In that same period, men’s church attendance dropped from 37 percent to 31 percent, meaning that women have left their churches at nearly three times the rate of men. We know that church attendance has been dropping in general for years, but what’s going on with women in particular? And can we get them back?
With so much media attention surrounding faith deconstruction, it’s easy to put the blame here, but research I conducted for my upcoming book, Reason to Return: Why Women Need the Church and the Church Needs Women, shows the reasons are much more nuanced, and more practical, than that.
According to Kate Harris’s book Wonder Women, a deep dive into the lives and habits of Christian women, 72 percent feel stressed out, 58 percent are tired, and 48 percent say they are overcommitted. For those with children at home, the numbers are even higher. Still, 88 percent of these same women say the area of their lives they’d like to improve most is their faith.
A Pew survey found that many people who don’t attend church say they practice their faith “in other ways.” But without the support of a faith community, those practices can’t be strengthened and buttressed in a healthy way.
Priorities are bumping up against one another, but is the local church helping women see this and take steps toward what they say they want?
While it’s impossible to rate in any kind of accurate order the reasons women are leaving, several key points emerged in my studies.
In today’s cultural landscape, where church attendance is no longer the norm for a majority of Americans, it’s easy for overbooked and stressed-out women to justify opting out.
As Kate Harris found, they are tired and overcommitted. They need a reason to carve out time on Sunday mornings and throughout the week, a reason that supersedes the work, sports, or free time already taking up those slots.
Others are reeling from negative church experiences in the past.
Whether the painful memories come from growing up in a fundamentalist home, feeling disillusioned with an impersonal megachurch, or experiencing spiritual abuse at the hands of a leader, it’s easy for women to avoid walking into those places again.
As the Church begins to better reckon with some of the worst of church abuse culture, women may begin to feel safer walking in. While most churches don’t resemble the stereotypes seen in the news, scandals and abuses still paint the local church in a negative light for women.
Others have dealt with doubt or have had their questions shut down in the past.
They no longer want to feel silenced or shamed for having a voice. Single women and single moms leave the local church at the highest rates, often because they feel unseen and unheard. Seeing women and specializing outreach toward them could go a long way.
In researching these trends, I also realized how little most Christians know about why we attend church in the first place.
The common line “I don’t need church to have a relationship with God” completely disregards the Scripture passages that remind us not to “give up meeting together” (Hebrews 10:25), to “sharpen” one another in faith community (Proverbs 27:17), and to consider ourselves “one body” in Christ such that “each member belongs to all the others” (Romans 12:5).
In 2020, only 10 percent of American adults said they read the Bible several times a week.
It’s no surprise, then, that there’s a lack of biblical awareness. Additionally, many churches have swapped church education classes for things like topical small-group studies, leaving Christians uninformed about the foundations of their faith.
The truth is that many Americans grew up learning a cultural Christianity that never drew them toward an authentic relationship with Christ. The generic God of American Christendom did little to retain true disciples of Christ. So when life gets tough, rather than running toward faith community, they’ve run away.
Departing from community has negative results, however.
Weekly churchgoers have significantly better rates of good mental health and more intergenerational friendships. Church friendships also foster higher rates of philanthropy and all kinds of other life-giving, altruistic behaviors.
While most people don’t immediately see the through line of church attendance to a happier life, the numbers don’t lie. It’s important to educate women on how implementing a regular habit of churchgoing will lead them to healthier, happier, and more fulfilling lives overall.
Data may not move the spirit, but information combined with prayer, concerted outreach, and awareness of the deepest issues women are facing will go a long way. Pastors should know why women are leaving so they can effectively pray, consult trusted women advisors, and create an environment that draws them back.
Ericka Andersen is a freelance journalist who has been writing professionally for over fifteen years. She is the author of Leaving Cloud 9 and a regular contributor to Christianity Today and WORLD. She has been published on topics of faith in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and more. Ericka is also the host of the popular Worth Your Time podcast. She is a wife and the mother of two children living in Indianapolis, Indiana. She is the author of Reason to Return: Why Women Need the Church and the Church Needs Women.