Why real men don't go to church

I was taken aback at the vehemence with which a pacifist Methodist minister attacked me for daring to suggest, in a comment on his blog, that

men leave the church … partly because the church has too much of a feminine ethos.

I made it very clear that I did not support the controversial assertion that A church should have a masculine ethos; rather I stated that

the church should be balanced in these matters.

Nevertheless Dave Warnock has responded with

There is a frequent and loudly stated view that men leave the Church because it is too feminine. … I believe this is complete rubbish and have done so for a long time.

Another Methodist minister, Pam BG, writes that she is

genuinely trying to understand the … comment … that the church has been ‘feminized’ and so it is unattractive to men – that’s why men are staying away from church. … I am puzzled by how an institution dominated by men can be either ‘feminized’ …

I must say I am puzzled by Pam’s puzzlement, and consider part of Dave’s response to be complete rubbish.

Both Dave and Pam make the point that the church is for the most part led by men, and so cannot be feminised. But by what kind of men is it led? Men who are widely perceived as being weak wimps, and often in their pronouncements seem to do their best to perpetuate this stereotype. Men who like to wear brightly coloured dresses, at least in my own Anglican church. Men who are often rather camp, feminine in their behaviour, and perceived as very probably either gay or paedophiles while often being hypocritical in condemning such people. Men who seem happy to spend their time doing feminine style things, i.e. most church social events, with groups of mostly women. Men who gladly consume the typical church diet of quiche with weak milky tea, who are therefore not real men.

There are of course among actual church leaders huge numbers of exceptions to these stereotypes. But sadly there are also far too many who fall into this kind of behaviour pattern, perhaps partly because they feel it is expected of them, by society in general and by their majority female congregations.

Anyway, I’m sure Dave and Pam have realised by now, even if they don’t want to admit it, that at the local level churches like theirs are not really controlled by the mostly male official hierarchy, but by the armies of mostly women volunteers who keep their churches running, and who exercise their control by implicit threats to quit their activities if the minister dares to do anything which they disapprove of – which would probably include almost anything likely to attract men to the church.

So the problem is a self-perpetuating one. Dave may be right that it originated during the time of the world wars. But the vast majority of the men who don’t go to church now are too young to have fought in them, or indeed in any protracted war except for the recent Iraq and Afghanistan debacles. The men of this generation have not so much left the church as never been there, at least for any regular service. Why? Because several generations ago the church was feminised and has remained so.

So what can be done about it? Here, I am glad to say, Dave does much better. He writes:

If we want men in our church, we don’t need to become more masculine, instead we need to:

  • become more Christlike
  • support discipleship that is routed in the teaching and behaviour of Jesus
  • build strong faith that understands how God will be in the shit with us
  • build our understanding that God is found in the shit
  • build strength and depth to our faith and discipleship so that it can survive hell on earth
  • be courageous in following the teaching that Jesus actually gave, not a version built on our cultural preconceptions.
  • tell and celebrate the stories of people who found Jesus in adversity, in pain, in suffering, in hell on earth. There are plenty of inspiring tales of people who gave their lives for others; of people showing love, & forgiveness; of lives changed for the better; of courage, steadfastness and determination of faith.
  • work at honest and integrated lives that reflect the life & teaching of Jesus ie be authentic.
  • do all this within a community that is strong enough to carry us when we can’t hear Jesus and accompany us carrying the Christ light when we are stuck in the shit of life and can see no light, no hope and no God.

And by the way if we got these things even half way right we might well see more women in church as well as men.

Indeed, Dave. But this is largely what I mean in practice by becoming more masculine, in the stereotypical way. For a start by using the s**t word, three times in this extract, you are being masculine, as people understand it, and certainly breaking that stereotype of the feminised minister. Actually, apart from the poor exegesis of 1 Corinthians 16:13, this is not all that different from the thoughts which originally raised your blood pressure.

Of course what we are talking about is not a matter of real masculinity. But those “real men” types will not go near a church which they perceive as feminine.

Dave, I join you in objecting to the stereotypes of masculine = courageous, feminine = wishy-washy like church tea. But these ancient identifications (going right back to the etymology of the controversial Greek word in 1 Corinthians 16:13) are still with us in popular culture, and are still a major barrier to a greater penetration by the church into western society today.

