Together with three Dutch colleagues I am attending an international symposium about aspects of mission and church growth. The venue is the Friedensau University in the Eastern part of Germany, not far from the city of Magdeburg. ‘Friedensau’ provides a pleasant atmosphere and excellent facilities for such meetings, even though, to my taste, the campus is a bit too far removed from the inhabited world.
I was one of the circa fifteen presenters. When the symposium started on Tuesday morning, I was the first speaker on the program. My topic was: Criteria for a Healthy Church. I gave my talk with the aid of a power point presentation, but intend to put it also in the form of an article, with all the academic requirements, such as a respectable number of footnotes, documenting my sources.
One of the lectures that interested me in particular was that of a Bulgarian participant. He has studied the demographics of the Adventist Church in his country. His talk was accompanied by a vast number of slides, with extensive numerical data and lots graphs. Something like that can easily become quite boring, but this presentation was far from tedious.
The Adventist Church in Bulgaria has about 7.500 members. Roughly ten percent of them live outside of their country. Three quarters of the members are ethnic Bulgarians, while the remaining one quarter has a Roma (gypsy) background. In the past decade or so the membership in Bulagaria has steadily decreased. The few growing churches are almost all Roma churches.
One element that I was particularly interested in was the major gender gap in the Bulgarian church which is even more worrisome than it is, on average. in other westerns countries. It usually stand at about 58 percent women and 42 percent men. However, in Bulgaria these percentages are at 68 and 32 respectively.
After the presentation a fascinating discussion followed about the reasons of this ‘gender gap’. No clear reason was discovered as to why the Bulgarian statistics deviate so strongly from the average. The discussion then focused on the question why women would be more attracted to religion and to the church than men. The speaker suggested that the solution is not in a more active ‘men’s ministry’, or something like that, but rather in removing the barriers that keep men away from the church.
Different aspects were mentioned that give church life a strong feminine character, as for instance the decoration of the worship place (flowers), the predominance of sentimental images in the ever-present power point presentations, and the fact that Jesus Christ is often presented in a very ‘soft’ manner–as someone with whom most men find it difficult to identify. What made me think most was the suggestion that the ministry to children (children Sabbath school) is mostly a female activity, and that many of the projects and activities are more geared towards girls than to boys. Much speculation about this issue of the ‘gender gap’ is found in current literature. Some have suggested that several of the christian virtues that are most intensely emphasized in church (like humility and meekness) do appeal more to women than to men.
The presentation of our Bulgarian participant has definitely inspired me to pursue this topic further. Yet, at the same time I also realize that the gender gap is nothing new. From the very beginning women often were active in the church when men were nowhere to be seen! Just think of the resurrection morning.
I am writing these lines on Thursday morning. Today will be another full day of presentations. Early tomorrow morning I will take the train from the nearby town of Burg to Berlin, from where I will fly to London. Tomorrow evening and Saturday afternoon I have a part in a meeting of the South-England Conference in Oxford. Some 250 people have registered to come and take part in this event that is focused on the challenges of the growing diversity in the church.
Who could possibly say that the life of a retired church worker is monotonous and boring?