Women Are Leaving Church, but Have ‘Reason to Return,’ Author Says

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In the past decade, 16 million American women have left the Christian church, according to author and journalist Ericka Andersen. 

“The reasons are really layered,” Andersen says, “anything from overwhelm and busyness, to some that have experienced ‘church hurt.’” 

In her new book “Reason to Return: Why Women Need the Church and the Church Needs Women,” Andersen addresses the reasons why so many women have walked away from the church, and argues why they should consider rejoining a church community. 

On today’s edition of the “Problematic Women” podcast, Andersen discusses her new book and shares her own personal experience with the church. 

Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript:

Virginia Allen: Today, we are so excited to be joined by our friend, journalist and author of the new book “Reason to Return: Why Women Need the Church and the Church Needs Women,” Ericka Andersen.

Ericka, welcome back to the show. Thanks for being here.

Ericka Andersen: Thank you. I love talking with you guys, so I’m excited to be back.

Allen: Well, I’m really excited to talk about this new book, “Reason to Return.” It’s all about the church and women’s role in the church, why so many women are leaving the church.

And I want to begin by just defining what exactly we mean by the term “church,” because a lot of people hear that word and think different things.

Andersen: Sure, yeah. So when I talk about the church, there are basically two different entities there.

We’re talking about, primarily in the book, the local church, so the place where Christians gather to worship and hear the sermon and hear Scripture, as well as sharing community throughout the week, whether that’s through small groups or just friendships and relationships.

And then there is also the “Big C” church as it’s known, which is just the community of believers all around the world. And if you identify as a Christian, then you are part of that church, whether or not you’re going somewhere to gather weekly.

But my intent here is to encourage people to get invested and back to their local churches as the smaller piece of that larger “Big C” church.

Allen: And I know for everyone listening, we’ve all just felt some sort of emotion, had some sort of reaction when you talked about getting involved in local church. Some people think, “Yes, that’s so good.” Others are like, “Oh, I don’t want to do that.” Because we’ve all had some sort of experience with the church, whether ourselves or through family members or friends. We all have opinions on the church and its role.

Ericka, would you share just a little bit of your own story? What’s your personal journey with the church?

Andersen: Sure. So, I have been going to church since I was a little girl. I talk in the book, the beginning of the book, about my very first memory of church, which was my mom taking me to a nursing home where they had church services every Sunday, and she was a volunteer, and she would take us little girls, and so I would be sitting next to these 85-year-old, 90-year-old people worshiping God. Some of them not even able to really sing or even lift their hands at all. But that was my first experience.

And then after that, I went to several different churches throughout my life. I’ve always been pretty consistent, though. There have been a couple of times, which I do write about in the book, where I was a lot more distant, where I wasn’t going as much. And I talk about how much that affected me in a negative way.

But for me, church has always been a guiding light, a foundational place that I can come back to. Anytime I’ve ever moved to a new city, one of the first things I do is seek out a local church community.

But I will also say, and maybe we’ll get into this, I’ve experienced my own share of struggles within the community and “church hurt,” as it’s known. And I can talk more about that, but I’ve run the gamut when it comes to church.

Allen: Well, in those instances where you had experienced hurt, why did you still say, “This is an institution that is worth being a part of?”

What was your journey through that, if you don’t mind sharing?

Andersen: So, one of the main examples I talk about is my experience with “purity culture,” which for those that aren’t familiar within, especially, the evangelical community, was a time really in the ’90s, I feel like it was at its peak, or the early 2000s, where it was all about sexual purity, but no one really knew what that meant. And kids were told that virginity was the most important thing. And girls especially got the brunt of it, of being told, “It’s your responsibility to keep a boy from sinning,” and all of these things that were mixed messages, unbiblical messages about sexuality, basically.

And so for me, that affected me big time, moving into adulthood and even into my marriage. And I look back and see how harmful it was, but I don’t know if it’s God blessing me with just the ability to see past that, but I was able to look back and see that that is not what God wanted. That wasn’t his intention.

And there were a lot of misguided people that were leading the way back then, and they did harm people, and that was a bad time for a lot of people.

But I was able to look past that and say, “You know what? I think that the church is bigger than that. There’s more to it than that, and we just have to work to make it better.”

Allen: I want to talk in a few minutes a little bit more about your own experience with the church, but I was really fascinated to read in your book that there’s estimated to be 16 million American women who have left the church within just the last decade. That’s not a long period of time for 16 million women to decide, “Yeah, I think I’m done with the church” and walk away.

Do we know why? In the research that you’ve done in looking into this, why are so many women saying, “I’m done with the church?”

Andersen: So, the reasons are really layered. Anything from [being overwhelmed] and busyness, to some that have experienced church hurt. I will say that COVID, although I know that’s been in the past three years, that has significantly affected attendance in even deeper ways than the statistics that you just mentioned.

I also think that in the culture, in American culture, church has just become a less primary part of how we live our lives.

