Shifting demographics point up young women’s evolving relationship with the church.
By Caitlin Johnston –
A majority of women no longer attend religious services during a typical week, a striking departure for the gender that historically outnumbered men in religious communities.
Church attendance among women has sunk by 11 percentage points since 1991, declining to 44 percent, a 2011 study by the Barna Group found. Studies show that women, especially those in their 20s and 30s and across all faiths, are attending church less than the generation before them.
This decline is driven by many factors, time crunches and conflicting priorities not the least of them. But as the aspirations and life choices of young women evolve and change, are there also deeper issues at play?
For The Salvation Army, an organization that placed gender equality among its founding principles, the complexities get even more intricate, something lay Salvationists and Salvation Army officers might experience differently, due to the unique structure of the organization.
For instance, while Christian denominations across the board are seeing a decrease in church attendance among women, some Salvation Army traditions—such as basing married couples’ assignments around husbands—can make connecting with young women officers even more challenging.
At the same time, the topic of gender equity is coming to the forefront of conversations more now than ever before, according to Captain Pamela Maynor, editor of Young Salvationist.
While 53 percent of officers worldwide are female, fewer than 10 percent hold leadership roles and only 1.7 percent of married women are appointed to these roles, according to research conducted by Colonel Janet Munn. Munn, 55, recently finished a dissertation and subsequent book on transformational leadership, specifically on the use of power by gender.
As the training principal in the USA Eastern Territory, Munn said the lack of females in leadership roles has significant influence on young women determining whether there is a place for them within the church.
As with any institution or group of people, Munn said, if people don’t see others who look like them having equal access, it can be dismaying.
“It unintentionally and inadvertently gives the message that there’s no place for me there,” Munn said. “If younger woman were paying attention, it is self evident and there is a feeling that they don’t have unlimited access and equal opportunity to other leadership roles. I think that can be disheartening.”
And while The Salvation Army’s married couple model has some definite strengths, Munn said it can also contribute to gender inequality that may be pushing young women away from the church. For example, some assignments are designated based almost entirely on the husband, regardless of the gifts, abilities or experiences of the wife.
“Therefore, younger women looking to leadership opportunities in the Army beyond corps officership wouldn’t see many models they could relate to,” Munn said, “Other than women in women’s ministries, which sets limits on their opportunities to be sure.”
Munn surveyed Salvation Army leaders from around the world about five themes within gender equality: the first being does gender equality have a biblical foundation and other questions focusing on the church’s history and current practice.
The point of greatest commonality among respondents showed that most leaders now recognize gender equality as biblical. But while many respondents indicated that leaders are trying to implement changes to improve gender equality, they face a variety of obstacles.
And while there may be an interest among leaders to help nudge the church back to gender neutrality, measurable indicators such as appointments show that change is slow coming.
“People say, ‘oh yes, I’ve tried to do this,’ but certainly the results don’t match the self appraisals of leaders,” Munn said.
But while communities and churches are more likely to discuss gender equity now than in years past, the church hasn’t quite caught up to other areas of society in implementing these changes.
Many modern women have found more freedom to use and fully explore their gifts outside the church than within it, said Erin Lane, author of “Lessons in Belonging from a Church-Going Commitment Phobe.”
And many experience the odd dichotomy of being rewarded in the workplace for taking on more masculine attributes, but then feeling “more ostracized” when at church for not having more feminine attributes.
“I don’t know that women’s voices have found fullness in the church yet,” Lane said. “I find more fullness with my gender identity outside of the church.”
It’s not that times haven’t changed. “I can see examples when The Salvation Army is making decisions to really delegate to a woman’s gifting,” Maynor said, recalling a scenario in which a female officer in the Eastern Territory with well-documented teaching skills and a doctorate degree was assigned as a training official at a school, a historically male role.
Overall, some of the drop in attendance can be attributed to the national trend in women working full time while also delaying marriage and children.
“Such delays…have significant effects on churches that prioritize family ministry and have little to offer in terms of connecting faith and work,” the Barna study reported.
As a result, women in particular, despite growing up in or having a strong love for the church, are finding a hard time belonging to it, Lane said.
“There’s a lot more lip service given to gender equity today,” Lane said. “But I still feel like the churches I’ve been a part of have said they operate out of a belief that men and women are equal but then their practices don’t add up.”
Change can start on a small level, Lane said. For instance, inviting more women to preach. Or challenging leaders to count how many times they are quoting a man versus a women. It could be as simple as countering a strong, male biblical character with an example of a strong female.
“It’s as simple as we are better together,” Lane said. “If the church really believes that about men and women’s gifts, you’d see the connection between male and female much more clearly in the sermon and who is asked to lead and in the language we use.”
Many women nowadays, and young people in particular, no longer have just one identity that drives them, for example that of a mother or caretaker, Lane said. As young women work to make sense of the various pieces of their identities, it can be hard to feel at home in a church that often seems to view the female identity in a narrow, already defined way.
“Women in particular perhaps have a history of loving the church, but also having a hard time belonging to it,” Lane said. “I think the church can be afraid to innovate theologically. There’s so much we can do faithfully within our own tradition without throwing tradition away.”
The pattern of women delaying marriage and having children is also an important factor, Lane said. With more young women becoming increasingly focused on work rather than a family or home, it can make taking part in traditional ministries more difficult.
“Often we see men’s ministries taking part in things like a pancake breakfast at 7 a.m. Sunday because most men work, and the women’s ministries might be a fundraiser Thursday at 2 p.m. because most women are home,” Lane said. “Obviously those assumptions aren’t panning out with the current demographics.”
Despite wishing to see more from the church, Lane, whose husband is a minister, has long felt connected to the church and the structure of belonging it provides.
“What’s kept me connected despite concerns? God,” Lane said. “And God’s wicked sense of humor in matching me with a partner who makes his living in one. He and I are better together. And so it is with me and the church.”
This article is the third in a series in which New Frontier Chronicle looks at retention issues and initiatives within The Salvation Army, efforts both big and small, that speak to how the organization is connecting with its next generation. When young adults choose to stay, what’s driving their commitment? And how might that impact the future shape of The Salvation Army?
Read more in the series:
The changing face of American religion
Sunday school revamp