and schools were much more male so we wouldn’t make this argument but in the last number of decades,” a transition has happened, he said.
While the AFS data reflect a frustration parents have with the way institutions have been underserving their sons, the Gurian Institute has successfully help hundreds of schools, churches and other institutions address the disparity with many success stories on their website.
“Since we began this program a year ago, Oak Hill School has seen positive improvements in academic achievement and school culture, and with increased teacher effectiveness and student engagement,” wrote Peter M. Schroeder, a principal at Oak Hill School in Missouri, 2019. “We believe that being designated a ‘Gurian Model School’ will help us maintain our competitive edge in the St. Louis marketplace as an independent, Catholic school. Our work with the Gurian Institute has helped us adapt our already powerful teaching model to provide excellence in our academic program-for both girls and boys.”
Gurian said, “For those people who say ‘well, we know there’s this problem but nothing is happening,’ what I always say is there are organizations that solve this problem. The schools that use the Gurian Institute’s research framework, they have solved this problem. They don’t have these issues anymore. So it’s really important to say to people that solutions exist. And if they are feeling paralyzed, they don’t have to feel paralyzed.”
David Murrow, who started Church for Men, an organization that helps congregations reconnect with men and boys, in 2005 around the same time he released his book, Why Men Hate Going to Church, believes the key to help churches better respond to the needs of boys and men could lie in the creation of more gender neutral churches.
“I hear stories all the time from churches that buy 10, 15 copies of the book for their elders and leaders and there are a lot of churches that are implementing more man-friendly programming, boy-friendly things for young men. I think one of the secrets to the growth of the megachurches has been their ability to gender neutralize their worship spaces and create an environment where men walk in and feel like this is something for them and not just something for their grandmother,” Murrow told CP.
“The typical church in America is about 80 to 90 people. It’s what I call a grandma church. There is a lot of older members and the ladies of the church decorate the sanctuary with quilts and flowers and ribbons and lace doilies and the Sunday school rooms look like something out of a kindergarten classroom,” he explained.
“They’ve got construction paper and yarn. It’s a very feminine space that they create and there’s a lot of talk of nurture and relationships. And then the ministry opportunities, the volunteer opportunities typically revolve around female roles — caring for the sick, preparing meals for potluck dinners.
“The whole enterprise is pitched towards a middle-aged or older woman with an empty nest who wants to spend time with kids. So men, particularly young men, come into those little family churches, they see the décor, they see the opportunities and they find nothing for themselves. One of the things the megachurches did is they intentionally focused on young men and particularly these would be men with young families,” Murrow said.
Two megachurches Murrow said that have done a great job in appealing to men are Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California, and Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois, founded by Bill Hybels.
Warren reportedly designed his church based on his own door-to-door survey of 500 residents. He found that his target audience was “Saddleback Sam,” a prototypical yuppie who believes in God but has not attended church since childhood. The “Sams” told him they weren’t going to church because sermons were boring, people were aloof, childcare was a problem and pastors were too interested in money.
“They had a mythical parishioner named Saddleback Sam. I mean they went straight for this guy. He was a guy who represented all the values of Southern California — he’s overextended in time and credit. God is OK but he’s not interested in church or religion,” Murrow said.
Willow Creek’s target was a “mythical parishioner named Unchurched Harry,” Murrow noted.
“They were focusing on that guy because they realized something. When you attract the man of the family you tend to get the rest of the family on the deal. And so they made their churches not macho, they didn’t turn their church into a monster truck rally or anything like that. All they had to do was sort of take out the cues that were saying to men this is something for your wife and kids and really engage the men on a heart level,” he said. “And then growth took care of itself and that’s really been the secret of the megachurches. It’s their ability to attract and retain men and in the process retain the entire family.”
Murrow said about 15 years ago, his own church in Alaska got rid of the old model of Sunday School and rebranded it Adventure Land in an approach that involves more movement with male teachers leading boys and female teachers leading girls and they have seen a lot of success.
“This model has been very successful in reaching young men. The tragedy comes when we move into junior high and high school ministry,” he said, which involves a lot of singing to Jesus, which boys don’t like.
The power of fathers
Citing research such as The Demographic Characteristics of the Linguistic and Religious Groups in Switzerland, which reviewed the results of a 1994 survey of Swiss religious practice, Murrow also argued that the most effective way for parents to lead the spiritual life of their children is through their own personal witness. The study also highlighted the outsized influence of a father in the transference of faith to the next generation.
In that study, for families where neither parent attended church, only 4% of their children ended up attending church regularly. Some 15% went on to become irregular attendees while more than 80% did not attend at all.
When the mother attended church in families but the father did not, some 2% went on to attend church regularly, 37% attended irregularly and 61% not at all. When both parents attended church regularly, 33% of their children when on to do the same regularly, 41% irregularly and 26% did not attend at all.
In homes where the father was a regular church attendee and the mother’s attendance was irregular, the study found that 38% of the children went on to regularly attend church, 44% attended irregularly and 18% did not attend at all. The results showed that fathers who attend church more faithfully influences more faithful church attendance in their children.