Much of American history has been ingrained in cultural Christianity, and I think we’re seeing some of that die away now. There’s a lot more of a progressive wrapping around how lives are lived, and so folks that are not truly committed in their faith or not as serious about it, just don’t see a need to keep up that facade anymore in a lot of ways.

Now, what I will say about many of these women who are leaving, they’re not leaving their faith. They’re not deconverting and becoming atheists. That’s a myth that is sometimes out there.

They are women who still would say they value their faith, they believe in God, they pray regularly, and they may even desire a deeper faith, but they have become disillusioned by some of the church experiences they’ve had. And I believe that they’re really just looking for some guidance and need a little bit more education on what it would mean to come back and why they should come back.

Allen: Do we know the age range of these women? Is this all ages? Does it tend to be a younger crowd? More middle age?

Andersen: Well, statistics always show that older people are more likely to go to church, so you’re always going to have that slant.

Now, I couldn’t tell you [it’s] specifically getting lower. Generally speaking, people in their early 20s just always have kind of stopped going to church. But what we find is, when people get married, and they have kids, they tend to go back.

The problem is that a lot of times these days, that’s actually not happening, or it’s happening way later. So, people are getting married later, they’re having kids later, and it’s deferring that return to church. And for some, it means they never return.

And so, some of these cultural changes are playing in and having a trickle-down effect on the way faith is played out in our society.

Allen: So, let’s walk through a hypothetical scenario. Let’s say I’m in my 30s, and I went to church some as a child, but stopped going in my 20s, still believe in God, spend time with the Lord, maybe listen to a sermon online here and there, like you say, still someone of faith who says, “Yes, I’m a Christian,” but don’t really see a need for why I need to be sitting in a church building on Sunday morning. What would you say to that woman?

Andersen: So, one of the first pieces of pushback I get, of course, when I’m talking about this is, “Well, church is not a building.” And I 100% agree.

Many people probably have heard this, but the original word for church was “ecclesia,” and ecclesia actually means a group of people or a gathering of people. It has really nothing to do with a building.

My response to that is often, “Yes, but when we gather, we need a place to meet, and so often that’s in a building, and it just makes it convenient to meet there.”

And if all you’re doing is heading into church on Sunday morning for an hour and leaving, and you’re not really doing much else, I really don’t know that it’s going to help you all that much, because it is so much more than just taking an action.

Being a part of the church is part of being invested in a community, and God has given us that community to encourage us, empower us, and He shows up there in a way that He doesn’t show up anywhere else.

The Bible says, “When two or three are gathered, I am with them.” And that is true. And Christians can gather for book club or you can gather at CrossFit or whatever, but when you’re gathering to worship and talk about the Lord, He is there in a supernatural way among His people that He is not anywhere else.

And He created us to be a people of community. I talk about in the book how there’s never been a time in history that there wasn’t community, because even at the beginning of time, there was the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. And then obviously, God made Adam, and then he needed a partner and He made Eve. And so that community aspect of who we are as human beings is innate in our spirits, and so, that’s another reason that He calls us there.

Allen: So, the book is specifically called “Reason to Return: Why Women Need the Church and the Church Needs Women.

Why do women, specifically, need the church, and why do you think that the church, specifically, needs women?

Andersen: Well, I think all people need the church, so we’ll start there. But women, obviously, they have their own unique stories, their own unique gifts, and so, I think there is a specific community that women receive in small groups or even just with leaders and things like that. So, I think they need the church for that edification of their spiritual lives.

I talk a lot about how we have all kinds of health that we take care of, our physical health, our mental health, but our spiritual health is often neglected. And one of the key ways that women can really care for their spiritual health is by being a part of a faith community. And there are so many benefits that come with that.

And then, in terms of why does the church need women? So many reasons. One of them being that they do have spiritual gifts often that men don’t have, and we need all of those contributions.

And of course, we know the Bible says that if you are not part of the body, local body, it’s not functioning in all the ways that it could be in the best way that it could be. So, when you’re missing, the church is really not complete.

Something that I have recognized through my research is that a lot of churches are really male-centered. A lot of them are headed by male pastors, have male elders, and the input of women is missing in a lot of ways, and so, I do think that’s something that needs to change. We need churches to recognize that.

It doesn’t mean that you have to have a female head pastor, which a lot of people wouldn’t be comfortable with, but it does mean you need to be meeting with women. You need to be getting their input. You need to be understanding what women need, as well as what men need.

And so women are really vital to making sure that everyone in the church building is growing and getting the message they need and able to grow the way they need to when they’re there.

Allen: What is your message specifically to the church in writing this book? For the pastors, the elders that read this book, what should they be taking from it?

Andersen: That’s a good question. So, I would love for pastors and elders, and even church members just to read this book and understand why people have left and what they’re looking for if they consider coming back.

A lot of times, we’re missing the mark in terms of what we think people need or want.

