I have the opportunity to be in many churches. In that regard, I am observer of people. When I enter a worship service, I do a quick scan of those attending. And almost every time I look to the congregation, I notice one clear reality: the majority in attendance are women.
It is for that reason that volumes have been written the past couple of decades about getting more men to attend church. In this brief article, however, I want to look from a different perspective. I want to understand the motivations for women who leave the church. My process was simple; I quickly reviewed thousands of comments on my blog. Many times, I read a comment where a woman told me she had given up on a church. Here are the six most common themes:
- Overworked. “I had trouble saying no when I was asked to do something in the church. The leaders piled so much on me that the only way I could get relief was to leave the church.”
- Not valued. “I really don’t think the leaders in our church value women. Our roles and opportunities are very limited. I am frustrated. I hope I can find a church where my gifts are appreciated.”
- Relationally hurt. “There was a group of ladies in our church that did everything together. When I tried to join them, they paid me no attention. I don’t want to be in a church of cliques.”
- Lack of quality childcare. “The preaching was great and the people were friendly, but the childcare was a mess. It was both unclean and unsafe. I’m not taking my child there.”
- Busyness. “I work full-time. I have four kids at home. I have so many responsibilities. It’s tough to give even more of my time to the church.”
- Husband does not attend. “It’s tough coming to church without my husband. I am totally responsible to get our three kids to church. And I really feel out of place because the church has groups for married adults and single adults. I don’t know where I fit.”
Church leaders: see these comments as opportunities for ministry rather than problems that can’t be solved.
How would you address these concerns? What is your church doing now? What more would you like your church to do? Let me hear from you.
Posted on July 20, 2015
With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
More from Thom
Another never married woman here. Not only does the church ignore the needs of single people (not just women), the environment at church can be very hostile for singles. There are people who openly mock and disparage single people to their faces. Married women talk about the horrible single/childless women they are forced to work with and married men talk about the moral failings of their single co-workers. It’s never qualified with comments that these aren’t Christian singles or they never balance the conversation by stating that not all single people are this awful. In fact, they seem to enjoy making us uncomfortable. They’re just mean. The church is supposed to be uplifting, but for many of us, we experience a constant tear down. I experience spiritual growth more easily at home.
Thanks for posting my comment. I had a few other specific examples because my earlier post was vague.
Wedding showers where not only are there a number of sex jokes that you’re not supposed to laugh at, but the guests plainly state that now that the honoree is getting married, she’s finally going to “mature in Christ” along with her husband, no matter her age or her accomplishments prior to marriage.
Criticism of sexually active singles in their communities, but a rebuff when you say you’re struggling and need some prayers.
Conversations that exclusively revolve around babies, sex and bitter single/clueless childless people.
A baby shower where I was informed by the honoree that her beautiful 50 year old boss was crying and she assumed it was because she regretted choosing not to have children. I was trying to congratulate the expecting mom and that was the only thing she said to me at the entire event.
Proud mothers who don’t understand why you don’t want to get a hysterectomy.
Getting yelled at by someone who assumed I was “happy not having a man.” I calmly explained that you can be happy and still want to get married.
The women who think you’re after their husbands.
These are pretty specific examples, but married people often cut you off and treat you like you’re dumb when you try to participate in a conversation (on any topic). I’ve had women spend 45 minutes talking about their kids and then walk away when I’m speaking about what’s going on in my life. You’re afraid to speak up and admit that being single is hard sometimes because you’ll get told that other people have real problems, but they also don’t like it if you’re too self sufficient and don’t act desperate enough. You can’t win.
These same people want you to teach Sunday School and mentor their kids, but they won’t have you over for dinner or simply ask you how you’re doing.
I get treated with more respect and compassion by my non-believing co-workers. I’m starting to figure out that there are people at church who see me as a threat and are not so subtly telling me that they don’t want me there.
Actually, I would leave because I want solid preaching of the Word, a worship service that isn’t so filled with fog/lights/and “rock ons” (I don’t want to be entertained), and an opportunity to use the gifts and abilities the Holy Spirit has gifted me with. I would also leave a church if the ministries focused on my children were more fluff and play then solid Scriptural teaching. Women’s ministry MUST be teaching it’s women how to truly study God’s Word rather than just fill-in-the-blank with the latest/greatest LifeWay phenomenon. I’m tired of it all, and that’s why we leave. We don’t leave Jesus. We leave the show. I’m tired of it, and if you’re not in “the club”, your opinion doesn’t really matter. So, there’s that.