50 thoughts on “Why real men don't go to church

  1. Masculinity and femininity are both socially constructed. What is ‘masculine behaviour’ in one culture is not necessarily ‘masculine behaviour’ in another culture.

    I have heard this complaint before that the church has become ‘too feminine’ in someway, and that that is why men are leaving. No offence…but if some guy is going to be put off from a church service because of that, then he’s not very ‘manly’ (in the Western sense of the word), is he? Would a ‘real man’ (from the Western understanding) really be run off from church b/c of that? I think that people who try to blame the lack of men in the church on church somehow being geared towards women are really shooting themselves in the foot.

  2. Rhea, you may be right. I am talking about what is considered to be masculine behaviour in the culture which I share with Dave. A “real man” (in the western sense) would certainly not be put off going to church if he really wanted to, but first he needs a good reason to want to, and he is not being given one.

  3. Masculinity and femininity are both socially constructed. What is ‘masculine behaviour’ in one culture is not necessarily ‘masculine behaviour’ in another culture.

    Firstly, not all of ‘masculinity/femininity’ is a social construct. If you did survey cultures, you would come to a broad agreement about behavioural traits which were largely masculine or feminine.
    Secondly, even if true, it would still be a somewhat sophormoric point to make – because we don’t deal with cultures in general, but specific instances of culture.

    I have heard this complaint before that the church has become ‘too feminine’ in someway, and that that is why men are leaving. No offence…but if some guy is going to be put off from a church service because of that, then he’s not very ‘manly’

    That is only true if you define being manly as being someone who is comfortable with being uncomfortable, or engaging in activities that they largely don’t care for. That men are uncomfortable with certain activities is fairly obvious to anyone who has spent an afternoon observing couples shopping.

    Turn this thing around – there is a paucity of men in large parts of this church, do you suppose this is somehow a deficiency on the part of the church? Or perhaps God doesn’t want to reach men?

    Why is it that the liberal mainline churches are generally lacking in men (especially younger men), whilst the newer evangelical churches tend to have less problems attracting them?

  4. Peter,

    I think you have jumped to a conclusion that I did not intend. It has left me a bit bemused.

    “I was taken aback at the vehemence with which a pacifist Methodist minister attacked me for daring to suggest, in a comment on his blog, that”

    In no way did I intend this to be an attack on you. Rather your comment on my earlier post prompted me to write this one about the frequent assertions from the likes of Mark Driscoll (whom I do not associate you with at all) and the original post I linked to.

    If you thought I was attacking you, I apologise, that was not my intention.

  5. I’m not someone who is affected by it, but I would agree — I can look around the broader Western society I live in, note how it defines masculinity and feminity in practice, and see that church can often be unduly ‘feminine’.

    I think it helps to look at it from a missional perspective.

    The fact that the social constructions of masculine/feminine are the way they are doesn’t mean that they are *right*, but it does mean that to reach the people who live within these constructions we need to work within them where possible.

  6. I can only hope that Dave and Peter are having a friendly dialogue. 🙂

    I couldn’t really sort out the whole post, but I have read complaints about the feminisation of the church in the early 1800’s. Only the clergy were males with a feminine audience.

    The more masculine and attractive the clergy are the more the women want to attend, you know. And the more women in the clergy the more women want to attend also. Funny, eh?

  7. I would be interested to know the number, and percentage of men in the Churches represented by Peter, Dave & Pam.

    I don’t think some of the over-masculine charactures are that helpful, I don’t drive a truck, don’t go hunting, fishing or shooting, and don’t watching ultimate fighting or wear biker boots.

    But equally I can see how people find it tough to invite a non-christian male friend to come and join them for 45 minutes to sing love songs to a man they have never met.

    I also think that the percentage of men & women serving in children’s work should be equal. Otherwise young boys go to Church and for the first 10-11 years their impression can be it is just for women. There needs to be male role models for the children too, in the same way there needs to be female role models for the adults throughout the life of the Church.

    It also appears to be men in the 18-30 age bracket who are totally awol from church life, which requires reaching out to them in specific ways, which may become gender specific by accident. 3 men aged 18-30 from our five a side football have done Alpha, one of them came to faith, and two guys who come are old youth club members who no longer attend on sundays but it helps us maintain relational links.

