The gender gap in US church membership

church blue skyWalk into a typical American church on a Sunday morning and you are likely to find more women than men. There is nothing particularly new or even surprising about this trend, but if you compare the gender composition of evangelical and liberal churches you just might notice an interesting - and perhaps puzzling - reversal of the usual pattern. Unlike more socially conservative, and even moderate or “Mainline” churches, liberal congregations actually have more men than women in the pews. In fact, according to data from the Pew Forum’s 2008 Religious Landscape Survey, evangelical Protestant churches are 53% female while liberal churches are 54% male.

The overall trend in American religion however is in the direction of disproportionate membership by women. This larger trend across all religious traditions is nothing new in this country. In fact, according to Boston University sociologist of religion Nancy T. Ammerman, “As far as we can tell, women have always outnumbered men in American churches, all the way back to the Puritans.”

Theories abound to explain the national trend. Some suggest that women are attracted to church because it offers relatively more opportunities for leadership roles. Others blame a “feminine” ecclesial culture for making men feel uncomfortable or even unwelcome. However, neither of these theories, nor countless others, have been received as very good explanations. There simply is no consensus on the issue.

One intuitively likely explanation for the overall trend might be related to the age of American churchgoers and the disparity between female and male longevity. However, according to the Pew data the gender relationship is relatively stable across a wide range in age.

As if all of this were not complicated enough, there is also the surprising reversal of the trend among Unitarians and members of other liberal traditions. If there are “American” reasons for women to outnumber men in church, what accounts for the switch with these American groups?

Perhaps the reversal of the overall national trend among more liberal traditions, as well as Muslims, Hindus, and Reform Jews, offers an avenue for future research into the true complexity of gender dynamics in American religion.

For more on the Pew Forum’s data see here.