For example, like I said before, people will often think, “Oh, people have left because they’ve lost their faith,” and that’s not it at all.

We need to make sure that we’re getting those touchpoints of the actual reasons people have left. I know one thing that has come up a lot is, people often feel uncomfortable bringing their kids to a new Sunday school at church, and so how can we make that a very secure and loving place, where people feel safe taking their kids somewhere new?

Another thing is people often feel very hesitant if they want to change denominations or go to a new church. That’s a very nerve-racking experience.

As a churchgoer, if you’re going to church every week, you may not think about that, but head over to the church across town that’s a different denomination than yours and see how comfortable you feel walking in there for the first time. Because there are different rituals, there are different ways of doing things, and it can be intimidating enough that someone may not ever step foot in there. So, we’ve got to think about the ways that we can really be welcoming and inviting to people, because I think sometimes that’s missing.

Allen: That’s really critical.

For you personally, what has the church meant? If someone says to you, “Why still go? Why still be invested and involved through it all? What fruit has it really brought in your own life?”

Andersen: The church has been such a lifeblood to me. I’ve been in a smaller church for the past six years.

For me, personally, being a part of a smaller church has been an amazing experience. I enjoy it more than a bigger church, just because I feel like I get a lot closer with the people around me.

And it has been really critical in helping me overcome a lot of things. I write in the book about my struggle to overcome struggles with drinking. One of the first places that I opened up about my struggle with alcohol is within my church group, and it was really the first moment that I felt like I began to find freedom from that.

And here I am, two and a half years later, sober, haven’t drank, and I’m able to share that story and encourage other people within my church community.

Anytime I have a mom issue, parent issue, I have my parenting small group to just commiserate with and offer suggestions and prayers.

And I also know that anytime that there’s anything going on in our family, all I have to do is, I can send my pastor a text. These people are here for me. I know if I need anything, that they’re going to be there for me, and I’m going to be there for them. And there is something so powerful about having that spiritual security in your life, and knowing and believing that God has put these people around you. He ordained this. This isn’t a random thing that happened.

I’m here for a reason with these specific church members.

And so, I cannot imagine my life without my church, and that’s why I want other people to be able to find that and experience it, too.

Allen: For anyone listening who’s thinking, “OK, Ericka, you’ve convinced me. I’m going to try it out,” how can they go about finding a good church? Do you have any tips? And what should their mindset be as they walk into that church building on a Sunday morning?

Andersen: So, luckily these days, of course, we have the internet, and so most churches have a website, and you can start there.

And you want to make sure, of course, that any church that you go to is going to line up with your theological beliefs. There’s all kinds of different denominations, and churches can believe different things, and so, usually a church has a doctrinal statement on their “about” page or somewhere around there, so you can start by going there.

Another great place I have found when I was looking for a new church is local Facebook groups. It’s just asking, “Hey, I’m looking for a new church,” and people will suggest things, and you’ll get a feel for it.

Also, churches have online services. I don’t think online church is a good thing to do for the long term, but it does give you a way to preview a few of them before you want to step in the door.

And I always encourage people, “You need to go more than once. Sometimes, there’s an off-day. I would give a church at least two or three Sundays before you write them off.”

And it can take time. That’s the other thing that people struggle with, is they feel like they don’t have time, or it’s a waste of their time. But I would just argue that finding that church body that is right for you, in the long term, is worth every moment of investment that you put in it.

And so, a couple other tips I would say is, check out who the pastors are and the leaders are. You can even find them on social media. Maybe if someone’s a little bit drama, you might not want to go there.

I actually have a course available on my homepage for my book. If you buy the book, you actually get this mini-video course for free. It’s called “How to Find a New Church 101.” That has a lot more comprehensive information in it than what I just said.

But if you just go to Erickaandersen.com/reason-to-return, you will find the availability of that. And it’s free, like I said, so, you can get it with the pre-order of the book.

Allen: Awesome. Yes. The book is out January 17th, correct?

Andersen: January 17th, but available for pre-order now.

Allen: Awesome. And Ericka, before we let you go, one question that we love to ask all of our guests on this show, on “Problematic Women” is, do you consider yourself a feminist? Yes or no? Why or why not?

Andersen: I would say no. I guess It’s not really a term that I identify with closely. I totally get why some people, even conservative women, might say that they do, simply because I know feminist means that it is the belief that women have equal rights to men, and I believe that. But it has such a tainted connection to various groups that I don’t know that I would immediately be like, “Yeah, I’m a feminist.”

So, that’s a rambling answer.

Allen: It’s a good one, though.

Well, the book is “Reason to Return: Why Women Need the Church and the Church Needs Women.

It is out January 17th, but it is available right now for pre-order. We encourage you: Check it out. Ericka, tell us the website one more time. We need to visit.

Andersen: Yes. It’s erickaandersen.com/reason-to-return/.

Allen. Ericka, thank you so much for your time today.

Andersen: Thank you so much. I appreciate.

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