  8. My churches vary a lot from 100% men to maybe 70% women.

    We do get a significant % of men to our fresh expressions, even WOT which is has primary school kids as the primary focus.

    “But equally I can see how people find it tough to invite a non-christian male friend to come and join them for 45 minutes to sing love songs to a man they have never met.”

    I don’t think it is a whole lot easier to invite a non-christian female friend. This is not about male/female but about being relevant to the context.

    When you talk about men teaching boys remember to take a look at schools, this is not only a Church problem.

  9. It looks like I have found an interesting and controversial subject here!

    Dave, thanks for the clarification. I rather overstated my feelings of being attacked to bring out the contrast with your pacifism. I forbore from suggesting that pacifism was not manly, but (in the stereotypical sense) what you wrote was, and I intended my response to be as well. But I certainly want to remain friends, as Sue hopes.

    Yes, Sue, I wouldn’t be surprised if the church was already rather feminised before the 20th century world wars. In Europe the Napoleonic wars may have had a similar effect. The article Bill links to pushes the imbalance back much further.

    Chris and Sam, thanks for the support. I think you get my point.

    Bill, thanks for the article, which I will comment on separately. I note the reference to David Murrow’s book Why Men Hate Going to Church, which I have seen but not read. I am no supporter of the clergy/laity divide, but in this context simply abolishing it would not solve the problem, certainly not if it took away from a congregation the one male leadership figure that it now usually has.

    Blue, I agree that some of the stereotypes being promoted from across the Atlantic are not helpful. I suspect the “hunting, fishing or shooting” image of a man is more of a reality over there than it is here; over there it comes across as “it’s OK to do what most men do” but here it is seen as “here is some new extra-macho image which you need to copy to be a real man”. My own church has something like 45% men, with a good group of 18-30s, partly because of a conscious effort by the leadership to get away from the feminine stereotypes and female-led children’s work.

  10. Here’s a quotation from Tim Keller that I find helpful:

    Hebrews 11.35: “Women received back their dead, raised to life again”.

    “Women? It says women? Shouldn’t that be “men and women”? No, it’s women. There are six resurrection stories in the Bible (not including Jesus’), and in five cases out of six the recipients are women. Just like the first witnesses at THE resurrection – Jesus’ resurrection – were women as well. Just like according to non-Christian writers the early church was full of women more than of men. Just like your church has more women in than men. Why is this? Is it because the synagogue was feminised, or because second century Christian men weren’t being real men or something?

    “No! And I’ll tell you the reason why. It’s simply that the people who received back their dead were the powerless. People with power and people in power generally don’t want the gospel, they don’t want God in their life. Women especially then but also now, and especially widows, and in general the poor, are pushed to the edges and excluded from power. They see through the sham of power, they notice the illusory nature of worldly power. They looked to the One who triumphed through defeat. In general, the more powerful you are, the more secure you are, the nearer you are to the center of worldly power, the less likely you are to experience resurrection power.”

    Tim Keller

  11. Thanks, Andy. Yes, there is an important other side to the matter here. But in the current economic climate there are many men who are no longer feeling powerful and secure. This could be a good opportunity for the church, but not if men are invited into an over-feminine environment. (By the way, please don’t use anything I write here about my church or its leaders against them!)

  12. Another great post Peter.
    One interesting thing I heard over the last month was an interview with Mat Redman the excellent and gifted lead worshipper and song writer.
    He said he feels that sometimes church can be too feminine and worship songs can have a huge part to blame in it. He said he sometimes regrets the last line in the song “Let my words be few” which says “Jesus I am so in love with you”. He said that he knows why he wrote it but he thinks a man who just walks in from the street may find it very hard to connect with a line like that. He apologised for being so frank but I thought his honesty was great and was fascinated by his opinion. I love that song!

  13. Thanks, Ferg. Yes, I love that song too in the right context, as it was when we sang it at church last night. But I agree with Matt (I think I have seen that interview) that words like this can be very offputting in the wrong context.

    Old hymns are often played in a very feminine way (generally by old ladies), but not all old hymns are like that. Consider “Onward Christian soldiers” – not one I would recommend, before Dave’s blood pressure rises again. Similarly while much Christian modern music is more masculine, also quite a lot of it is rather feminine (again using the stereotypes). So here also what is needed is the right balance.

