For years, many church leaders have understood that “as go women, so goes the American church.” Looking at the trends over the past twenty years, and especially those related to the beliefs and behavior of women, you might conclude that things are not going well for conventional Christian churches. In addition to the statistics reported in the Update, consider these overriding patterns:
- From 1991 to 2011, of the 14 dimensions tracked, men’s average score declined by at least 10 percentage points on one factor (certainty that the Bible’s principles are accurate). However, women’s average scores dropped by 10 or more points on four indicators (church attendance, orthodox view of God, Bible reading, and a huge rise in being unchurched).
- Women used to put men to shame in terms of their orthodoxy of belief and the breadth and consistency of their religious behavior. No more; the religious gender gap has substantially closed. In 1991, there were 6 of the 14 tracked dimensions in which the gap between the genders was at least 10 percentage points (and in all cases women had scores that were more positive from a biblical standpoint). In 2011, there were only two indicators reflecting such a gap. (For the record, those indicators were having made a personal commitment to Christ and contending that religious faith is very important in their life.)
- The double-digit gaps that existed between the genders on five of the 14 factors back in 1991 had been substantially diminished by 2011 – and even reversed in one instance. For instance, while women were more likely to read the Bible during the week than were men in 1991 (50% compared to 40%) the pattern was reversed by 2001 – 41% of men read the Bible during the week in the 2011 study compared to 40% of women. While that single percentage point of difference may be a measurement artifact, the elimination of that gap is what is striking. Other notable reductions in the difference between the genders included an eight-point drop in the unchurched gap (down from 12 points) and a seven-point decline in the margin around religious faith being very important (down from 21 points to 14).
What does it all mean? In its simplest form, we can posit 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 contours than men in the past two decades. While the genders are far from a state of convergence, 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.
All of this raises questions about the tenor of church proceedings. Many have noted that the typical Christian church exudes a female vibe, in aspects ranging from type of music to common language to the nature of the primary events. If women become less of a mainstay in what occurs within churches, will ministries respond by increasing the male-friendliness of the proceedings? As women become less front-and-center, will men be pressured to upgrade their church involvement?
Eras of change such as that in which we live today demand alert and courageous leadership to understand the times, know what to do, and engage in bold action. Is a different type of pastor, and more sensitive lay leadership, required to respond to these trends? Will existing church leaders see these patterns as a wake-up call that business as usual isn’t working for anyone these days? Or will church leaders interpret the trends as suggesting that it is precisely because of the changes conventional churches have undergone in the past quarter century that the trend lines are moving downward, so introducing more changes and more radical changes simply add to the problems rather than solve them?