It will come as no surprise to most that the U.S. population has been consistently loosening its ties with church over the past few decades. In the early 1990s, only 30% of adults were unchurched, and that number steadily increased over the next decade, rising to 33% in 2003. The decade in our immediate hindsight shows an even larger increase—today, 45% of adults are unchurched in the U.S. and that trend shows no indication of slowing.
However, what may come as a surprise is the increasing number of women who are part of this cultural shift away from churchgoing (and from the Christian faith). Historically, men have been less likely to regularly attend church than women. Just over a decade ago, the gender gap was three men for every two unchurched women. (In other words, fully 60% of unchurched people were men.). Today, only 54% of the unchurched are men. In other words, the gender gap has narrowed from 20 points to just 8 points in the last ten 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 (36% and 10%, respectively), nearly four in 10 have not been to church in the past six months: 38%. This last group represents the majority of unchurched women—they are the dechurched.
The majority (85%) of unchurched women are de-churched. Fewer than one in 10 American women (7%) have never been to church at all. Meaning 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.
Below are five trends Barna Groups sees as contributing factors to this shift away from church among women.
1. COMPETING PRIORITIES
The factors influencing these women’s decisions to reduce (or stop) churchgoing behavior are varied and unique to every person, but for many, it may simply be a question of desire and prioritization. When asked “how important is it for you, personally, to attend a local church?” only one-third of women said that local church attendance is very important to them. At the other end of the scale, just over a quarter of these women (27%) say that attending a local church is not at all important to them, and similarly, 24% say it’s not too important.
If more than half of women say attending church is not particularly important to them, where are they placing their priorities? When asked to rank several priorities in their life, women far and away ranked family relationships as their top priority (68%). Church or religious activities did come in second—but a very distant second (11%) and only marginally inched out personal time/development (10%).
Interestingly, the top priority least selected by women is work or career (5%), but it is also the second most common top time commitment for women (31%). Although women may not feel comfortable identifying their job as their top priority, their actual time commitment reflects a high value for that part of their lives. Family relationships are the top time commitment for 44% of women.
In the end, many women today are just busy. Really, really busy. And they are experiencing a tension between things they might want to do and things they actually have time for. In research conducted for the Barna FRAME Wonder Women by Kate Harris, 72% of women feel stressed out, 58% are tired and 48% say they are overcommitted. The percentages are even higher among moms with kids at home. Nearly nine in ten women (88%) 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.
More specifically, although only 5% of women selected church or religious activities as their top time commitment, this is the area of life that most women want to improve in (22%), indicating that many women find their desires for church or religious engagement to be at odds with the constraints of their everyday realities. This finding adds an interesting dimension to the growing number of unchurched women—there is still a desire among many women to be spiritually active in a church community, but there are barriers preventing that desire from becoming behavior. 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.
Find out more about trends among the unchurched in Barna’s project Churchless ›
3. LACK OF EMOTIONAL ENGAGEMENT AND SUPPORT
Another factor potentially contributing to women’s disengagement from church communities is that they report finding little or no emotional support there. Fewer than half of women indicated receiving any emotional support from people at their church or synagogue. Only 17% of women said they feel “very” supported at church and fewer than a quarter (23%) said they feel “somewhat supported. Nearly half of women (43%) said they do not feel any emotional support at all from church. This relational disconnect may provide a key for understanding how women are able to disengage from churches—without strong relational bonds within a church community, women’s absence from church can largely go unnoticed. This begs the question of where women are finding such support—and indicates a large opportunity for those churches who are seeking to engage women in their community.
4. CHANGING FAMILY STRUCTURES
Many churches are built around the traditional nuclear family structure: husband, wife, children. However, young women are increasingly less likely to fit into this mold. The average age of first marriage has risen dramatically over the last decades. Most women do not get married until they are in their mid-to-late twenties now. And, while young women still want to get married at some point in their life, they have a lot of personal things they want to do first: including developing more fully as a person and becoming financially stable. Such delays in marriage and parenting have significant effects on churches that prioritize family ministry and have little to offer in terms of connecting faith and work.
5. CHANGES IN BELIEF
The majority of unchurched women still say they are Christians—62% self-identify as Christian, even though they haven’t attended a church service in at least six months. However—particularly among younger Christians—the number of those who have not only left the church, but also left the faith, is growing. Just 46% of unchurched Millennial women self-identify as Christian. The number of women who identify as atheist or agnostic has risen from 8% in 2000 to 11 percent today, among Millennial women that number is even higher: more than two in 10 now identify as atheists (22%), up from 18% in 2005.
WHAT THE RESEARCH MEANS
In a recent article for Today’s Christian Woman, Barna Group vice president, Roxanne Stone, unpacks these faith trends among women and shares some of the implications for churches, “Aside from delaying marriage and children, young adults are eschewing other forms of ‘settling down’ as well,” she writes. “They are more prone to regularly switching jobs (and, with that, often where they live). In other words, there are very few institutions—either social or economic—binding Millennials. In a recent Barna Group study on identity, Millennials were significantly less likely than other generations to claim any of the surveyed factors (family, faith, country, city, state, ethnicity, career) as central to their identity. This generational sense of disenfranchisement has not helped draw young adults in general to a church—let alone young women, among whom such societal untetheredness is unprecedented.
“These massive changes—the delaying of family, an increase in institutional skepticism, and the separation of individuals from traditional social structures—are sufficient to affect church attendance,” Stone continues. “Unfortunately, they also correspond with the great cultural lament of our time: everyone is really, really busy.
“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. 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. While correlation never equals causation, these are important indicators to pay attention to,” concludes Stone. “Whether we want to admit it or not, church attendance roots believers in regular faith rhythms and increases many other related faith practices.“
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ABOUT THE RESEARCH
The research included in this report is the result of several different Barna Group studies conducted between 1993 and 2015. These include nationally representative OmniPoll studies in 1993, 2003 and 2015, as well as for FRAMES Season 1. The Omnipoll studies included 1000 adults ages 18 and over, and the FRAMES Season 1 research included 1400 adults ages 18 and over. The maximum sampling error for the study is plus or minus 3 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. Minimal statistical weighting was used to calibrate the sample to known population percentages in relation to demographic variables.
Generations: Millennials (or Mosaics) are the generation born between 1984 and 2002; Gen-Xers (or Busters), between 1965 and 1983; Boomers, between 1946 and 1964, and Elders, in 1945 or earlier.
ABOUT BARNA GROUP
Barna Group (which includes its research division, Barna Research Group) is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984.
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© 2015 by Barna Group.