  14. “and look at which gender does better at school!”

    Ok and now you are in trouble because you have got the wrong side of a proud father. Our son got the best exam results in the year in his school. See we don’t do gender stereotypes in our house.

  15. Our son got the best exam results in the year in his school. See we don’t do gender stereotypes in our house.

    So are you linking strong gender stereotyping with poor academic performance?

    Or do you just have a bright son?

    Personally I think what we need is a balance, both in the Church and ine ducation. But what we get is a bias one way, followed by a reaction which swings the bias the other way.

  16. “So are you linking strong gender stereotyping with poor academic performance?

    Or do you just have a bright son?”

    Neither, just getting at your comment about schools. His school trialled some subjects with separate teaching for boys and girls. Both did worse so they gave it up.

    The best way to remove bias is to stop going on about the need for masculinity, you just make it harder to find more men for jobs you deem feminine (like primary school teaching).

    Just thinking of two male nurses I know, you would not dare call their job feminine to their face (big, strong guys). Quite right too. We like to keep some jobs for women so we can say they are worthy things (for a woman) to do but not worth paying properly (because men don’t do them).

  17. But by what kind of men is it led? Men who are widely perceived as being weak wimps, and often in their pronouncements seem to do their best to perpetuate this stereotype. Men who like to wear brightly coloured dresses, at least in my own Anglican church. Men who are often rather camp, feminine in their behaviour, and perceived as very probably either gay or paedophiles

    I’m genuinely trying to take this comment seriously but I’m having a very hard time. This does not describe any male clergy I know in this area (just to limit the sample and be concrete).

  18. I would be interested to know the number, and percentage of men in the Churches represented by Peter, Dave & Pam.

    In three of my churches, I estimate 65% female and 35% male. In one of them, it’s just about 50/50 and people have remarked on occasion that there were more men than women in the congregation.

    I put the latter down to the fact that there is a strong cadre of men who are friends who, along with a number of women, see themselves as important decision-makers in the life of the church. Interestingly also, these men are all of working-age whereas in my other churches most working-age people (both men and women) claim that they cannot commit to church leadership.

    The question is if you don’t have this kind of cadre to start with, how do you get it going? Under the theory of ‘feminised church’, presumably men are not going to want to be associated with a church where the minister is a woman? Part of the theory of ‘feminised church’, it seems to me, is the idea that women don’t do, be or believe anything particularly worthwhile or challenging.

  19. Thanks for the comments. Dave, despite your denial I’m sure your son is the bright offspring of a bright father.

    Pam, I know some clergy who at least partly fulfil my stereotype. But I agree that most don’t. Nevertheless most men in the street think clergy are like this.

    As I think you know I have nothing against women clergy. But I do think that a church in which leadership is entirely by women is going to have a hard time reaching men. Indeed I know of one such church with two women pastors and an almost entirely female congregation, at one time just one committed man among 20-30 women plus a few other men who went along on the fringe to be with their wives or girlfriends. It is probably also hard for men to serve under women at the top, but that is their problem, not the woman’s.

  20. I know some clergy who at least partly fulfil my stereotype. But I agree that most don’t. Nevertheless most men in the street think clergy are like this.

    Ahh. OK. Now I think we’re getting closer to the truth. That’s exactly my experience – that most male clergy don’t fulfil that stereotype but many men in the street think that they do. Now, my former profession would have carried the stereotype that men who work in that area are ‘successful businessmen’ (which I assume is a ‘positive male image’) and I knew about the same proportion who were camp. The ‘campest’ man I knew was a married father of 8!

    So my personal conclusion about this is that I don’t think that church needs to become more ‘masculine’ (whatever that dubious adjective means) in order to disprove the prejudices of the person in the street.

    I accept the fact that it’s difficult for men to feel comfortable in a church where there are almost all women (or for 20-somethings to feel comfortable in a church where there almost all 70-year-olds). Whether it’s right or wrong, that’s common sense. I also think it’s quite different from saying that church is ‘feminised’ which implies – by the very stereotype implied in the concept of ‘feminine’ – a gross imbalance in teaching and values.