“There is really nothing to compare with it. We can have all the youth groups, the retreats, … the praise and worship extravaganzas and all those things help,” Murrow said. ”But the one thing that towers above all other factors in a child’s decision to follow Christ as a young adult is whether his father was following Christ. And so that would be the most effective thing a church could do is to equip fathers to be witnesses to their children.”
He urged believers who are concerned about the way their church is serving their sons to try to engage their leaders under the guidance of the Holy Spirit as conversations about these issues can be delicate.
Making a cultural shift to help boys
Tim Wright, pastor of Community of Grace Lutheran Church in Peoria, Arizona, who authored Searching for Tom Sawyer and created a rite of passage for boys with Gurian called Following Jesus: Heroic Quest for Boys, said he was inspired to become an advocate for boys by Murrow’s book, Why Men Hate Going to Church.
“I read the book and I was so challenged by it that I invited David to Arizona to speak,” he told CP.
“He spoke for eight minutes and he was holding eggs in his hand. And his sermon was about boys and the disconnect of boys from the faith. And he kept dropping eggs and he said ‘now in the eight minutes I’ve been speaking, these eggs represent the number of boys who left the church.’ And so I did some quick research and found that the statistic is anywhere from 70 to 90% of all boys who leave the Christian church in their teens and 20s and most won’t come back and that really got my attention,” he said.
He eventually learned about Gurian and his use of brain science research to talk about boys and girls and how they learn.
“I hired him as a consultant and we became such good friends that we moved away from a consulting relationship and we became partners in creating different products for people,” he explained.
He argued that society needs to stop functioning as if girls are still behind educationally. While that may have been the case decades ago, Wright said, it is no longer true.
“Back in the 1960s we recognized educationally that our girls were behind our boys in part because of the feminist movement, in part because we were looking over all these different experiences with our daughters and seeing them fall behind. The whole country, metaphorically speaking, came together and said ‘we’ve gotta fight for our girls and get them caught up in school.’ The federal government at that time committed $100 million to helping our girls get caught up,” he explained.
“And here’s what happened. The great news — I raised a daughter, I’ve got two granddaughters; I’m all pro-girls and we want to make that clear and Michael had two daughters — in 1982, girls not only caught up to boys but they flew right by them. And now in 2020 our boys are behind and they are behind significantly our girls in every area of education from pre-school to graduate school,” except for perhaps STEM, Wright noted.
“The problem is that we still think culturally, we have so ingrained in us that our girls are behind … that when they caught up and passed boys we still live with the old story that our girls are behind, our boys are OK. And because of that, we tend not to see our boys. They become invisible,” he said.
“The challenge in terms of advocating for boys is we still sort of believe boys are doing OK when they are not. They are dramatically behind, not just in education but they are falling behind emotionally. They are falling behind economically. In almost every area of life, boys and men are doing worse,” Wright added.
Pointing to the disparities in how girls and boys are being served by institutions in the AFS research, Wright said he believes it’s this disconnect that, for example, is causing families to rank sports clubs as better institutions for boys over churches.
“We have gone far more to the female brain than the male brain in our churches, in our schools and that’s why sports are doing so well. And really, sports have become the new religion for men and for boys. I see that in my own family with my son and his kids. They are far more engaged with sports than they are with church because sports is movement, it’s teamwork oftentimes, but it’s also character building,” he said.
“It’s not always ‘aww, you’re just great because you’re great.’ It’s ‘hey, that was a great play, you missed that one; you let the team down’ and it starts to forge character,” he explained.
“We’re afraid of that for some reason. And what’s happening now is our boys tune out from things like school or church and if they don’t have good men or even good women who are both building up their character and calling them out when they’re not being boys of character, the boys sort of just check out or they make it up on their own.
“Most of our culture will never say this but increasingly in a world where feminine values have become the benchmark, boys and men are feeling left out. We can’t articulate our feelings the same way and if we want to articulate our feelings, they are not the right kinds of feelings.”
When asked what would happen if churches and schools were able to collectively make the cultural shift to better serve men and boys, Murrow said he believes it could be seismic.
“A lot of the dysfunction in our culture comes from poorly socialized men. There are more men in jails, men are more likely to commit suicide, more likely to commit crimes and this is not just the United States, this is the world over. And this goes back to thousands of years. The great question of every society is how do we socialize and harness the power of men to social good and not toward mayhem,” he told CP.
“My background is in anthropology so the first thing they teach you is the whole purpose of society is to socialize men. So if we had a church and we had schools that were more successful in engaging men, I think the result would be a kinder, more loving society. It would be a fairer society and it would be … a lot less family distress, way fewer men falling through the cracks,” he said, noting that women would also be able to find more suitable men to marry.
“Study after study shows that when men embrace religion in general, they tend to be more kind and considerate. They are less likely to gamble and drink to excess. A host of anti-social and negative behaviors fall away when they become engaged in the church and that’s the sociological reason for creating an environment where men and boys feel more welcome. And they feel like it’s something for them and not just something for women.”