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Male Church Attendance: Bradley Wright

posted by Scot McKnight

Brad Wright is an excellent sociologist and has a fantastic book coming out from Bethany that will squash some widely-reported and repeated myths about Christians. Here is his study results of the official census data on male church attendance. There are some good charts on the next page. I’m grateful to Brad for this information.

Brad Wright


Question: Are There Fewer Male Evangelicals?

Short answer: No

The data come from the General Social Survey which has been
collected every year or two since 1972. 
It’s a nationwide study that is probably the most frequently used dataset
in sociology.  Thankfully, for
those of us who study religion, it contains good measures of religion.

Figure 1 presents the gender rates among Evangelicals since
the early 1970s.  Throughout the
whole period, a majority of Evangelicals are women, with about 40%-45%
men.  In the early 1970s, the
percentage of men hovered around 45%. 
In the 1980s, it dropped to near 40%, and since then it has slowly
rebounded so that it’s now up to about 43%.  While there is a distinct trend in these data, I caution against
over-interpreting them because the percentage of Evangelical men in the 2000s
is not significantly different that the previous decades.  As such, it appears that it might be
increasing, but there certainly isn’t clear evidence of a decline.

By the way, I reran the analyses in Figure 1 looking only at regular attendees (going to church once a month or more), and it told a nearly identical story.  The percentage of male Evangelicals who attended church at least once a month dropped from the 1970s to the 1980s and it has slowly increased since.

Figure 2 compares the experiences of Evangelicals with six other religious groups: Mainline Protestants, Black Protestants, Catholics, Jews, members of other religions, and the religiously unaffiliated.  Overall, all of the religious groups have fewer men than the religiously unaffiliated, but the percentage of men among the unaffiliated has steadily dropped.  In the 1970s, 62% of the unaffiliated were men, but now it’s down to 56%.

 Evangelicals have nearly identical rates as Mainline Protestants, more than Black Protestants, and less than Jews and Catholics.

Click on these below and they’ll pop up in a larger readable format.


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posted March 8, 2010 at 7:20 am

Bottom line … the scare tactic approach selling the need for directed ministry is unsupported by the data. And the unwarranted use of this tactic to make women feel guilty (a definite side effect) is even more unfortunate.
It would be interesting to run an analysis looking at other factors – widows and widowers, single adults, etc. to look for reasons for the rather steady 40-45% trend – a match with US population would be approximately 49% while for adults over 65 it would be 43% male (data from CIA world factbook)
Of course – this just means we need strong ministries to reach people where they are, male and female, blue collar, rural, urban, educated and uneducated.

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posted March 8, 2010 at 7:43 am

I’m not well read on this subject, but I’ve not heard many argue that there is a huge male to female gap. I have heard arguments that there are not a lot of Men or that church and church services are geared toward women (I tend to agree), etc.
I think ministries similar to Promise Keepers have awakened many men to the notion that they might be sleeping at the wheel. With increased vigor we should probably see some rise in attendance. That said, they also bring baggage.
I think those numbers reflect that, whether men abdicate responsibility or just don’t like the church environment (I think it’s both), as a whole men are not inclined to attend church in it’s current evangelical state.

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posted March 8, 2010 at 7:53 am

I don’t understand the point you are trying to make – are you suggesting that there is no substantive or growing gap because church doesn’t appeal to men and doesn’t appeal to women either?

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posted March 8, 2010 at 8:48 am

I’m editting some comments from the Driscoll post from last week…
My experience has been that roughly an equal number of men and women attend church, but the participation level of me is lower, especially in leadership. I believe that it’s primarily because men wish to avoid conflict and close relationships.
I’ve found that most men want to be trustee’s or a few bible teachers (rightly dividing the word of truth), and that’s about it. They don’t want to work with kids, or on creative teams, etc. I believe too many men are not willing to risk the emotional energy required for group leadership, nor have they been shown the true Kingdom of God work that requires all of our efforts (male and female). There is far more that needs attention that the lights in the mens washroom.