  21. Thanks, Pam. I didn’t mean to imply “a gross imbalance in teaching and values”, more an imbalance in public perceptions. I’m not sure how to redress this balance. But getting some more stereotypically masculine figures into the public eye does help, as long as they don’t spout the kind of rubbish Mark Driscoll does. Dare I say that Todd Bentley was helpful in this regard?

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  23. Here’s another angle. Statistically, women live longer than men. Statistically, many traditional churches appeal mainly to elderly people. The majority of elderly people are women. Ergo…

  24. I didn’t mean to imply “a gross imbalance in teaching and values”,

    I accept that. I’m not sure that a lot of people who talk about the church needing to be ‘more masculine’ do mean that. I’m afraid I think that many of them – Mark Driscoll as an example – want to take stereotypical ‘worldly masculine’ traits such as aggression and competition and baptise them as ‘godly’.

    more an imbalance in public perceptions. I’m not sure how to redress this balance. But getting some more stereotypically masculine figures into the public eye does help

    I’m not necessarily opposed to that kind of PR exercise as long as it’s low-key; the positive side is presenting good role models. Nor am I opposed to intentional thinking about ‘How can we get more men into the church?’. I am opposed to de-emphasising the message ‘Love God and love your neighbour’ because ‘love’ is seen as ‘feminine’. And I’m opposed to baptising Constantinian Christianity as ‘real Christianity’ because it’s exciting and ‘masculine’.

    Dare I say that Todd Bentley was helpful in this regard?

    You can say it. I still don’t believe in ‘miracles on demand’.

  25. Tim, there is something in what you say, which might explain why there are more women than men in churches in the 70+ age group. But it doesn’t explain why there are typically more women than men in church in almost every age group. It is not the 70+ men that I am especially concerned about getting into church, but the young adults and the fathers of families.

  26. Pam, I do not agree with Mark Driscoll in the way that he is portrayed as baptising stereotypes. I do wonder if he has been heard fairly, especially here in the UK where the stereotypes are different. Is he actually promoting the American stereotype, or just working within it? I don’t know. I do know that I reject his complementarianism, but I wonder if that has been read too much into other things he has said.

    I certainly don’t want to de-emphasise love. I wonder if anyone really does. But God’s love is not the soppy sentimental kind which sometimes gets associated with churches, whether fairly or not. It’s a kind which is not afraid of pain (kneeing someone in the groin, or dying on the cross) when that really is to someone’s benefit.

  27. Statistically, many traditional churches appeal mainly to elderly people.

    Tim – I think the problems of traditional churches, or traditional parts of big denominations are larger than just a failure to attract men. Most of these churches have a failure to attract people of any sort.

    I re-iterate, the failure to attract men is a failure of the church to fulfill the Great Commission. Numbers aren’t everything, but at what point is a failure to make disciples a problem of incorrect praxis?

  28. Indeed, Chris. Traditional churches that appeal to older people usually don’t so much attract them as retain the survivors of a generation that was forced to go to church as children and never got out of the habit. Or sometimes they attract back newly retired people who drifted away from traditional churches and came back to what they were used to when they had more time on their hands. But rarely do they attract completely new people.

  29. But God’s love is not the soppy sentimental kind which sometimes gets associated with churches, whether fairly or not.

    Well, I’m rather tired of hearing this. I don’t know any church that teaches that love is sentimental slop. Although, of course, if one sings modern choruses instead of solid doctrine-and-bible-based hymns, one does get more sentimental slop. 😉

    It’s a kind which is not afraid of pain (kneeing someone in the groin, or dying on the cross) when that really is to someone’s benefit.

    It seems to me that he who believes that must prepared to be gracious and kind whilst on the receiving end of a knee to his groin and to declare that it’s in his best interest. The thing about corrective physical violence is that it’s rare to find anyone who wants to be on the receiving end of it.

  30. Pam, it’s not rare to find anyone who is prepared to go through painful medical procedures for long term benefits. Fortunately doctors don’t “love” their patients so much that they don’t prescribe such operations. The man who was kneed in the stomach (not really the groin) by Todd Bentley was suffering from advanced cancer, and had no complaints about what happened – he would probably accept anything offering any real prospect of saving his life.

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  32. The man who was kneed in the stomach (not really the groin) by Todd Bentley was suffering from advanced cancer, and had no complaints about what happened – he would probably accept anything offering any real prospect of saving his life.

