Study finds fewer women are attending church

09/03/2011 12:00 AM

09/03/2011 12:08 AM

KANSAS CITY — Peek inside almost any church.

Women will usually outnumber men, and usually by a long shot.

It's no wonder that a recent survey by the Barna Group saying women's attendance is declining has some church leaders concerned.

Commenting on the results, George Barna, the group's leader, said, "For years, many church leaders have understood that 'as go women, so goes the American church.' "

Among the findings from the survey that covered 1991 to 2011 were:

* Church attendance among women dropped by 11 percentage points to 44 percent of the U.S. population. This means a majority of women no longer attend church services during a typical week.

* Bible-reading among women (other than during services) has declined from 50 percent in 1991 to 40 percent today.

* Women volunteering at churches had dropped by 9 percent and Sunday school involvement dropped by 7 percent.

* The only increasing behavior covered in the survey was the number of women who don't attend church: 17 percent.

* The only stable religious behavior for the time period was the percentage of women who attend a church of 600 or more, which remained at 16 percent.

"While sobering, the findings of this survey are not surprising, and I would agree with Barna's appraisal," said the Rev. Paul Rock, pastor of Second Presbyterian Church in Kansas City.

"Since women still tend to define many family traditions, a drop-off in women means a drop-off in men and children as well. So this is a significant change in American culture that most churches have not adapted to well.

"I don't think God is worried, but I do think God is waiting for churches to wake up and respond to the reality of women's lives today," he said.

Most women have busy careers that they balance with caring for their families, among other things. As for involvement, working women are not going to be able to show up at a daytime book club meeting, and few can make a three-hour meeting on Saturday, he said.

Molly Marshall, president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Shawnee, Kan., also was not surprised by the survey results. It is a serious issue, she said, but there are reasons for women being less involved in congregational life.

First, women are more engaged in the work force, so they have less time to volunteer.

"Women have been the ones to organize the vacation Bible school, the church rummage sale, the hospitality dimensions of congregational life, etc.," she said. "They simply do not have the energy to sustain those patterns while working full time, rearing children, etc."

Second, women are no longer content to see male clerical figures as the only spiritual authorities in the life of the church, she said. Progressive women see "the hyper masculinization of God as problematic; the language used for God functions to elevate men over women."

Women who are educated and have an understanding of equality of the genders "are wearied by the divide between their life in society and their life in the church," especially those in the conservative tradition, Marshall said.

Finally, women are particularly sensitive to the issues of sexual abuse by male clergy, Protestant and Catholic, she said.

Peggy Ekerdt, pastoral associate at Visitation Catholic Church in Kansas City, said she encounters women in her professional life and her personal life who no longer participate in church.

"At the same time, in my own parish community I continue to observe an overwhelming presence of Catholic women who are active in liturgical ministries and are generous beyond words in service to the church and the greater community," she said.

The Rev. Darron Edwards Sr., pastor of United Believers Community Church in Kansas City, said the survey results speak more to the decline of healthy churches than a significant drop in women's attendance.

Simply because a large number of women attend church does not necessarily mean they are involved.

The challenge of the church "is to create an environment whereby all feel a vibrant connection and inclusiveness in the worship setting," he said. Throughout the Bible, women such as Deborah and Miriam have had significant roles.

Not just women, but men and children from all walks of life need to be incorporated into the life blood of the worship, Edwards said.

"In the urban core, churches have had to lean on female leadership and support to accomplish many of the aims and ideals of that particular ministry context," he said.

Edwards said the answer to retaining women lies not in the pastor, but in the word of God.

The Barna study also found changes in women's core beliefs. For example:

* Women today are 6 percent less likely to say their religion is very important to them than they were in 1991; even so, 63 percent still hold their faith in high regard.

* The belief that the Bible is accurate in all of its principles has declined by 7 percent to 42 percent.

* Women who say that God is the "all-knowing, all-powerful and perfect Creator of the universe who still rules the world today" dropped from 80 percent in 1991 to 70 percent in 2011.

Barna said that while tens of millions of Americans seem to be wrestling with their faith — what to believe and how to experience and express it — women have been more radically redefining their faith than men in the past two decades.

"The frightening reality for churches is that the people they have relied upon as the backbone of the church can no longer be assumed to be available and willing when needed, as they were in days past," he wrote on his website.

The Rev. Robert Martin, a church leadership and practical theology professor at St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, questions Barna and calls it a conservative evangelical group.

The Barna Group, based in Ventura, Calif., describes itself as a private, non partisan, for-profit organization that researches spiritual developments. It said data was collected each year from 1,000 or more randomly selected adults.

Martin said the longevity of the study lends it validity, but he questions whether it was as wide and diverse as possible.

"It seems likely that church service attendance has indeed decreased among women," he said. "But because women far outnumber men in church, when church attendance decreases, that would involve more women than men."

More women are refusing to be told by churches that they are inferior to men, Martin said.

"One could interpret the results as a hopeful sign that more women are reading the Bible discerningly rather than superstitiously," he said. "Rather than thinking of God as controlling every detail in the world, more women are thinking of God in a more intimate and expansive way."

Martin concludes that the decline in church membership and participation can be a good thing.

"It is waking us up to our spiritual decline," he said. "Spiritual vitality is the key to church revival."

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