Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The quiet exodus of women from church


Take a look at the history of Christian missions and you will notice a consistent pattern:

From the beginning — and I’m talking about the Book of Acts — women have been among the strongest mission supporters, the most faithful prayer warriors and the most generous mission givers. Against daunting odds, they also have proven to be some of the boldest, most committed missionaries sent by churches in more recent times. Think Lottie Moon and her heroic co-workers in the formative stages of the American mission movement.

So what happens to missions tomorrow, or 10 years from now, if significantly fewer women vitally participate in the life of local churches?

That’s one of the worrisome questions raised by new research released in June by the Barna Group, a Christian research organization. The findings show an increasing percentage of American women, even among those who self-identify as believing Christians, joining the current social shift away from church involvement.

“Historically, men have been less likely to regularly attend church than women,” Barna reported. “Just over a decade ago, the gender gap was three men for every two unchurched women. In other words, fully 60 percent of unchurched people were men. Today, only 54 percent of the unchurched are men. In other words, the gender gap has narrowed from 20 points to just eight points in the last 10 years.

“Here is the landscape of women and their churchgoing: While just over half of all adult women have gone to church in the past week or past month, nearly four in 10 have not been to church in the past six months. This last group represents the majority of unchurched women — they are the dechurched. … It’s not that most of these unchurched women are unfamiliar with or inexperienced in church, but rather that at one point they decided church was no longer for them.”

They aren’t necessarily abandoning the faith or rejecting the church. Most are just slipping away. Barna identifies five trends in the quiet exodus:

n  Competing priorities — “When asked to rank several priorities in their life, women far and away ranked family relationships as their top priority (68 percent),” the report said. “Church or religious activities did come in second — but a very distant second (11 percent) and only marginally inched out personal time/development (10 percent).” Surprisingly, work or career ranked as the top priority for only 5 percent of respondents. Unsurprisingly, it was the second-highest time commitment. In other words, whether women love their jobs or not, they’re spending a lot of time at work.

n  Busyness — “In the end, many women today are just busy. Really, really busy,” Barna concluded. “And they are experiencing a tension between things they might want to do and things they actually have time for. … [More than 70] percent of women feel stressed out, 58 percent are tired and 48 percent say they are overcommitted. The percentages are even higher among moms with kids at home. Nearly nine in 10 women say they want to improve in at least one area of life, and what is the area they cite the most, over work, family and friends? Church. [But] the simple fact of the matter is many women — and especially moms —feel like they just don’t have time for church in today’s busy, fast-paced life.”

n  Lack of emotional engagement and support — Only 17 percent of women responding to the survey said they feel “very” supported at church. More than 40 percent sense no emotional support at all there. This isn’t some vague, touchy-feely thing; it is a “relational disconnect,” according to Barna. Faith is about relationships with God and people. If women don’t form strong relationships with others at church, they will look for them elsewhere.

n  Changing family structures — Most churches are geared toward traditional family structures: husband, wife and kids. Singles of both sexes have long felt like an afterthought in many church settings. Most American women are marrying later (mid-to-late 20s); many of them want to establish themselves as self-sufficient individuals before even considering marriage. What does the church offer them?

n  Changes in belief More than 60 percent of unchurched women overall say they are Christians, even if they haven’t attended church in at least six months. But only 46 percent of unchurched Millennial women self-identify as Christians. Two of every 10 American Millennial women now identify as atheists, according to the report.

“Many women — particularly those still identifying as Christian — may want to believe that they can hold to their faith even as they find less and less time in their life for church,” wrote Roxanne Stone, Barna Group vice president, in an article for Today’s Christian Woman. “However, Barna’s research over the years has shown that people who are disconnected from church — even those who self-identify as Christian — are less likely to engage in other faith activities, including Bible reading, prayer, volunteering and charitable giving. … Whether we want to admit it or not, church attendance roots believers in regular faith rhythms and increases many other related faith practices.“

Those “related faith practices” include the chief purposes of the church in the world: to love and worship God, to lift His name everywhere and to make disciples of Christ among all peoples.

Counteracting the movement of women away from vital church involvement will be a huge, complex challenge in the days ahead. But if you’re a church leader, here are a few questions that might help you get started:

Can busy moms and working women find real relationships in your church that help relieve the stress and isolation of their frantic lives, while drawing them toward God? Can young women searching for personal identity find encouragers in your church who will help them find their identity in Christ? Can women looking for deeper life purpose than their endless to-do list find exciting ways through your church to serve Christ and share the gospel in your community and around the world?

Lottie Moon was once a young woman — notorious for skipping chapel at school — searching for purpose in life. When she found it, she changed the world.

(Explore ways to participate in God’s mission at http://women.imb.org/)

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