I’m a single, 26 year old woman who wants to be married (but of course, God is ultimately in control of that and He hasn’t allowed it to happen yet) and I’ve had an incredibly difficult time trying to find a church where I fit.
The bulk of evangelical churches today idolize the nuclear family, to the detriment of the Church. Christ Himself said “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” and then the passage in Matt. 12 goes on to say, “Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers.” ”
As a single woman is post-college, I feel completely overlooked. Every “ministry” (even the women’s ministries which claim to minister to all women) revolves around wifedom and motherhood. I have no problem spending time with women who are wives and mothers, but I just wish that I was valued equally.
People bend over backwards to serve those who have “perfect little families”, but when I need something, there is no one available to meet my need. Did a woman have a baby? We bring her meals, we come clean her house, we babysit her children. Parents need alone time without the kids? We babysit the children so they can have date night out (why they can’t stay in after the kids are asleep is beyond me…).
But when I’m sick and I’ve had a crappy day at work, there’s no one bringing me a meal. There’s no one offering to take me out for a celebration dinner when something good happens in my life, and I’m certainly not getting showered with gifts every couple of years, because I’m not getting married and having children, and that’s what we celebrate.
The Church needs to take an honest look at whether we actually value what we say we do. We say we value everyone. But a quick glance at the ministries we offer and the support we give to some people and not others will tell us what we actually value, what we actually deem worthy of celebration.
And apparently, singles post college don’t make the cut. Childless individuals don’t make the cut.
And what’s really awful, is that singles probably need the Church a lot more desperately than marrieds-with-children, because we have no built-in support system. I get to eat meals alone because families eat dinner together as their “family time.” I’m not their family, so I’m not welcome. There are some singles who are lucky enough to know several other singles and can spend much more time with them, but others like me are in areas where nearly everyone is married with kids by 22, and once you’re married, you ditch all your single friends.
Being a single today in the church absolutely sucks.
I am over 40 years of age and a woman. Though I had wanted to be married, I never have been. I am celibate and childless.
Most Protestant churches completely ignore, or else find new, inventive ways, to marginalize and insult never married, childless adults of both genders.
It is my opinion that women (singles, childless) get treated a bit worse than their male counterparts, because even today, many conservative Christians seem to feel that a woman’s only or primary purpose in life is to marry and have children.
(Men do not seem to be under as much pressure to marry and have kids as women do, in either secular culture of by churches, nor are men treated as harshly or with suspicion for being childless and single as women are.
Women who don’t have kids are regarded as weird or as failures – men don’t get this wrap nearly as often.)
Many churches expect or want women to serve in stereotypical womanly roles, such as cooking in the church’s kitchen, or babysitting children in the church nursery.
Many women (such as myself) have no interest or giftings for such things.
I do not like being around babies and children; they make me uncomfortable, or, at other times, I find them annoying. I sure as heck do not want to be stuck in roles that have me supervising infants or kids or cooking casseroles.
But good luck finding a church that will allow a woman (especially a never married, childless one) opportunities to serve in some non-maternal, non-“June Cleaver housewife” type of role.
Another turn-off: when I go to a new church the people I meet almost always assume I am divorced and a mother.
I’ve never married, I never had kids. I deeply resent and find it insulting that Christians I just met when I walk in their door just ASSUME I must have been married at one point or had children.
I cannot articulate why I find this hurtful and insulting, I just do. My advice for greeters and church members: do NOT assume the adult who walked in alone is a divorced parent.
More and more women are disagreeing with what is called gender complementarianism and embracing biblical gender egalitarianism.
I was brought up in gender comp churches by gender comp parents. I no longer agree with or believe in gender complementarianism and consider gender comp to be nothing but sexism with a biblical veneer, and I have little to no interest in attending churches that believe in it or who defend it.
The majority of gender complementarian speaking and writing is completely consumed with married mothers. They generally have nothing to say to or about never married, childless, virgin women who are past the age of 30.
