Let me explain. Researchers from the California-based Barna Group surveyed 1,000 random people in 1991 as a part of its multi-part State of the Church series. The survey questioned interviewees on a handful of core religious behaviors: attendance at a church service in any given week; weekly Sunday school attendance; volunteering at a church; Bible reading; and labeling oneself a "Christian." Twenty years later, researchers repeated the survey, randomly selecting 1,600 people, and this week, the results were released. Here are some of the highlights:
- Attendance at a church service in a given week? 47% (that's down 9 percentage points since 1991)
- Adults attending Sunday school? 18% (down 8 percentage points since 1991)
- Volunteering at church? 22% (the 1991 figure was 30%)
- Bible reading? 46% (1991 figure? 51%)
- Do you label yourselves"Christian"? Well, 31% of you who do haven't attended a church service in the last 6 months (a.k.a., the "unchurched").
Growing up, my worship life was dominated by lay women volunteers who were affectionately dubbed church ladies. These were the women who decorated the altar, polished the communion chalices, and produced the Sunday bulletin. They organized the Friday night bingo games and the annual all-parish crab feast and they knew how to make the coffee for the Sunday coffee hour. They attended Sunday church services religiously (yes, pun intended:) and they knew every parishioner by name. In my current church, women hold key leadership positions and on any given Sunday, women are in the pulpit and in the pews. Women volunteer as Sunday school teachers and choir members. We make meals for the hungry and collect clothing for the needy; we attend Bible study and committee meetings; we serve as vestry members and ordained ministers, and we still know how to work that urn for the coffee hour. On the surface, it doesn't look like much has changed, but take a closer look and you start to see hairline fractures all over the place.
To begin with, let's think about the life cycle of a woman in the church. In generations past, women went straight from their parents' house to their husband's house, and church was not only a spiritual refuge but a social outlet. For these young ladies in their early twenties, their involvement in the church gave them their first leadership roles. As their families grew, these women took on even more active roles in the church, and when their children were old enough to leave the nest, these women became the backbone of the church, taking the mantel from their elders.
But that life cycle has changed for women in the church. For starters, a lot of us moved from our parents' house and into our own home before we married. And while we were on our own, some of us opted for careers. A lot of us married in our early 30s, and some of us didn't marry at all. Some of us had children and left the professional workforce, while some became working moms. For those of us who became moms in our late 30s and early 40s, we're hit with the double whammy of caring for our small children and for our aging parents. All of these cultural developments have, over time, dramatically changed the way we women live out our faith, but this doesn't mean that our churches have kept pace.
Yes, there are churches that have amazing Sunday school and youth programs, but what is there for single, professional women or women struggling with infertility? Sure, your church might have lots of committees that do amazing community service, but if I'm a working mom with 2 kids on traveling basketball teams, then I'm more inclined to attack that overflowing pile of laundry than attend a 90-minute outreach committee meeting on a weeknight. And don't get me started on the alienation that women in the midst of marital separation and divorce feel at the hands of their churches.
So, does this mean the end of the Church Ladies?? Maybe it is, but it may also be the beginning of Church Ladies 2.0. Maybe it's time to let go of who women used to be and embrace who we are. I'm just saying:)