Part 7 in series: Women of Faith in Leadership
Women in American churches know how they want to be perceived by others: they want to be influenced by the Bible, and reject the idea of being heavily affected by the media. But is this an actuality or merely an aspiration? -David Kinnaman, President, The Barna Group
If spirituality were Olympic gymnastics, most Christian women would give their personal faith top scores. Three quarters of Christian women say they are mature in their faith (73%). The good feelings continue when it comes to ongoing spiritual growth, as more than one third (36%) of churchgoing women say they are “completely” satisfied with their personal spiritual development, and an additional 42% say they are “mostly” satisfied. Only one quarter (23%) of these women admit they are less than fully satisfied with their spiritual growth.
When it comes to their personal relationship with God, only 1% confess they are “usually not too close” or feel “extremely distant from God.” The vast majority of women claim to have an “extremely close” (38%) or a “pretty close” (43%) relationship with God. An additional 17% feel more ambivalent, saying they are “sometimes close and other times not close.” Perhaps this perception of intimacy with God is driven by the fact that slightly more than half (52%) of the women surveyed say they take time every day to intentionally evaluate the quality of their relationship with God.
Family Over Faith
Though women project a calm, confident exterior when it comes to their faith, the research suggests their spiritual lives are rarely their most important source of identity. That role is taken up by the strong priority Christian women place on family.
The preeminence of family was most overt for Christian women when it came to naming the highest priority in their lives. More than half (53%) say their highest priority in life is family. By contrast, only one third as many women (16%) rate faith as their top priority, which is less than the cumulative total of women who say their health (9%), career performance (5%) or comfortable lifestyle (5%) are top on their list of life objectives.
Despite the characterization of women as intricately connected to their peers, only 3% of Christian women say their friends are their top priority, equal to those who place finances (2%) and leisure (1%) at the top.
What a Woman Calls Herself
Women’s sense of identity very closely follows their priorities, with 62% of women saying their most important role in life is as a mother or parent. Jesus came next: 13% of Christian women believe their most important role in life is as a follower of Christ. In third place is their role as wife (11%).
Any other roles women identify with came in at similarly low rankings and far below that of a parent, including that of employee or executive (3%), that of church member (2%) and that of friend or neighbor (2%). American citizen, teacher and caregiver all rank with one percent each.
Goals in Life
Perhaps not surprisingly given where they place their identity, Christian women also point to family-related objectives as their most important goal in life. Raising their children well is the highest goal for Christian women (36%). While, roughly one quarter of Christian women identify faith-oriented goals as most important (26%).
Though women consider themselves family-driven, their marriages may be suffering from a lack of intentionality: only 2% of Christian women say their most important goal in life is to enhance their relationship with their significant other. Marriage comes in below several other goals, including health (6%), career (5%), lifestyle (4%), personal growth (4%), morality (4%) and financial objectives (3%). Only goals related to personal appearance, relationships outside the home and travel come in lower than marital goals.
Women Like Their Lives
Maybe one of the reasons women often fail to mention marriage-related goals is that they are generally quite satisfied in their marriages. While Christian women claim high levels of satisfaction in many facets of their life, they are most satisfied with their marriages (59%) followed by their parenting (51%). Although these findings cannot entirely explain women’s lack of marital goals, it does suggest many Christian women find some of their deepest contentment in life from their marriage.
Satisfaction levels drop somewhat when it comes to areas of life outside the home—particularly as they relate to serving people in the community (26% are completely satisfied with this area of their life) and to using their gifts and abilities (31% are completely satisfied). Personal spiritual development, career, relationships outside the family and involvement in church are all areas of life with which women are modestly satisfied.
Most people recognize they are being influenced by outside forces—and in many cases, such influence is welcome, even invited. And then, of course, there are influences people would rather not admit affect them at all. Such is the case with the women surveyed. Christian women are more than willing to admit they are influenced by their faith—particularly through reading the Bible and listening to sermons, with 75% of those surveyed saying the Bible has influenced them “a lot,” and 51% saying the same about sermons. Most women also readily admit their husbands have an impact on their actions and decisions, with 63% of married women saying their husbands influence them a lot.
However, after those top three influencers, women are much more reticent to admit they are swayed by outside voices—particularly when it comes to friends and media. Only 10% of Christian women say their friends have a lot of impact on their decision-making (though 51% say their friends do have “some” influence on them). An even lower number of women will allow that the media has any influence on them, with only 5% admitting the media influences them a lot, 25% saying the media influences them some and a striking 70% claiming the media has “little” influence over their decision making.
What it Means
The president of Barna Group, David Kinnaman, offers this commentary on the research. “Some may interpret this research as a false choice: can women be asked to choose between their role as a parent and that of their faith? They see motherhood as core to what it means to disciple and be discipled. Others may conclude this study shows too many women have created an ‘idol’ of their family, perhaps at the expense of their devotion to Christ.
“Between these extremes, perhaps these stats should help both moms and dads to consider the favorable—and potentially unfavorable—ways parenting has affected their faith journey. And church leaders, too, must wrestle with key questions: Has raising children and doing it well become central to the definition of being a good Christian? What happens to a mom who struggles in her role as a parent or to a woman who wants to but cannot become (or never becomes) a parent? Are these women somehow perceived as less Christian by fellow believers? Could a grace-based theology of faith in Christ be undermined if many Christians embrace a parallel works-based theology when it comes to their parenting? For church leaders and influencers the research underscores the complexity and importance of the God-given role of motherhood for millions of women.”
When asked to explain why so few women say they are influenced by media, Kinnaman adds: “In many ways, women’s self-perception revealed in this study seems to be aspirational. Women want to be influenced by the Bible, but they reject the idea of being heavily affected by the media. So these aspirations may be reflected in the numbers. Still, the way women describe themselves reveals something: they seem to know how they want to be perceived by others. Other findings in the survey reflect this pattern: women seem to be laying claim to a life they want, even if it’s not always current reality.”
About the Research
The study on which this report is based included telephone surveys with 603 women who are ages 18 or older who describe themselves as Christians and have attended a Christian church service within the past six months (excluding holiday services or special events). These Christian women were randomly chosen from the 48 continental states. The maximum margin of sampling error for a sample of that size is estimated to be within +/- 4.1 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. There are other forms of survey error that cannot be statistically estimated.