Gender comps assume all or most women will marry and have kids eventually or that they have done so at one point, so most of their articles, sermons, church classes, etc, revolve around this assumption.
Therefore, never married, celibate, childless women such as myself do not feel as though we are wanted or belong. Gender comp based churches also tend to ignore divorced women and widows.
When we adult singles point out to churches that our life situation is being ignored (we would like more sermons or classes or whatever to meet our particular needs / concerns), many churches, preachers, and complementarian publications simply buckle down harder.
They scold us that in a secular cultural climate where marriage is supposedly not valued, that churches MUST opine and push for marriage around the clock.
Such people are tone deaf. The way to encourage marriage is not to make every other sermon about marriage.
Singles like myself already want marriage. You don’t have to convince me that marriage is great and that I should want it. I am already sold on the concept of marriage; that’s not the issue for a lot of single women.
Some singles never want to marry, which is fine.
But there are singles such as myself who would like to marry – however – I would like my singleness to be respected so long as I am single. I don’t want to be ignored or treated like free church labor so long as I am single.
So long as I am single, I have particular problems or issues that married women / mothers do not have, but do churches care about meeting these needs? Nope. As a matter of fact, if I point this out to them, they will insensitively retort with some shaming comment such as “but you should go to church to serve, not be serve.”
I’m sorry, but shaming me like that does not erase the fact I still have needs; it does not make my needs magically vanish, and churches are leaving those needs un-met, and at that, to go meeting the needs of all the married mommies in their pews.
(It’s a glaring double standard we singles see all the time: churches bending over backwards to cater to married parents, but telling the adult childless singles to shut up and go away.)
Recent studies have said that more than half the U.S. adult population is now single, but churches continue to ignore this and focus on the 1950s “married with children still living at home” nuclear family model. This is alienating many people.
I have not attended my church in nearly a year. I am a born again, spirit-filled, Bible-believing, retired, single woman. I love the teaching in our church… but there is no Sunday School, no home groups, no women’s or men’s groups, no fellowship other than coffee hour before service for 45 minutes. The church is large and far for me to travel. My car is older, too.
When I go to church, I feel like I am invisible. I am kind of shy until I get to know you. I have friends, but not many at the church. I have sort of “left” the church because I emailed the Pastor twice in desperation….I was totally at my wit’s end…grieving over the loss of my parents and horrendous stress at work. There were a lot of family issues (I am the oldest of 10, with 22 nieces and nephews and 49 great-nieces and nephews (and 3 more on the way before the end of the year. The response I got was that I was a beautiful woman of God and I would be fine. (well, that was the gist of it). Not even an offer of counsel, etc.
I don’t need or expect an answer. Just wanted to say why this woman left the church. I got a lot of good teaching, but I was horribly, depressingly lonely!!
There are two areas (among others) where churches are failing women:
1. As is said regarding race, church is the most segregated day of the week. In many denominations, women can be CEOs during the week, but they are expected to come to church and be quiet and submissive and provide food and childcare. And not much else. They aren’t treated like this in any area of their lives but church. In church, gifts don’t matter if you’re female. Callings don’t matter. All that matters is that XX chromosome, which slots you rigidly into certain ministries and rigidly out of certain ministries. Yes, I have a certain amount of frustration around that.
2. A nearly all-male ministry in many churches combined with beliefs about avoiding the appearance of evil, etc., means that male pastors minister best to other men. They can’t and won’t minister fully to women. You come into church, especially as a single or divorced woman — but any woman can experience this — and the pastor will shake your hand quickly and move on to have a warm conversation at length with the male parishioner after you, or with your husband. The pastor mustn’t counsel with you privately, and he and the other male church leaders can hardly say hello to you before they’re off to a male member to protect their “appearance of evil.” This has been going on in churches for probably hundreds of years. Or more.
Terri said,” The pastor mustn’t counsel with you privately, and he and the other male church leaders can hardly say hello to you before they’re off to a male member to protect their “appearance of evil.” This has been going on in churches for probably hundreds of years. Or more.” This has been going on since about the mid 1980’s when the sexual harassment hysteria came in, not 100 years. In fact churches today are operationally a different religion compared to 100 years ago.
