Are women deserting the church - and what can be done?

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

If you mention the issue of gender differences and church attendance to a group of Christians, chances are they'll start mentioning how congregations generally have far more women than men; how men have left the church in droves in the past couple of decades; they'll mention "the feminization" of the church.

Back in June when I attended the conference on gender and the Bible put on by the Sophia Network, I was surprised to hear one of the speakers talking about the major problem of women in their 20s and 30s leaving the church, and going through some of what she believed were the reasons this is happening. I was surprised, not because I didn't believe her, but because it's not something you hear a lot about. What we've seen in response to the alleged "feminization" of the church is teaching and events which glorify masculinity, promote traditional gender stereotypes with a "trendy" edge, and go out of their way to appeal to the modern man and what he feels comfortable with.This isn't always helpful. I think it can and has led to some problematic ways of doing things and reaching out to communities taking hold. It's high time that we saw some deeper analysis of what's really going on in the church today with regard to gender disparity and the appeal different ways of "doing" church holds.

Yesterday I found out via a post by Sharon Hodde Miller on the Her.meneutics blog that his month has seen the publication of a report on gender and religious belief by The Barna Group, part of their State of the Church series which has examined trends in religion over the past 20 years. Although this is a small survey which obviously shouldn't be used to pass judgment on the church as a whole it's really interesting to note what the research found.Among those surveyed, church attendance had dropped by 11 percentage points since 1991 for women, but by six percentage points for men. And while the proportion of "unchurched" men was found to have risen by nine percentage points since 1991, the increase for women was 17%. Bible reading among women had plummeted by 10% among women, so that 40% of those surveyed read the Bible at some point during a typical week, compared to 41% of men (showing no change from 1991 and 2001).

The survey also detailed the fact that although women were at one time relied on as the "backbone" of church life, volunteering, helping out and providing hospitality, this is no longer the case, with a 9% drop in women volunteering at their church.

I wonder to what extent statistics like these are influenced by the drive to get men back into church - and the resulting books and articles we've seen which have criticised churches for being "too feminized", encouraged leadership to focus on building up and empowering men and displaying a scornful attitude towards all things "girly". I also wonder to what extent a drop in attendance and volunteering has been influenced by greater demands on our time ("having it all" takes up most of the day, don't you know), meaning that people want more of their free time to themselves, or don't want to get up early at weekends.

But let's say there is some truth in these statistics, that the church has lost male and female members but that women are now leaving at a greater rate than men. How could this be addressed? Miller rightly says:
"The decline of one gender in the church should not be the catalyst that launches concerted outreach."

While looking to appeal to a certain demographic, the church should not run the risk of excluding others in the community. So how can this be done without shutting people out?

1) Appealing to women from all walks of life, accepting different personalities and giftings. At the Sophia Network conference, providing networking and support to women working in the City through groups that meet or breakfast or at lunchtime in Central London was mentioned as just one example of this, just one example of working with the free time that people have. Miller's post brings up an important point in relation to this issue - " order to communicate with increasingly educated and professional women, Christian women must be able to articulate what they believe and why. How is the church equipping women for this?". There must be efforts made not to bring down and disapprove of women who have "a career" and enjoy their job, which is liable to happen in churches which are more conservative on gender roles. It's also useful to consider the different things extroverted and introverted people might be looking for in a church.

2) Showing a commitment to including the generation which is supposedly leaving the church - those in their 20s and 30s - and investing in their talents. Many women in this age group are neither married nor mothers and an incessant focus on marriage and children is particularly alienating. Trying not to focus all women's events and Bible studies on "family and home" is a good start - we do have other interests and areas of gifting! An outlook which leaves unmarried women unable to lead or take initiative in any way is also unhelpful here, as is a focus on marrying as young as possible. As Miller says:"How might a newly converted, female CEO find her gifts expressed in an evangelical church? How might a woman with financial savvy or her own law practice be able to serve her local congregation? Will these women be welcomed as resources, or ignored and untapped?"

3) Making an effort to include more women in church activities. I can't tell you how much my heart sinks when I see that the only options for learning together and socialising as women in a church are through mum-and-baby/toddler groups or Bible study/prayer groups which meet only during working hours. My heart soars when I see events scheduled in the evenings or at weekends, because although baby groups and daytime events are great (and an opportunity for friendship and support which I will no doubt avail myself of in the future, should I find myself able to), women like me - and the women who are my friends and colleagues - can't go to them. Similarly, if there are weekend or evening events, they don't always need to involve cupcakes and manicures. I have said this before, but I'd love camping trips and curry nights too.

4) Respecting female members of the congregation (and potential members of the congregation) by not preaching that being "like a woman" is synonymous with "traits which are undesirable or worthy of mockery". I cannot stress the importance of promoting equality and standing against misogyny. Today's 20 and 30-somethings have also been made wary of the church by scandals, spiritual abuse and lack of integrity, which is worth remembering. It's one of the cheesiest and overused clichés, but being authentic and operating with integrity is vital.

Some of the comments on Miller's post provided examples applicable to these points and are really worth reading. Women cited a pressure to marry and have children, male-dominated church culture, busy lives, churches trying to pigeonhole them into certain areas of serving, being introverted, and not wanting their daughters to be made to feel inferior due to their gender as reasons they had been "burned" by the church. One commenter noted sadly that this research had been interpreted by some bloggers as showing that now is the time for men to "take back the church", seeing as women are leaving it. This could not be more wrong.

Image via Beaverton Historical Society's Flickr.


Anonymous said...

Another really helpful post, thanks Hannah. I am a 20-something woman, and found myself nodding along as I read! I fully intend to avail myself of mother-type groups once I am one, but right now that's not relevant to me or most of my friends (and being settled and married, I'm closer to them than most but still...!). I am lucky to have flexible working hours because I am self-employed, but even so daytime events are often impossible to attend.

My husband and I have recently changed church, but it was noticeable at our old church that the older generations seemed bewildered by the lack of people to do all the jobs that they did when they were young marrieds. They seemed completely oblivious to the fact that most women have not married and had two kids and given up work - despite the fact that all the mothers in our church were going back to work part-time! This led to a resentment (occasionally expressed but frequently felt) against the younger generation for not "pulling their weight", coupled with a reluctance to pay anyone to do jobs that have "always been done for nothing" in the past. The sad thing about that was that young people moving back from university would have been so delighted to do a paid internship or similar, even for a year or two.

Your point about gender language, particularly the ridicule of men as feminine (cough*Mark Driscoll*cough) is RIGHT ON.

Jo Royal said...

Great read - thank you! Interesting stats as well. The recent emphasis on 'getting men back' and the blame of the 'feminisation of church' as driven me insane - what about the women that are leaving?! Would 'manning' up church help them? Do men matter more? I think not! We need to address issues relating to both genders - and all classes, ages, etc.


Hannah Mudge said...

serenasnape - I can see how this would happen! At my church I haven't experienced a culture of resentment as yet and I do know that people across all age groups are in general very happy to volunteer but I think that some people have to realise just how busy life is these days. And of course, it's difficult to talk about money, particularly at smaller churches which might not be able to employ people. I go to a large church with a lot of employees and they all have to work very hard to keep everything running although some people do help out on a volunteer basis. Many people just can't afford to work for free, though!


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