Twelve years ago, George Barna described women as the backbone of the Church, but his recent research reveals that the backbone shows signs of decay and collapse. Between 1991 and 2011 there has been a 20 percent decrease in the percentage of adult women attending church services in any given week, a 29 percent drop in the number of adult women attending Sunday school classes, and the number of women who volunteer during the course of a week has plummeted 31 percent. The proportion of American women who are unchurched has nearly doubled in the past twenty years, rising by 94 percent. Barna concludes, "Women of faith, increasingly disgruntled and feeling unfulfilled by their church experiences, are leaving churches in massive numbers."
He and Jim Henderson have teamed up to write The Resignation of Eve, What If Adam's Rib is No Longer Willing to be the Church's Backbone? (Barna and Tyndale House Publishers 2012) The book begins with a scenario: What if all the women turned up MIA next Sunday at your church? How many little ones would be left unattended in the children's ministry? How many sermon outlines would not find their way into bulletins? How many voices would be missing from the choir?
The book combines Barna's qualitative research with Henderson's quantitative approach. In other words, Barna bases his conclusions on survey data. For example, the appendix contains a nationwide survey of 603 adult women who say they are Christian and attend Christian church services. Henderson's quantitative research consists of fifteen in depth interviews with women, following them into, out of, and sometimes back into the church. Henderson divides these women into three categories:
1) Women resigned to their church's treatment of women. They like, support, and defend their church's view and care for women, even if it limits what they can do. Barna's recent research revealed that 61 percent of women surveyed said that their church's perspective on the role of women in ministry was similar to their own. But 83 percent said they thought they were capable of doing more to serve God than they were currently doing and 56 percent said that if they were given an open invitation to exercise a greater degree of leadership in their church that they definitely or probably would do so.
2) Women who have resigned from church. These women felt they were capable of guiding, shaping, and leading in the church community but were denied the opportunity to use their gifts and abilities to the full extent. They walked away from the church, Christianity, and in some cases, God. Most of them had been dedicated churchgoers and many were leaders but have opted for other beliefs or no belief.
3) Women who resign themselves to the way things are and stay with the hope of changing opportunities for women from the inside. These women know the risks, and that change is not likely, and if it occurs at all, will be slow. But they don't quit or accept things as they are. They engage, lead, and influence as best they can, hoping and praying for more opportunities for women in time.
Their stories reveal the immense differences in how women feel about their church experiences. As I worked my way through the interviews, I felt overwhelmed by the complexities of the issues. I wonder if this complexity explains why many Christians and churches ignore addressing the topic. We've been doing that for years. But the ramifications in empty pews and the downturn in volunteerism are unfolding with serious consequences for American churches. It's time to pay attention.
What, within biblical parameters, are women to do? Does your church empower women to the fullest within those parameters? How much time have you spent wrestling with what the entire Bible says about women? Are you as much a fan of women as Jesus was when He walked the earth? Can the church continue to take women's loyalty to the church for granted? Without change, will we see millions more women exiting, taking their daughters with them?
This book made me uncomfortable, and I don't agree with all its conclusions. But it raises issues that too many Christians ignore, and we are paying a high price. The book might fuel discussions that goad churches into decisions that could retain women and even woo some back. Every church needs a strong backbone.