Most churches have significantly more women than men, so this is a question how to retain women better. Women go to a church not for how it might change their beliefs, but for how their precepts will be reconfirmed. I find very little evidence that churches are really transforming women, It’s conformity all the way. Ministers depend on pleasing women for their longevity. The last thing successful ministers want to do is offend women or try to transform their viewpoint. They shoot for the most common denominator.
So I will address each point without the common hypocrisies.
Overworked: The church needs more mindless low demand distractions and or more opportunities to talk about feelings yet not have to take any kind of real action to resolves problems.
Not valued: Actually it’s not true, you’re a meal ticket for your pastor, he should be pumping your ego up in thanks, most mega churches are experts at this, you can always find a better church.
Relationally hurt: Women are a backstabbing and socially competitive lot and cannot help themselves. Eliminating or curbing unnecessary things that trigger extreme cattiness is common but moderate levels of cattiness is often encouraged.
Lack of quality childcare: This one is the simplest to fix, go to another church proto, there is no shortage of churches catering to this.
Busyness: This is redundant see the first one “Overworked”.
Husband does not attend: The answer to this one is obvious but directly exposing the hypocrisies would get this post deleted for sure, sorry.
The last one is what has been keeping me away. I feel judged in my former church, because I was already saved and married a man who doesn’t want to go to church with me. I haven’t been able to bring myself to attend regularly anywhere else, either. I wish there was a church around that understood what I’m going through. We have the happiest of marriages, and I don’t regret marrying him for a second… but I wish I could find a church where it feels like I “fit” now. I fit better as a (gasp!) divorced woman than now!
I agree with all these points but would also add several from my own reasons for leaving churches.
I have been in church since before I was born. My parents led the music at our tiny, country church so we were there every Sunday morning, evening, Wednesday night, and any other time the doors happened to be open (sometimes even if they weren’t…my mom had a key 😉 ). I learned so much at that little church that I am so grateful for. In college, I visited many churches and attended regularly one. When I “grew up” and moved out on my own, I visited many churches. I finally spent a decent amount of time at one. At this time, God regenerated me. That’s right. All my life and involvement in church and I was a false convert. So, my first addition would be (1) being a false convert. I didn’t leave the church as a whole but I almost did several times. I would also say, for this particular church, I resented hearing more about a particular contemporary theologian/preacher than I ever did about Jesus and that irritated me. So another, would be (2) idolizing particular teachers.
I do appreciate that church for opening my eyes to the study of theology and apologetics (two of my favorite hobbies today) but I ended up leaving because of my work schedule (probably would fit one of your points above). I found another church with a Sat evening service that fit my schedule better. This church had a very upbeat, youthful vibe regarding their worship service. As a young Christian, I really enjoyed that. I look back now and see the major problems with that type of “entertainment” church model. This church had several issues that I ended up leaving over. One was (3) lack of discipleship. As a large church desiring to become a mega-church or at least a multi-campus church, they really didn’t have time to disciple anyone. Another was their (4) really bad theology. This was definitely a seeker-sensitive church with the whole gamut of problems that come along with that: entertainment worship, works-based sermons, flirting with prosperity/Word of Faith heresy, etc… As my relationship with Christ grew, so did my discernment, to the point that I wasn’t really sure at the time why I was looking for another church but I just knew I couldn’t bring myself to go there anymore.
At this point, I got married and we started looking for a church of our own. We visited a church almost every week for almost 2 years before we found a church we decided to join. This church had great people in it. It was small enough that you really could get to know all the people around you. However, there was a serious problem that we realized the longer we stayed there. The main reason we stayed at all was because they were starting a church plant with one of the amazing associate pastors of the church. What we finally ended up leaving this church over was completely one reason…(5) the preaching. It was full of anecdotes, works-based living tips, extremely rare presentations of the gospel, overly patriotic to the point of idolatry, “if you become a christian your life will be so much easier” type sermons, an almost hatred for any type of teaching of doctrine/theology, absolutely no meat/virtually skim milk, becoming a little too entertainment driven (they were obsessed by numbers), and dabbling in prosperity theology.
