For centuries, women have been the oft-silent underpinnings of church ministry. Mostly volunteers, these female church members made up a behind-the-scenes force that not only greased the gears of the local church but also functioned as the gears themselves. Even today, roughly 57 percent of church volunteers in the U.S. are women, leading everything from prayer groups to Sunday school classes.

But this dynamic might be changing. According to a longitudinal survey released by the Barna Group last week, the numbers of both men and women attending church may have dropped in the past 20 years. Although the sample size is too small to draw any firm conclusions, the research indicates that the greatest amount of decline in church attendance has been among women. Barna found that since 1991, the overall number of women attending church dropped 11 percentage points, down to 44 percent. Bible reading among women also declined by 10 percentage points, Sunday school involvement by 7 percentage points, and volunteer activity in churches by 9 percentage points (the latter representing a 31 percent reduction in the non-paid female work force at churches).

The study added that the "only religious behavior that increased among women in the last 20 years was becoming unchurched. That rose a startling 17 percentage points—among the largest drops in church attachment identified in the research." Here it is also important to note that the number of unchurched men also increased, but only by 9 percentage points.

George Barna summarized these findings by noting that "while the genders are far from a state of convergence, 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."

This data emerged on the heels of two decades worth of church efforts to gather men back into the church, efforts that were not always accompanied by similar female initiatives. For all the discipleship-oriented women's ministers out there—Beth Moore, Kay Arthur, and Anne Graham Lotz, to name a few—the church has placed considerably less emphasis on equipping women for outreach. In fact, some evangelical leaders have decried the overly feminine style of worship and leadership in our churches. An absence of women was never the problem.

The reasons behind these gender fluctuations are almost impossibly complex. They warrant the time and space of an entire book, so I will not use this short format to propose simplistic answers that ignore nuances. What we can conclude from studies like Barna's is that our culture is shifting and churches are still adjusting.

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As an example of these changing cultural tides, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reported in 2008 that 16 percent of Americans are unaffiliated with any religion, and that percentage is largely composed of younger generations. Thirty-one percent of unaffiliated Americans are under the age of 30, and 71 percent are under the age 50. These numbers predict a shift in American church involvement, as well as an increasing population of women who is altogether unfamiliar with Christian language and worldview.

Add to this the changes occurring in the academy and the workforce. According to the Census Bureau, women have now surpassed the number of men obtaining advanced educational degrees. In 2008, the U.S. Department of Labor also reported that 59.5 percent of women were in the labor force, a percentage that has steadily increased since the 1970s.

These changes have real consequences for how Christians reach out to their communities, which means we need to be asking ourselves some evaluative questions. For instance, in order to communicate with increasingly educated and professional women, Christian women must be able to articulate what they believe and why. How is the church equipping women for this? Are Christian women able to answer the basic theological questions of their neighbors, coworkers, and friends? And as more American women populate the workplace, how is the church supporting the Christian women in their midst? Are churches training women as effective missionaries in their fields of expertise?

Finally, is the church a welcome place to this new generation of educated, professional women? How might a newly converted, female CEO find her gifts expressed in an evangelical church? How might a woman with financial savvy or her own law practice be able to serve her local congregation? Will these women be welcomed as resources, or ignored and untapped? Churches have the choice between investing or burying the talents of these capable sisters; women are less likely to attend a church in which the latter is the norm.

Barna's findings are discouraging, but the knowledge has the potential to reform our thinking about evangelism. The decline of one gender in the church should not be the catalyst that launches concerted outreach. Even when thousands are coming to Christ, there are still countless men and women to reach with the Good News. The call is always upon us. These recent statistics only remind us of that truth.

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Women have long served as the backbone of local churches, attending faithfully and without much compulsion from church authorities. While we do not fully understand the reasons behind the unbalanced gender ratio in churches, we do know this: It is not because women are more spiritual, more prone to seek God, or less sinful. Romans 3:23 tells us that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, men and women alike. Every woman needs Jesus just as much as the man next to her.