I appreciate the great questions that came in after I asked what you were thinking about. I was out of town for a denominational meeting the last part of the week. That slowed down my response time. With that said, let me share the first of two questions that came in.
The first question came from Beverly, who wrote: “A number of my female friends have been discussing this new Pew study that suggests church attendance and affiliation is declining among women. I’ve noticed that the same seems to be true among organized atheist groups, though that’s anecdotal. Have you experienced this in your denomination? Do you have any thoughts on whether it’s really happening, why, and what it means for churches?”
I haven’t seen any hard data regarding church decline along gender lines in my denomination, so I can’t answer that question with regard to data. My hunch – combined with my personal observation – is that the gender decline isn’t quite as pronounced in my faith tradition as some others.
Why do I say that?
The first reason I suspect the decline of women attending church might be smaller than some is that my denomination (The United Church of Christ) has been extremely progressive when it comes to dealing with issues of gender and gender identity.
Sadly, there are several Christians whose policies and procedures treat women as second class citizens. These traditions, for instance, refuse to ordain women.; refuse to allow women to read Scripture during worship; and bar them from holding some positions of leadership. Clearly these traditions face HUGE obstacles to attracting and maintain women. I expect their challenges to multiply as more and more women rightly refuse to put up with such treatment!
My denomination, on the other hand, was the first to ordain a woman in the United States. This was back in 1853. Since that time we have taken the role of women in the church very seriously. This is the first reason why I suspect our decline has been smaller than some traditions.
The second reason I suspect our decline might be smaller than others has to do with our record on social issues that affect women. There are some Christian traditions that take stances that limit women’s freedoms. These traditions oppose things like comprehensive sexuality education, access to contraception, and access to comprehensive reproductive health care.
In contrast, my denomination has been extremely progressive in supporting public policy that fully empowers women.
Those are two reasons why I believe the decline in attendance among women might not be as great in my denomination.
You will note, however, that my language still acknowledges that we, too, are facing a decline in attendance among women as well.
Why would a progressive tradition like mine – with a long and demonstrated record of support for women – still be facing a decline?
Well, the social landscape has changed greatly in this country in regard to issues of gender over the past several decades. At one time, the number of women in the workforce was much smaller. This meant that women had more time and energy to become involved in faith communities and other civic organizations.
Today, many women are working the same number of hours (and in some cases, even more hours) than their male counterparts. This has greatly limited their ability to participate in faith communities and civic organizations.
The fact that both genders are now facing such great demands on their time and energy has put faith communities (and most other civic organizations) in a bind. Faith communities and civic organizations can no longer assume that people need to belong to an organization in order to feel connected. Increasingly faith communities and civic organizations are put in the position of needing to justify their role in the individual’s life: whether that individual be a female or male. An organization must now be able to answer the question, “Why should I invest a portion of my rare down time to this cause?”
Sadly, there are some faith communities and civic organizations that can’t answer that question. When they can’t, individuals of both genders pull back.
I think the decline in attendance (among both women and men) can be a good thing. It can force institutions to step back and take a long hard look at themselves so they can answer that question. Only then will they become more relevant to the lives of their members.
Those are just a couple of my thoughts. How about you? What do you think?