Why Are So Many Single Women Leaving the Church?

A few years ago, I attended the Women of the World festival in London. Arriving late, I hurried up to a panel called ‘Faith and Feminism,” which featured a panel of women from different faith backgrounds talking about how they merged their religious beliefs with their feminist convictions. Halfway through the event, something surprising happened. A thirty-something-year-old woman in the audience abruptly raised her hand. The chair of the panel gestured for the microphone to be passed to the audience member and there was an uncomfortable stirring while we all waited.

Then a clear voice rang out: “I’m so tired of fighting Christian church leaders to be treated equally but I don’t want to leave the church. So, what do I do?” She paused before reformulating her question: “How do I stay?”

That question stuck with me long after the festival ended. At the time, I was just beginning five years of in-depth research with single Christian women in the US and the UK and had no idea just how many of them were asking the very same question.

It turns out that in both countries, single Christian women are leaving churches at increasingly high rates. In the UK, one study showed that single women are the most likely group to leave Christianity. In the US, the numbers tell a similar story.

Of course, there is a distinction between leaving church and leaving Christianity, and these studies do not make the difference clear. Regardless, leaving – whether it be your congregation or your faith — is a difficult decision. Women stand to lose their friends, their sense of identity, their community and, in some cases, even their family. And yet, many are doing it anyway.

What or who is driving them out?

Singlehood 

The first thing I discovered is that single Christian women are leaving because they are single. It’s no secret that Christian churches exhort marriage as God’s design for humankind, and yet many women struggle to find a suitable spouse in the church. On the one hand, the gender ratio is not in their favor. In both countries women far outstrip men in terms of church attendance at an almost 2 to 1 ratio. Many women I interviewed argued that the ratio is far worse, even 4 to 1 in some churches. And most women want to marry Christian men, someone who shares their faith. This means that often by their mid to late thirties, women face the difficult choice: hold out for a Christian husband or date outside the church.

To make matters trickier, in many Christian circles women aren’t supposed to pursue men. A 34-year-old woman named Jessica, who worked for a church, told me that she once asked a guy out for coffee and he showed up with three of his friends. She never asked a guy out again after that. Feeling powerless to pursue men yet pressured to get married, women often resort to alternative means of attracting male attention – such as perfecting their appearance, laughing loudly, and strategically showing up to places where men are likely to be. “It’s almost like an invisible competition between women in the church,” Marie, a 30-year-old marketing strategist told me. After being excluded from church social events because she was seen as a threat to the few men there, she eventually left her church.

The pursuit of marriage wasn’t just because women wanted to be married – some didn’t. It was because marriage afforded women a certain visibility, even authority within the church, that they otherwise lacked. “They don’t know what to do with us!” exclaimed Stacy, a 38-year-old woman who started a non-profit organization to help children.

When I first met her three years ago, Stacy was frustrated with the church but committed to sticking it out. She said her feelings of isolation stemmed from feeling invisible. “If you’re not married and you don’t have kids, and you’re no longer one of the students then where do you go? You end up going nowhere.” When I spoke to Stacy recently, she told me that although she still called herself a Christian, she’d stopped attending church.

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Intimidating  

Without the validity that comes with marriage, single women don’t feel accepted in Christian contexts. And more so if they are ambitious or career-focused, personality traits that are often recoded as “intense” or “difficult.” Women described the ideal Christian woman to me: gentle, easy-going, submissive. And when they didn’t fit this description, it caused them to feel even more out of place. The word “intimidating” came up often in my interviews with single Christian women – an accusation launched at even the most unintimidating women. Julie, for example, worked as an events coordinator for a church. Despite being a soft-spoken 37-year-old woman, she too reported that she had often been told by men that she was “intimidating” and that she needed to “tone it down.” It being her personality.  

Sex 

By far the biggest factor propelling women out of the church is sex. The recent #ChurchToo movement attests to just how damaging irresponsible handling of the Church’s messages of sexual purity can be for some women. Even in the UK, where purity is taught much less, women still struggle with the church’s approach to female sexuality. “Where do I put my sexuality, if I’m not having sex?” one woman asked me. “As single women, we aren’t even allowed to talk about our sexuality!” another said. “Christian leaders assume that our sexuality is like a faucet that you only turn on when you get married.”

Again, age is a major factor. Single women in their late twenties, thirties and forties are caught in a no-mans-land: too old for Christian messages on abstinence targeting teens, and too single for messages about intimacy aimed at married couples.

For single Christian women tired of feeling invisible, that they are “intimidating” because they love their career, that their sexuality is irrelevant or, worse, that their worth lies in their purity, reaching their limits means making the difficult decision to exit. But this raises an urgent and important question: if women have historically outstripped men in terms of church attendance, what will it mean for Christianity if single women continue to leave? 

View Comments (9)
  • I just turned 68 years old-I am a single never married male- I became a Christian at the age of 29- in 1981- I would love to be married. I have asked lots of women out- and I am active in church congregations- in ministry- so I am not “on the hunt for a mate.” I have found most Christian women very hostile- when I approach them about a date (Funny- I thought the men were supposed to asked the women out)- I often wonder- especially in the Washington D.C. area- what single women are looking for. I have many many friends in my same age group that have experienced the same thing. There are lots of Christian men in the church.

  • I’m a 33 yr old male that attends church weekly. I’ve remained abstinent up to this point and will continue to do so until marriage. Saying twenty or thirty something year olds can’t grasp the whole abstinent message because we are to old and it’s only meant for adolescents represents a lack of perspective particularly of the Christian message. In my church there aren’t young women around nor men. Just elders and families. As far as there being more women then men at church I haven’t noticed that major of a difference. In all reality as well sex is never discussed while in or out of church. The only homily in church about sex was centered around adultery. Other than that it’s never discussed. There are stereotypes that exist about the church that just aren’t true. That goes for most stereotypes. The problem I believe is that the world itself has a strangle hold on people. From their appearance, to their priorities, to how they interact with people. People nowadays have become a biproduct of the world for which they live in which causes friction with the Christian message. Jesus said you either live for me or you live for this world. You can’t do both. It’s a very resounding statement. Jesus knew his message was the polar opposite of the world for which he was walking into. You can’t just have your foot in the door.

  • I am a man who spent 15 years going to Church. I would love to have married a nice Christian girl. However, when I asked them out they generally said “No.” In the end I left the church, met a nice non-Christian girl, got married, had kids and am now a thousand times happier than I ever was as a single Christian.

    The Church does not teach or support single people anywhere near well enough. Girls are told that God has a ‘perfect’ plan for their lives, which they too often equate to, “God will find me a husband who is a cross between Brad Pitt and Billy Graham, and all I have to do is sit back and let HIm deliver in His perfect timing!” As a friend of mine said, they all want to marry Jesus in human form.

    A comment I saw online encapsulates it beautifully,

    ““…Our understanding (is) that the enemy will seek to destroy Christian marriages, yet we do not seem able to make the tiny logical leap required to realise that it’s an even better strategy for him to prevent these marriages from happening in the first place. No ‘Godly children’ to worry about then either.”

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