I’ll admit it: I smirked as I read the recent Barna study revealing the “surprising” number of women who are no longer attending church. My smirk wasn’t about women leaving church, precisely, but merely a response to the number of men who’ve boo-hoo-ed about the “feminization” of church (as though it were a bad thing, as if femininity reflects nothing of God) and blamed this feminized church for the mass exodus of men.
Well, now it turns out women are leaving - the percentage of women in the unchurched population has risen by 6 percent since 2003. And this hasn’t happened because church is too feminine or too masculine. Instead, the women Barna surveyed blame their departure on things most of us could probably guess: competing priorities; busyness; lack of emotional engagement and support; changing family structures; and changes in belief.
But more interesting to me - as a woman and as someone who works at a church - were what Barna found to be the top priorities in the lives of the women they surveyed. Family relationships were at the top, with 68 percent of women claiming this as their top priority in life. Church or religious activities came in second, with 11 percent.
I wasn’t surprised so few women claimed church as a top priority (in all honesty, God should be the priority, not “religious activity”). But I was struck by the overwhelming numbers giving family top billing in a survey of women who are leaving church. Not because I don’t consider family a priority in my life (I’d have claimed it as one as well), but because, well, we call church a family. And if women who value family above all are leaving the church family, we need to take a close look at our churches.
What if instead of making church even more about family, by offering more activities and childcare, we focused on being family.
Of course, I get that church family isn’t the same as family-family. I don’t stay up all night snuggling a feverish child of a fellow congregant. I don’t expect to be included in the estate planning of those who sit around me on Sunday. I don’t grieve the loss of a brother or sister in Christ the way I would my actual brother.
And yet, we use the word family. A word that matters. A word we get wrong.
Although I’m not one to suggest churches change ways on a whim to keep or recruit segments of the population, it seems we’d do well to start acting more like an actual family, at least if we care that our sisters are leaving.
I wonder what difference it might make if instead of making church even more about family, by offering more activities and childcare, we focused on being family, in a truer sense. If we found ways to live into our calling as brothers and sisters, as children of God. What if being family to one another meant telling women who feel too busy or committed or tired or bored, whose beliefs or family structures are in transition, that it’s OK, that we understand, that we don’t love them less. Perhaps this could be the emotional support so many women say they can’t find at church. Perhaps they - and we all - would understand that if church really is family, then it’s something that we hold onto in tough times too, the way God holds onto us. Perhaps then church can truly be a place where not only are all welcome, but where there’s always room at the table for more.