The church we are at now is amazing. It isn’t perfect, no church is but the preaching is Christocentric, deep, gospel-driven, expository/verse-by-verse study of the Scripture, doctrinally/theologically sound. The sermons are also very long (40+ mins) and the pastor does not feel the need to water down his sermons in order to fit a 20 min sermon block. The worship music (while not always my taste) is prayerfully considered and each song is scrutinized for false teaching. The children are in the service with the rest of the congregation and their discipleship time is truly discipleship time and not “Christian day care.” This church wants people to truly come to know Christ and grow strong in their walk with Him. While we want more people to come, we care more for their souls than for how many are filling the chairs. We are warm and welcoming but we also believe in church discipline and holding strong to the Biblical mandates and not bowing to the culture. We share the gospel with assurance and strength but we do so with patience, love, and gentleness as 1 Peter 3:15 instructs us.
(Sorry this is so long. 🙂 )
This is a problem for men as well. This is many decades in the making. The feminist movement focused on women but mostly in negative .You dont need a man your woman and no church or pastor should make you feel less than.Just a few examples.. The cliques are a big problem.No room in our tent for you!! Yet they forget JESUS let them into his tent and saved them from the eternal fires of hell. I think losing our fire political correctness has watered down the church.. Were a country steeped in great fear. We call ourselves christians yet send our kids to these anti god indoctrination camps called public schools. Lets not forget colleges and universities!! The world is beating us down and the churches have joined withy the world.So our behavior is mirror image of the world.Unloving,Uncaring,Selfish,Money !! We need leadership that burns with gods fire,will tell the truth,Not some watered down jesus.But the good the bad and everything in between. This nations filled with big megachurches and every pastor is always about increasing church size and attendance,Yet nobody focuses on the 20,50,or 100 people they have. Imagine if these people could be trained in gods fire !! We must be involved in peoples lives!! This is a hurting world where love is growing colder by the day!! George Whitfield started a fire with his preaching to the colonies for 20 years. Many who study what lead to the AMerican Revolution he was a big part of doing gods will setting the captives free. That freedom lead to their freedom from the tyrrant King George!! We need to get radical for christ and stop compromising !! Men and women need to know marriage is a lifelong commitment and bein equally yolked is the way god wants it. Churches need to make everybody feel that they have a place in the kingdom and that god has a plan,Also to help guide each individual towards that plan.
I am a 60-year-old single (divorced) woman. I teach Sunday school (elementary age), sing in the choir, serve on two committees and on church council, help with VBS, and participate in various events and activities. There have been times where I’ve felt burned out or overly committed, but I made up my mind a long time ago that I am here to serve, not to be served. That is not to say I always say yes! And when my children (now adults) were young, I was not able to be as involved. But at this point in my life, I am able to participate in more activities and service opportunities. In my church the only other single women are elderly widows or teenagers, so I hold a unique spot in our congregation. But even though our congregation is mostly married couples, I have been able to carve out my place. Sometimes I am aware that I am the only single person at an event or activity, but I don’t dwell on it. God is using me within my church family, and I am grateful for all the opportunities He’s given me to serve him.
I’m wondering if part of the issue here is perspective – not that of the congregant but the pastor. Most pastors see their congregation as a resource pool of volunteers to help them get done what they see as important in the church instead of a congregation full of ambassadors to the world. If what people do Monday to Saturday was as highly valued as what they do on Sunday, people might feel more affirmed. If we could tear down the sacred secular divide, the Sunday to Monday divide and recognize that everything we do, all week long is to be done for the glory of God and is as much ministry (service to God) as what we do in and around church, things might change for folks in several of the categories mentioned.
I totally agree. If you look in the Bible, church just isn’t done the way it is now a days. Admittedly, I am not saying today we’re necessarily going against the Bible and doing anything forbidden, but we have totally shifted the focus. For one, I can’t think of one instance of preaching told to us taking place in a church meeting, preaching on the Bible always seems to take place where unbelievers are present. Teaching takes place (like Sunday School or Bible Study) but not preaching, these are two separate things and mainly the emphasis is put on singing, praising God and taking communion. I am not saying there should never be preaching but why is it that in so many churches the sermon almost totally dominates the service and everything else is supposed to hinge on it? I understand that in a truly called preacher’s preaching God speaks but God also is supposed to speak to us daily and I think this over emphasis on preaching actually hinders many Christians from spiritually maturing to hear their Good Shepherd’s Voice and know it personally, instead getting it only second hand from the pastor. Now I don’t think that this happened maliciously, I think what happened is somewhere along the way we decided the one who preaches is the leader (or in some cases the one who leads preaches) and thus the whole church gets lead for aong time by men with a particular gifting, so of course over time the church starts emphasizing that gift over others. But a Biblical approach is one that recognizes and values equally all gifts of the Bible and all members. I don’t have anything against good sermons, God has spoken to me through them many, many times but I am just saying if you really compare the first century church to current models that’s one area that’s totally been shifted in emphasis, though of course it has always had some importance.
