Women outnumber men at churches across the board, study finds

Posted Sunday April 21, 2002
By Deb Richardson-Moore
Staff Writer
The Greenville News

If there seem to be more stilettos than wingtips in your church pews, you're not imagining it.

The largest survey of religious congregations ever conducted shows that women outnumber men in church services 61 to 39 percent.

"That ratio has been pretty constant and it's across all faith groups," said Cynthia Woolever, director of the U.S. Congregational Life Survey. "People have said, 'Well, maybe it's just that women live longer.' But we've looked at it across age groups and it holds for every age group."

It also holds for every church size, as well as for churches in England, Australia and New Zealand which conducted parallel studies.

"Men, for whatever reason," said Woolever, "aren't finding worship services as compelling."

The Congregational Life Survey, funded by the Lilly Endowment Inc. and housed in Presbyterian Church USA offices in Louisville, Ky., surveyed 300,000 worshippers in more than 2,000 congregations, including 53 in South Carolina. Because of confidentiality, Woolever wouldn't identify the South Carolina churches.

Researchers have been working for three years and have just released their first book, "A Field Guide to U.S. Congregations: Who's Going Where and Why."

"This is the first-ever look at worshippers of this size," Woolever said. "Generally, when we study people and their religious behavior, the size is 1,000 to 2,000 people."

The finding that most surprised her was the high turnover in church membership and attendance.

"One of three people are new in the past five years," she said. "That's a tremendous amount of turnover."

And it's not just the mobile nature of American society that's causing it, she said, because the finding is consistent in both booming and stagnant areas.

The study found that 57 percent of new church members are transfers, having moved within their denomination whether in the same city or a new one. Eighteen percent have switched denominations or faith groups. Eighteen percent are returnees who had dropped out of worship for awhile.

Only 7 percent are first-time church-goers.

"We're playing musical church," Woolever said. "None of us are doing a particularly good job of bringing in these first-time people."

At the same time, she said, the figure on returnees is reason for celebration.

"Churches are welcoming back, for whatever reason, people who have been out of worship activities for awhile."

The "Field Guide" is just the beginning of a long process of analyzing and understanding the information collected. The study's next phase will examine the underlying factors that contribute to church health in the hopes of identifying effective outreach strategies, especially for younger age groups.

Researchers will look at churches who retain their young people after college and try to determine how they're doing it, Woolever said. And they'll look at the role of small groups, such as Bible study classes, in fostering congregational loyalty -- a favorite strategy of the interdenominational community churches cropping up in Greenville County.

"The hypothesis is that small groups are the way people feel connected and keep them active and involved," said Woolever, a sociologist of religion employed by the Presbyterian Church USA. "But that's just a hypothesis. We really don't know if that makes a difference or not."

Deb Richardson-Moore can be reached at 298-4127.

Copyright 2002, The Greenville News

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