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Michael W. Kruse

posted March 8, 2010 at 9:14 am

As Frederick Mosteller said ?It is easy to lie with statistics, but it is easier to lie without them.? :-) Thanks for some actual evidence to talk about.
I think the general point Brad is making is correct. Here are a few additional things I would want to know.
First, As memory serves me, weekly church attendance … not monthly … is a significant discriminator of people on a host of issues in terms of religious activity and ethical behavior. That is, people who attend church weekly tend to behave differently from those who don’t. I’d be curious to know if there is any gender difference over time using that variable. Probably not but I’d want to know.
Second, there is a frequently recited stat that says about 40% of people are in church on Sunday in the U.S.. Yet some studies that attempt actual headcounts suggest that actual attendance is probably in the 20-25% range. Is there any gender difference over time in what people say versus what they are doing?
Third, my experience is with the Presbyterian Church USA. The most recent data I’ve seen (2008) shows that our membership is 36% men and 64% women. Median age of members from 1987-2002 stayed at 54-55 years old. In 2008, it jumped to 60. Clearly the older your population the more imbalance there will be toward women as women live longer.
Fourth, I’d be interested to see a break down of gender ratio by congregation size. I suspect the larger the congregation the narrower the gap between men and women in attendance. In the PCUSA, our average size congregation is about 100 people, yet an easy majority of Presbyterians are in congregations of 500 or more. A denominational survey will tell you a 36/64 split. But I suspect if you went to the smaller congregations the gap is wider and is growing. So while the denominational gender balance may be staying fairly stable it is possible that the majority of congregations are experiencing a growing imbalance. Thus, if you randomly pull a group of pastors together and ask them if there is a growing imbalance between men and women in the pew they will say yes because the majority of congregations are becoming more imbalanced.

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posted March 8, 2010 at 9:24 am

Good points – and they suggest that we need local solutions for local problems … not global pronouncements and blanket judgment. After all the goal is to go into all the world and make disciples.
Your point about congregations reminds me of an article I read after the 1990 census. We were living in the Philadelphia area at the time and several locals were quoted as saying something to the effect that they knew the census was biased and structured to lie because all they had to do was look around to know that blacks made up a larger percentage of the national population.
Our view is generally shaped through our local perspective.

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Andy Holt

posted March 8, 2010 at 9:37 am

Michael, your point about weekly v. monthly attendance is a good one. As a staff member of a nondenominational megachurch, we’re definitely looking for our volunteers and servant leaders from the “weekly” pool.
Another set of data I’d be curious to see is the percentage of single-income households among church goers in general, and evangelicals in particular. Is it higher than society at large? Many of the women in my congregation are stay at home moms and have more freedom to get involved in the church. (Note: I’m not at all saying that stay at home moms are less busy than working dads–I know better than that.) I just wonder if that has anything to do with the data.

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Rick in Texas

posted March 8, 2010 at 9:39 am

Good background reading to this subject is Dave Olson’s The American Church in Crisis”

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Mark Baker-Wright

posted March 8, 2010 at 10:21 am

Michael Kruse (#5),
Do you have a source for your numbers? What I found from the PC(USA) website (here suggests different numbers for the same year. Closer to 40%/60% male/female (and closer to the “equal” sides of those numbers). Still a disparity, to be sure, but not nearly as great….
Perhaps Evangelicals are (ironically?) closer to equal numbers than certain mainlines?

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Michael W. Kruse

posted March 8, 2010 at 10:36 am

Mark #9, you can find the pdf of the Presbyterian Panel here. See the top of page 12 and the text box at the bottom of the page.

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posted March 8, 2010 at 10:42 am

I’m still at a loss as to what is gained by perpetuating the “feminization myth”?

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posted March 8, 2010 at 10:47 am

Nathan #11-
I think the real issue is attempting to find out why more men don’t attend.
The question, therefore, should not be: “Are there fewer male Evangelicals?”; rather it should be: “Why are there not more male Evangelicals?”

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posted March 8, 2010 at 11:03 am

Yet it is still worth noting and considering that the dropoff among young male adults has fallen off a cliff. The least likely person to be in an evangelical church is a single guy in his 20’s. So while the numbers may have not fallen that far (and there still is more women than men and that has been the argument all along) the numbers clearly indicate that in the coming decades the situation will only worsen as few young men are sticking around church.

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Scot McKnight

posted March 8, 2010 at 11:35 am

Ted, but the number on twenties is no different today than the three decades.

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posted March 8, 2010 at 12:25 pm

Maybe we evangelicals can use resources like this to come out of our extended season of self-loathing. There are some amazing things happening with in our churches, we should be excited about them.
Maybe it is our predilection to negativity due to our predominate eschatological bent, but there really are some good things happening out there that should be more celebrated than the negative.
The church where I serve has many men attending and they are involved. We provide them appropriate space but don’t try to program our men’s ministry activities to the same level of intimacy as our women’s ministries. The two genders are geared differently for these activities.
You are the Church!
Robert Angison

