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August 17, 2011

Column #1,564
Church Attracts the Young, Turns Off Women & Oldsters

By Mike McManus

Conventional wisdom is that religion is particularly attractive to women and older Americans.  However, new Barna Polls provide radically different findings:

·         Church attendance by women sank by 11% since 1991, to 44%. “A majority of women no longer attend church services in a typical week,” Pollster George Barna reports.

·         Bible reading by women fell 10%, and Sunday school attendance dropped 7%.

·         “The only religious behavior that increased among women in the past 20 years was becoming unchurched,” which jumped a startling 17%.

By contrast, “Baby Busters,” young adults born from 1965 through 1983, increased their

Bible reading by 9%, reaching 41% in 2011, and their volunteering at a church doubled from 10% to 19%. Making a personal commitment to Jesus Christ also became more important among Busters in the last 20 years; 60% have done so today, a rise of 12%.

            On the other hand, Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964) are decidedly less involved. Church attendance plummeted by 12%; Sunday school attendance fell by 9% and volunteering dropped by a third from 28% in 1991 to only 18% in 2011.   The percentage of unchurched Boomers nearly doubled, rising dramatically by 18%, with 41% who now do not go to church except to attend weddings and funerals.

            What about the Elders, those born before 1946?  They are getting bored with church too. Their unchurched numbers jumped by 8% so that three out of ten Elders now do not attend, Barna reports. Their Bible reading outside of church fell by 8% from 54% to 46%. Sunday school attendance fell similarly.

            Traditionally, women have been the backbone of most congregations.  A higher percent were members, church attenders and volunteers, while men lagged far behind.  No longer.  Barna reports that the religious gender gap has largely closed. 

Twenty years ago 50% of women read the Bible outside of church vs. only 40% of men.  That pattern has reversed, with 41% of men and only 40% of women now reading Scripture!  “The elimination of that gap is what is striking,” comments George Barna.

In fact, though church attendance and membership is down, two out of five men read the Bible outside of church today, the same as two decades ago.

Another notable reduction in the difference between the genders: Men were 12% more likely to be unchurched than women in 1991, but the gap is now only 4%.

“The frightening reality for churches is that the people they have relied upon as the backbone of the church can no longer be assumed to be available and willing when needed, as they were in days past,” Barna commented.

 The ethnic group experiencing the greatest changes, however, were Hispanics.  Their church attendance plunged from 54% in a typical week twenty years ago to a dismal 33% this year.  Adult Sunday school attendance nearly disappeared, falling from 28% to just 9%. 

Hispanic Bible reading used to be 55% but is only 30% today, only about half of what it had been.  Conversely, the percentage of Latinos who are unchurched doubled from 20% to 40% today.

By contrast, blacks are more likely than whites or Hispanics to say their religious beliefs are very important in their life today, to believe that the Bible is totally accurate in all of the principles it teaches, and are more likely to have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ. Blacks are also more likely to share their religious beliefs with people who might believe differently, than are whites and Hispanics.

African-Americans are also more likely to attend church, Sunday school, to read the Bible and to volunteer at their church in an average week. Finally, blacks are only half as likely as whites or Hispanics to be unchurched.

Weekly white church attendance fell over the past two decades from 46% to 39%; adult Sunday school attendance fell 9%; volunteering dropped a similar 8% from 26% down to 18%; and the percentage who believe the Bible is accurate in what it teaches dropped by 7%.

Religious polling began with George Gallup in the 1930s, and grew under the leadership of his son, George Gallup, Jr. who has now retired. 

George Barna has demonstrated over the past 20 years that he has picked up the mantle of religious polling and carried it to new levels of sophistication and insight.  He is a prolific author, whose latest book, “Futurecast,” offers in-depth analysis of this column’s data.

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