Building a Church by Valuing Women | By Ericka Andersen
Women are vital to healthy church growth. Here are six ways pastors can re-engage them.
Christian women are leaving the local church at unprecedented rates. The number of American women attending church at least once a week declined from 48 percent to 31 percent from 2009 to 2019, according to Barna.
In the past, women have usually been more likely than men to attend church regularly. But the gap between men and women choosing not to attend church has narrowed significantly. To stop the bleed, we must pinpoint why so many women have left in recent years.
After discovering this phenomenon, I immediately began to write a book about and for this specific group of women — those who had recently left. They were my friends, family members, and colleagues, and they were departing from one of the most positive, formative entities in all of life.
I dove into the research and interviewed dozens of women about their church experiences. I polled and read and got very curious about what could be fueling this retreat.
While every woman’s story is different — and it’s important to keep that in mind as you navigate these waters — I uncovered some overarching reasons that women are leaving the Church. More importantly, I’ve assessed what it may take to get them back.
Understand the Challenges that Women Face
Consider the following list and read up on the suggestions for how we can attract these women back to our congregations.
Women today, especially mothers, are the busiest they’ve ever been. Between working full-time jobs, caring for children, participating in sports, volunteering, and managing finances and relationships, they are stretched too thin.
Sunday morning is one of the only times when the world stops moving for a bit, so they are reluctant to fill their schedules with one more thing, especially if they can catch a sermon online.
While a woman may feel like she “should” get back to church, she doesn’t for a variety of reasons. She may feel spiritually numb or overwhelmed by life, or she may have had trouble in the past finding a church she liked.
Obstacles like these make many feel complacent about getting back to church. This is especially true in a world where church attendance continues in a downward spiral more generally.
The pandemic offered every uncommitted church member a way to quietly exit the pews. Some churches were closed for over two years, and many still cater to an online audience.
For those who stopped going to church during COVID, getting back into the habit is difficult. If a family has small children, it’s even harder because of the difficulty involved in getting kids ready for church. Habits are powerful, and many women lost the habit of going to church.
⦁ Church Hurt
It’s common to hear people blame “church hurt” as the reason they no longer attend. Trends like purity culture or headline news stories about abuse have tainted the Church’s reputation at large.
Even if a woman wasn’t personally harmed by these things, she may still carry a sense of hurt and doubt.
Additionally, single women sometimes feel hurt by churches that focus exclusively on families.
It’s important to take seriously the pain that women feel, validate their emotions, and admit that these things were wrong before moving forward.
Questions and doubts about faith often arise in young adulthood. If a woman has grown up in Christianity, she may wonder what she’s been missing, leading her away from the church she knows.
Doubts don’t have to be church killers, but some churches have historically silenced curious or doubting questions without giving them the respect and consideration they deserve.
When someone feels they aren’t allowed to ask questions, they are unlikely to stay.
⦁ Fear of Judgment
Most churches are happy to welcome people from all walks of life. But there is often a self-consciousness for those who may not fit the traditional model of a churchgoer, including single or divorced moms, blended families, or women who feel they don’t check the box for a “church girl.”
If they’ve already experienced being blatantly judged by someone in a church setting, this can be a truly palpable fear that keeps them away.
Discover Ways to Reconnect with Women
How do we overcome the things that are keeping women away from the local church? In Reason to Return, I offer a variety of remedies and ways we can speak effectively to this group of women. The answers aren’t simple or black-and-white, but they are available.
Here I’ll address each of the six reasons listed above.
When it comes to time, we must convince women that church community should be a first priority rather than a last. While it can feel like one more “to do,” church community can actually provide a busy woman with the life-giving breath she needs to help fuel those other parts of her life.
For the complacent woman, we can remind her that “inaction is still an action.” Not going back to church is an active choice to sideline her faith and her relationship with God. Such a choice isn’t going to create better circumstances; instead, it will prevent her from developing a healthy spiritual life.
Habits are so powerful! If it’s mere habit that is keeping a woman from church, we can model to her the simplicity of creating the habit again. It’s also easy to forget why you used to do something, or how much you enjoyed it, when you get out of the habit. Heading back to church a few times may be enough to jolt this woman back to normalcy.
⦁ Church Hurt
Church hurt is perhaps the toughest of these obstacles to overcome. The definition and severity of church hurt can vary, so it’s important to be sensitive to those things. We also want to eliminate pressure and let women know they should take the time away that they need to process what happened. Only then can we, perhaps, help a woman see the situation from a different perspective. This is a healing journey that may take time and prayer.
For the doubting woman, freedom is key. When someone feels free to ask questions, express doubts, and talk openly, they are more inclined to stick around. I like to remind people that God loves our questions and curiosity about Him because it shows our love for Him. Encouraging women to come back to church with all their doubts and questions is a good way forward. We can always point them back to Scripture as we work through the tough conversations.
⦁ Fear of Judgment
It makes sense that folks are worried about judgment. Church is often seen as a “moral high ground” environment, and it can be intimidating to walk into a sanctuary. If a woman hasn’t been to church in a while, or if she is only used to a certain kind of church, it’s easy to feel that she sticks out like a sore thumb. In this case, it’s vital that pastors, leaders, and church members regularly showcase vulnerability. Sharing personal stories of faith and failure, letting the light shine on their real lives, shows others that they aren’t so different. If more women knew how many people sitting in the pews have been divorced, or have had abortions, or have experienced eating disorders, perhaps they’d feel more comfortable sharing a table or a conversation with them.
The reasons women have left the Church are more complex and numerous than those listed here. However, these are some of the most important things I’ve learned about these women and how we can minister them back into our church families.
This article is excerpted from Ericka Andersen’s new book, Reason to Return: Why Women Need the Church and the Church Needs Women, published by Tyndale House. Used with permission. Learn more about Ericka and her books.