VENTURA, Calif. American women, long the backbone of church attendance and volunteerism, have shown a dramatic drop in commitment over the past two decades, according to a new survey. Similar traits were seen among men, but not as dramatically.
As a result, the religious gender gap has substantially closed, said George Barna, the researcher who conducted the study as part of the annual State of the Church report released by the Barna Group.
"Women used to put men to shame in terms of their orthodoxy of belief and the breadth and consistency of their religious behavior," he said. No more …"
Specifically, the findings show that church attendance among women has dropped by 11 percent, to 44 percent, since 1991, meaning that a majority of women no longer attend church services during a typical week. At the same time, the number of women volunteering at church dropped 9 percentage points from 1991, reducing the non-paid female work force at churches by 31 percent.
In addition, just four in 10 women report weekly Bible reading, a drop of 10 percentage points. Sunday school involvement is also less common among women down seven points from the 24 percent mark noted just two decades ago.
In that same survey, findings among men revealed that church attendance declined by 6 percentage points among men, from 42 percent to 36 percent. Volunteering levels also slipped by 6 percentage points to its present level of 18 percent. Sunday school attendance declined by 8 percentage points over the past 10 years, with only one out of eight men attending such a meeting in a typical week.
While most behaviors declined, the one area that reported an increase among women and men were for those deemed as unchurchedthat is, having not attended a church event, other than a special service such as a wedding or funeral, in the past six months. Among women, that rose a startling 17 percentage points over the past 20 years. Since 1991, the unchurched rate among men has grown by 9 percentage points.
"In its simplest form, we can posit that while tens of millions of Americans seem to be wrestling with their faithwhat to believe and how to experience and express itwomen have been more radically redefining their faith contours than men in the past two decades," Barna wrote in a blog about the survey.
The Barna study also measured several core beliefs by gender determining that:
• Women are 6 percentage points less likely to say their religious faith is very important to them than they were in 1991. Even so, nearly two-thirds of them (63 percent) hold their faith in high regard.
• When it comes to views on the devil, women are 5 percentage points less likely to write off Satan as merely a symbol of evil. Sixty-one-percent did so in 1991, but that has been reduced to 56 percent now.
• Perceptions of the reliability of the Bible have taken a hit, as the percentage of women who firmly believe the Bible is accurate in all of the principles it teaches has declined by 7 percentage points to 42 percent.
• An even larger drop has occurred in the proportion of women who possess an orthodox view of God. Those who contend that God is the "the all-knowing, all-powerful and perfect Creator of the universe who still rules the world today" has slumped from 80 percent in 1991 to 70 percent today.
• Interestingly, the percentage of women whose beliefs qualify them to be classified as born-again Christians has risen significantly in the past 20 years. In 1991, 38 percentage of woman said they had made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that remained important in their life, and also said they believed they would go to Heaven after they died solely because they confessed their sins and accepted Jesus Christ as their savior. Since then, the figure has increased slightly to 44 percent.
And for men
The two religious beliefs that witnessed significant change were
• They are 5 percentage points less likely of believing they have a personal responsibility to share their religious views with others who believe differently, down to just 23 percent.
• Those firmly believing that the Bible is totally accurate in all of the principles it teaches is down by 10 points to only one-third of men (33%).
• Their Bible reading habits remained virtually the same over the past 20 years with 40 percent reporting they do so now, compared with 41 percent in 2001.
The study's findings are significant, suggesting churches may have to change the way they are structured.
"While the genders are far from a state of convergence, the frightening reality for churches is that the people they have relied upon as the backbone of the church can no longer be assumed to be available and willing when needed, as they were in days past," the researcher said.
"All of this raises questions about the tenor of church proceedings. Many have noted that the typical Christian church exudes a female vibe, in aspects ranging from type of music to common language to the nature of the primary events. If women become less of a mainstay in what occurs within churches, will ministries respond by increasing the male-friendliness of the proceedings? As women become less front-and-center, will men be pressured to upgrade their church involvement?"
The annual survey, released in six parts, also examined general trends, generational trends, gender differences, racial/ethnic differences, regional faith and faith "tribes." It was released simultaneously with "Futurecast," a new book by Barna. The surveys are conducted each January and include a random pool of at least 1,000 adults.