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T.C. Porter

posted March 8, 2010 at 12:46 pm

The “church” continues to think in the mindset of Christendom and imposes a nesting paradigm on Jesus’ ekklesia. By nest I am evoking the image of a female bird caring for the young in a comfortable and nurturing environment. That would be the work of the pastor and indicative of the many shepherding and sheep images in the Bible. But the ekklesia is not limited by nature to sheep pen. Jesus also gave apostles, prophets and evangelists, who do much of their work away from the flock of sheep, like birds flying away from the nest, like Jesus dining with those far from religion, like apostles sent two-by-two to embed the kingdom of God in culture. Once the church begins recognizing all this it will be able to encourage men to other things besides sing, listen to the sermon, come to the building. Conversely we will stop measuring their kingdom work only by whether or not they were in the seat on Sunday at the religious nest. Make them hunter-gatherers for Jesus.

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Michael Redding

posted March 8, 2010 at 2:10 pm

Could part of the issue be lack of challenging mission? The big ask of Jesus seems to be “make disciples” … as you go. Since leaving university fellowships, I don’t find much repetition or reinforcement of this. When I ask men to meet and become disciples so they can then reach others and repeat the process, I mostly get explanations and excuses. I am sure my answer is simplistic. I lead/participate(in a) group I formed 12 months ago. After assessing the interest and skills/habits of these men over the past year, I have just now asked them to consider reaching out to others and becoming the leader/teacher to repeat the process. It was an interesting meeting last week. Any suggestions?

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posted March 8, 2010 at 2:25 pm

I’ve often wondered about that statistic as leading a young adult ministry that had 800-1000 people in their 20’s in it – it was evenly half men, half women. Planting a church, half men and half women too and a great percentage of them in their 20’s. But, we intentionally place people in their 20’s in key areas of leadership. So the ministry and church also then stays connected to the thinking and understanding of them. Same for other churches I know whom see an equal amount of men/women – and in their 20’s too. So perhaps, the statistics are true for churches who aren’t intentionally and missionally connected to those in their 20’s, but there are plenty of others who do – and you see men/women.

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posted March 8, 2010 at 2:58 pm

Yes, it?s great that men are attending church. But, we cannot use official census data on male church attendance to diagnose the efficacy of accomplishing the great commission. Keep in mind that Jesus? command was not, ?Go therefore and make church attendees…?
Jesus said, ?Make disciples.? The church, of course, exists to make disciples of men and women. Determining if the church is accomplishing that mission takes more than calculating the male to female ratio in church pews. Sure, credible research requires empirical data. Any scientist who cares about religion would be hard-pressed not to play with available church attendance numbers. However, I too would caution against drawing important conclusions from church attendance data alone, especially when addressing the issue of male discipleship. Let?s not go back to serving donuts in the church just because attendance data looks good. Rather, let?s keep calling men to die to self and lead.
The fact is that we, the church, can do a better job at making disciples of men. Why? Well, the current disciple-making process is not working for men in many local churches. I?m not talking about male church attendance. I?m talking about walking into a local church and finding men who are radical in they way live for Jesus. These men have turned from worldly lusts and have died to self. They know what they believe, and they can explain it to others. They are serving God by leading Bible studies, taking care of orphans and widows, changing dirty diapers, and unclogging stopped-up toilets. When they know that a man isn?t loving his wife, or when recurring sin has crept into a friend?s life, these men confront. They knock on doors and visit such men at home because they care about discipleship.
How do we measure the percentage of male disciples like that in a particular local church? I don?t know for sure. I don?t want to be the one deciding if someone is further along his journey of spiritual growth than another. However, I can tell you that it?s not hard to tell the difference between a church that is focused on making disciples and a church that cares more about serving donuts.
The last few weeks I?ve been speaking at a church of about 50 people in a town with a declining population of around 230. Before the service, the elders of this church did something simple that proved they are the real deal: they gathered together as men in a basement room and prayed. I?m thankful they invited me to join them. I?ve spoken at much larger churches?churches that appear healthier when measured by numbers?yet whose men were more focused on arranging donuts than praying together before the service. That doesn?t mean male disciples aren?t being made at that church, but it?s one example of many that speaks volumes about how seriously men take this whole disciple-making mission.
Should we keep evaluating how well we are doing at making male disciples? Yes. Does that mean that every church should expand its men?s ministry and add another pancake feed to the church calendar? No.
Let’s stop serving donuts, and preach the Word. In pointing people to the suffering servant who rose from the grave, men will learn where they need to man up.

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Travis Greene

posted March 8, 2010 at 3:37 pm

Casey @ 19, do you just not like donuts? ;)
Rick @ 12,
But your second question makes no sense unless we know the answer to the first. Otherwise we might be spending a lot of energy on a nonexistent problem.