Jesus modelled servant leadership. I really would love to be a part of a church where the leader served by helping identify and let the gifts of the members drive the direction of the church’s ministry, instead if expecting Christians to find ways to plug gifts into ministries developed without their input by people with very different gifts than their own. This is especially hard for people who move in but are spiritually mature Christians who were discipled elsewhere because unlike new believers they likely have insight and experience in their vocation, but generally the church will not let them fully participate except in sort of “entry level” ways. But that’s another thing.
I agree we need to be more aware of our lives as Church, that in Christ we “live and move and have our being”, not just one or two days a week. Also the Bible says not only not to neglect the meeting together of believers but to do so increasingly as the end approaches. Well, I don’t know when Jesus is coming back but I know we’re closer in time to that Blessed Event now than when that was written, yet many Christians meet far less often now. And I admit I am one of them because timings are so inflexible and I have a husband with an ever changing shift and a small baby. I wish there were more opportunities to meet all week long…
Enjoyed reading all of the comments. I was a single woman with a career in a variety of protestant churches. I found it extremely difficult to make friends whether the church was small or large because there were few contexts in which I fit or felt comfortable. I had nothing to contribute to conversations about husbands and children. Most women in these churches were married. The Women’s Ministry was primarily a day time bible study. I tolerated many forms of subtle abuse, for example, when I tried to start a small singles group, someone in the church called us “leftovers”. Other women only talked to me if I happened to sit next to an eligible man, of which there were very few. One woman introduced herself to me on three separate occasions as if I was new to the church but I had been there for over a year (church of less than 50). When I fit finally find a church (new church plant), I was able to get involved because there were few mature christians. I worked tirelessly for 7 years in many roles, including leadership. When the church closed, I was devastated. My new church has little use for me other than to be a “grunt” volunteer. I recently stopped volunteering because it is painful for me when I feel so disconnected. In 7 years, I have made no friends – only acquaintances that greet me superficially at services, despite numerous attempts to invite people over. Friends from my previous church have largely abandoned our friendships. I believe that some of the problems are as follows:
1. Women are undervalued as a group – in church and in society.
2. Churches are invariably family oriented and thus create segregated programs/ groups etc. that will never be able to meet the diverse needs of its members.
3. Women are segregated into two basic groups – married or not married. The latter are therefore not part of a family and not a priority.
4. Men are increasingly not present at church and/ or not involved in church activities. Single men in the church are non-existent. So where does a single christian woman find a spouse? Where does a church find male leadership or volunteers?
5. Churches lack appropriate discipleship training re: marriage, singleness, service, finances and more.
6. Singles are undervalued in the church but expected to serve more because they don’t have family commitments. This can lead to tremendous dissatisfaction when combined with the above points.
7. Women are frequently not permitted any leadership roles in a church unless they are the director of Children’s Ministry or Women’s ministry (often unpaid) or in a passive role as an Elder’s wife.
8. Consumerism is rampant in the church which makes change difficult.
9. Church leadership (largely men) controls the church as much as the finances of the church that keep the ministry staff employed.
10. Relationships within the church are largely held together by mutual church attendance and nothing else. When this tie is eliminated, the relationship is such that it does not endure.
I have started skipping church services because there is nothing there for me. The sermons are irrelevant. I’ve stopped trying to find a small group because of the shallowness, immaturity and marital status of group members.
And by the way, heaven help you if you have any personal challenges like a messy life, a chronic illness, a blended marriage etc. You will be shunted off into the Recovery Group to get fixed. There is no professional counselling or support for you….We had a paid qualified counsellor on staff and her position was deleted in favour of the pastor’s wife offering free unqualified counselling.