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Securing the Connection

Solving the riddle of why women are backing away from the Church.

It’s well known that the role of women within the family, workplace, politics, and countless other institutions and circumstances has changed drastically in recent decades. It’s no surprise that how women relate to church is changing, too.

The phenomenon is highlighted by a Barna Group research report that shares the findings of multiple studies conducted between 1993 and 2015. The report states that last year, four in 10 American women had not attended church in the past six months. In addition, 46 percent of unchurched adults in the United States are women, up from 40 percent in 2003. 

What are the reasons behind women’s decline in church attendance? Stephanie L. Nance, 40, adult spiritual formation pastor at Chapel Springs Church in Bristow, Virginia, attributes it, in part, to a cultural divide between the modern woman and the modern church.

“We’ve seen a huge cultural change with women — they’re in a totally different place than just 15 years ago,” Nance says. “But in many cases [the American Church] is still ministering to women as if we’re in the 1960s.”

The Barna report cites other cultural, as well as personal factors as contributors, including lack of emotional engagement between women and their congregations, competing priorities, and changing family structures. According to Kerry Clarensau, 54, director of Assemblies of God National Women’s Ministries, the need for emotional engagement specifically is fundamental for women, and therefore essential to a fulfilling church relationship.

“Women are relational by design and tend to process emotion verbally and through connections with other women,” Clarensau says. “The Church is losing its ability to build those personal connections.”

Clarensau believes part of that loss is attributable to America’s megachurch trend. She says the megachurch model’s diminished capacity for facilitating close personal relationships requires larger congregations to be intentional about creating opportunities for women to form individual relationships.

“Small groups are beneficial, but one to one is critical,” Clarensau says. “Jesus pulled a few people close to disciple them well. Corporate worship isn’t able to do that.”

Without the appeal of personal connections, church attendance easily slips for women balancing families, careers, and myriad other responsibilities. The Barna research shows that only 11 percent of women rank church or religious activities as a priority, whereas 68 percent view family relationships as highly important.

“Time is precious and people fit church in where they can,” Nance says. “To change that, we have to ask ‘How do we get people involved in the lives of others again?’ ” 

Nance’s proposed solution starts with ministry. As a pastor herself, she challenges colleagues to find time to hang out with people, listen to them, and teach them to do the same for others.

“We have to find more time to sit with people in our churches and ask good questions,” Nance says. “Jesus asked good questions.”

When personal connections are made, and women feel valued and part of the church, additional benefits may result, including better health. A report published in The Journal of the American Medical Association concludes that frequent attendance at religious services is associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular and cancer-related deaths among women. While this may be a byproduct of church attendance, personal connections must first be made.

Nance and Clarensau agree that churches must also make an effort to connect with women who fall into every demographic: divorced, widowed, and especially those who have never married. The Barna study suggests that spending early adult years in a church that focuses teaching and ministries on the nuclear family may contribute to single women disconnecting.

The potential fallout from women backing away from church affects far more than Sunday attendance numbers. As the teachers and nurturers of society, the worldview women possess has great influence over culture.

“There is so much dysfunction and lack of morality shaping the ideas of today’s individual,” Clarensau says. “It’s tragic, and the only hope is the Church and the truth it shares.”

Despite the harrowing nature of the Barna findings, Nance sees these current challenges as a part of God’s plan to involve women even more in His kingdom.

“We see women being raised up and empowered with influence like never before,” Nance says.

Rachel Dawn Hayes

Rachel Dawn Hayes is a writer and journalist focused on the stories of ministries, people, and causes in the faith-based arena. Hayes lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband, Joel. Together they enjoy travel, the outdoors, and cooking for friends and family.