In a time when churches of every description are faced with Vanishing Male Syndrome, men are showing up at Eastern Orthodox churches in numbers that, if not numerically impressive, are proportionately intriguing. This may be the only church which attracts and holds men in numbers equal to women. As Leon Podles wrote in his 1999 book, "The Church Impotent: The Feminization of Christianity," "The Orthodox are the only Christians who write basso profundo church music, or need to."

Rather than guess why this is, I emailed a hundred Orthodox men, most of whom joined the Church as adults. What do they think makes this church particularly attractive to men? Their responses, below, may spark some ideas for leaders in other churches, who are looking for ways to keep guys in the pews.

Challenges. The term most commonly cited by these men was "challenging." Orthodoxy is "active and not passive." "It's the only church where you are required to adapt to it, rather than it adapting to you." "The longer you are in it, the more you realize it demands of you."

The "sheer physicality of Orthodox worship" is part of the appeal. Regular days of fasting from meat and dairy, "standing for hours on end, performing prostrations, going without food and water [before communion]...When you get to the end you feel that you've faced down a challenge." "Orthodoxy appeals to a man's desire for self-mastery through discipline."

"In Orthodoxy, the theme of spiritual warfare is ubiquitous; saints, including female saints, are warriors. Warfare requires courage, fortitude, and heroism. We are called to be 'strugglers' against sin, to be 'athletes' as St. Paul says. And the prize is given to the victor. The fact that you must 'struggle' during worship by standing up throughout long services is itself a challenge men are willing to take up."       

A recent convert summed up, "Orthodoxy is serious. It is difficult. It is demanding. It is about mercy, but it's also about overcoming oneself. I am challenged in a deep way, not to 'feel good about myself' but to become holy. It is rigorous, and in that rigor I find liberation. And you know, so does my wife."

Clear Disciplines. Several mentioned that they really appreciated having clarity about the content of these challenges and what they were supposed to do. "Most guys feel a lot more comfortable when they know what's expected of them." "Orthodoxy presents a reasonable set of boundaries."  "It's easier for guys to express themselves in worship if there are guidelines about how it's supposed to work—especially when those guidelines are so simple and down-to-earth that you can just set out and start doing something."

"The prayers the Church provides for us--morning prayers, evening prayers, prayers before and after meals, and so on--give men a way to engage in spirituality without feeling put on the spot, or worrying about looking stupid because they don't know what to say."

They appreciate learning clear-cut physical actions that are expected to form character and understanding. "People begin learning immediately through ritual and symbolism, for example, by making the sign of the cross. This regimen of discipline makes one mindful of one's relation to the Trinity, to the Church, and to everyone he meets."

A Goal. Men also appreciate that this challenge has a goal: union with God. One said that in a previous church "I didn't feel I was getting anywhere in my spiritual life (or that there was anywhere to get to—I was already there, right?) But something, who knew what, was missing. Isn't there SOMETHING I should be doing, Lord?"

Orthodoxy preserves and transmits ancient Christian wisdom about how to progress toward this union, which is called "theosis." Every sacrament or spiritual exercise is designed to bring the person, body and soul, further into continual awareness of the presence of Christ within, and also within every other human being. As a cloth becomes saturated with dye by osmosis, we are saturated with God by theosis.
A catechumen wrote that he was finding icons helpful in resisting unwanted thoughts. "If you just close your eyes to some visual temptation, there are plenty of stored images to cause problems. But if you surround yourself with icons, you have a choice of whether to look at something tempting or something holy."

A priest writes, "Men need a challenge, a goal, perhaps an adventure—in primitive terms, a hunt. Western Christianity has lost the ascetic, that is, the athletic aspect of Christian life. This was the purpose of monasticism, which arose in the East largely as a men's movement. Women entered monastic life as well, and our ancient hymns still speak of women martyrs as showing 'manly courage.'"

"Orthodoxy emphasizes DOING. …. Guys are ACTIVITY oriented."
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