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Michael Redding

posted March 8, 2010 at 3:45 pm

(I like donuts but they don’t like me – must be an age thing!) An elder recently commented that many of the men at the monthly mens breakfast are the same ones kicking the tires as 10 years ago. Casey says “preach the word” – do you (Casey or others) have specific suggestions on how to preach that effectively calls men to the action God wants them to take? In my case, I am not the local preacher and my conversation competes with the all the well known messages, podcasts and other popular Christian talk. I am too old (I think) to break away and start a new church (The Jesus Creed of Disciple-making Church or some such thing!) so I am really am interested in good ideas to reach the world by engaging men and I am already started, but I want to stay on course.

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posted March 8, 2010 at 4:35 pm

Travis #20-
No matter the evidence of either a downward trend or no trend, the real problem is that the % of male Evangelicals has not been strong in decades (possibly longer). A trend towards “fewer” may be a myth, but we still have a problem. We need to focus on finding ways to get an upward trend.

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Gwen Meharg

posted March 8, 2010 at 5:31 pm

I am very thankful for this data that debunks the feminization of the church. Now I can stop LOOKING for this feminized church I have heard so much about. I really wanted to visit it!
I was a long time member, over 1000 hours painting on the worship team, of a church that grabbed the feminization lie church and used it and John Eldrege’s material to butch up the church. Men and women were hurt.
I remember the Sunday it happened. Sitting on the floor with my easel against the grand piano I had a particularly advantageous view of the congregation and the tragedy that ensued. Many were in the front of the bapti-costal-ish sanctuary when one of the leaders, all of which were men, stood up and started bemoaning the feminization of the church and started calling the warriors, the men to come take over the front of the church, their rightful place. In the mix in the front were two warrior/intercessor women who often danced ( nothing showy at all) in the front. As this male leader (male leader was redundant in that congregation as all the leaders were male) repeated called the men forward and called the men to fill the front these two women slowly moved back and eventually sat down. All across the congregation I saw women shutting down, sitting down, being closed off from their calls to worship and war. It was wrenching. I cried, a very HUMAN reaction but probably seen as feminine. I am thrilled to see men worship any way and any place they want to worship. That pastor should have called the WARRIORS forward, not limiting the call to men. We need all of us to be the Body of Christ.
I tried to talk with the pastor about what I saw. I tried to tell him that men need a larger space to worship. If he would remove a few rows from the front of the sanctuary more men would come forward. I tried to talk to him about the warrior heart being part of one’s gifting and not one’s gender. He seemed to hear, but they started a John Eldrege study and the celebration of machismo continued. The men never came forward to dance again, but neither did the women. It was a very dehumanizing experience.
I am no longer there. Maybe they have fixed everything and all those created in the image of GOd are welcomed to employ all their gifts. I hope so. (I am working hard on being skeptical rather than synical.)
I am so thankful for our statisticians who MEASURE FRUIT and dispel the lies. It is time for us, as a human church, to question the blanket statements and hear the truth over the chant. I am thankful, Scot, for your willingness to share truth even when it goes against the flow of church pop-culture.
Men want more men involved, PLEASE stop blaming the women. Look at the statistics and put on your big big boy pants and deal with it.

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brad wright

posted March 8, 2010 at 6:10 pm

There are some very thought provoking comments here. One that interested me the most was #13 by Ted, about how affiliation and attendance rates by young men has dropped off a cliff. While the data presented in this post don’t directly address this, I think that Scot is right that it doesn’t appear to be the case.
Still, it’s easy to believe that this change has happened. When we become aware of issues defined as problems, we often think they are also getting worse over time. Our increased awareness feels like a change in the phenomenon itself. Also, leaders and teachers emphasize the problem in the process of addressing it–further highlighting it.
Is the gender imbalance in the church a problem? That’s a judgment call. Clearly men are about 20% less likely to be involved as women, and some might define this as problematic. Whether defined as a problem or not, it doesn’t seem to be getting “worse” over time.

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brad wright

posted March 8, 2010 at 6:15 pm

One issue that came up in the comments is whether men’s attendance rates have been dropping even if affiliation rates have held. That got me curious so I redid the graph originally presented in this post to highlight the % of regularly attending Evangelicals who are men.
I posted it here:
As shown, men are less likely to regularly attend church than are women, but the trend over time seems to be increasing, or staying the same, rather than decreasing.

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Michael W. Kruse

posted March 9, 2010 at 10:38 am

#25 Brad
Thanks for your work here, Brad. Good stuff!

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