    I think that we all ‘get’ that you are a big supporter of Todd Bentley. I’ve not spent a lot of time here trying to debate with you. There comes a point when we all need to realise that simple repetition of our own viewpoint isn’t going to change other peoples’ minds. I’d venture a guess that your ongoing efforts to convince everyone that he’s the next best healer to St. Peter are probably having the opposite effect.

  33. Pam, I don’t want this thread to get sidetracked into discussion of Todd. So let’s drop this. If anyone wants to know my views, there is a lot of material about Todd on this blog which you can find here.

    But what about my point about people who voluntarily undergo painful medical procedures?

  34. A lot of very good stuff in this post and comments.

    It is true that the Church hasn’t got the greatest track record as regards the Great Commission, for both men or women.

    And yes, there are a number of churches that are more like social clubs in disguise, which shouldn’t form part of the equation. But where are the men?

    I don’t agree with a lot of the supposed masculine-image stuff – a bit too forced stereotype for me – but the key issue for me is not ‘how do we get men into church?’ but ‘how should the Church accurately reflect Jesus’ commands and God’s nature?’.

    We are not tasked with filling churches with people, or of using the unholy for holy purposes, but of making disciples of all nations. Many will accept God, many won’t. Some will be men, some will be women. That’s not ultimately our decision. I hope that asking the question of how more men (and women) will become followers of Christ will help us see a greater beautification of the Church across the world. Our responsibility surely is to share the gospel message with all people. People respond to God the gospel rather than a new mission program or outreach group (which is a carrier or such of the gospel), become aware that the Church really is full of God’s people when they see us showing true love for each other.

  35. We are not tasked with filling churches with people, or of using the unholy for holy purposes, but of making disciples of all nations. Many will accept God, many won’t. Some will be men, some will be women. That’s not ultimately our decision.

    Good point, Jamie! But surely we should avoid unnecessary stumbling blocks for any groups of people. And don’t tell the women that you want to “see a greater beautification of the Church”, as they may well translate that into more flowers etc which just put the women off.

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  37. Dear Peter,
    I must say that I agree with you. I am a 27 years old and for the most part love my church, yet feel very disconnected. I’m not sure why. I love to hear great men speakers and for me I am really into the teachings of Mark Driscoll but I LONG for something manly in church. I honestly don’t know if there really anything manly to be in church but something I think is missing.
    Sometimes I wonder if I should step out and start a church myself, but don’t for the fact that I don’t want to rebel against those in authority over me. I go to a great church with great men. I just sense something missing. Thanks for letting me rant.

    Shawn

  38. Thank you, Shawn. I quite understand your disconnected feeling. I applaud Driscoll for wanting to do something about it, perhaps going a bit too far the other way, although I don’t appreciate some of his teaching. I hope you can find something manly in the church. Maybe you can talk to your pastors about a men’s group or something of the sort.

  39. What the Church is missing is what the scriptures say about “When you come together some have a psalm a hym a spirtitual song a Word of Wisdom a Doctrine and let all things be done decently and in order,and so the gifts of people are being stifled and so the Church suffers,again in 1 Cor.14:6 ” Brethren,unless I come unto you having revelation knowledge prophecy or doctrinr what shall I profit you?
    Quence not the Spirit.

  40. Louie, I agree with what I think you are trying to say. I don’t think 1 Corinthians 14 has to be copied in every detail. But I do take it as a good positive model for the church; many of the church’s weaknesses are linked to this model having largely been abandoned.

  41. Interesting article. I think the feminization of the church is only one problem in the overall picture. Church these days is simply just boring and not somewhere where God can be found.

    Jon.
    Men Leave Church.

  42. Thank you, Jon. Yes, I agree that many churches are like that. Perhaps women in our culture are more tolerant than men of boring things, or of doing social things in places where God isn’t.

    But I can’t endorse your website, if it is to be taken seriously. It seems that you have picked up the worst excesses of hyper-Calvinism, a distorted version of Christianity, and assumed that it is the only true Christian faith. The Bible clearly teaches that God loves the world, and that means everyone in it, including you!

    Come to my church one Sunday morning and I can guarantee that you won’t be bored.

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