3 Reasons Why Women Are Leaving Church

by David Kinnaman

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.


Below are five trends Barna Groups sees as contributing factors to this shift away from church among women.


 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.


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.


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. Women have traditionally been the backbone of churches. Their participation, attendance, volunteerism and giving, among many others things, have fueled the majority of the work of most congregations. However, this monumental effort may be running out of steam. The rates of women among the unchurched and among atheists are rising. Why is this? 



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.“

Original article with infographics found HERE.

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