What Christian women really, really want

When forced to choose their top priority in life, Christian women overwhelmingly pick family over faith, according to a survey from Barna Research. Five times more women chose “being a mother or parent” than chose “being a follower of Christ,” as their most important role in life.

These stunning survey results give us a clue as to why Christianity is so rapidly changing into a family-centered faith; why Christian culture is feminizing; and why the gender gap in many denominations continues to grow.

The researchers wrote:

[Women's] 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%) says 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.

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.

The researchers continue:

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.

Why are today’s Christian women so family and relationship focused?

In an earlier series of blog posts (part 1 and part 2) I observed how the church’s core product had changed from eternal salvation to interpersonal relationships over the past 50 years. Church is no longer the place to go to save your soul; it’s the place you go to save your messed-up family.

Modern Christianity is brazenly marketing itself to its core constituency – married women. Without these women the ministry machine cannot function. Women show up. Women volunteer. Women give. Women buy stuff. Christian authors, songwriters, and preachers know the importance of married women — so they work very hard to satisfy their deepest desire.

And what is that desire? Happy relationships, by a landslide.

All this attention to relationships within the church may be creating a feedback loop: as Christians absorb more and more church teaching on relationships, they begin to see the Gospel through this lens. A new generation of Christians is emerging that sees church as something that exists to protect and promote healthy relationships. Therefore, when people experience relational upsets at church, they quit.

The fact that Christian women overwhelmingly choose family over faith is no surprise – what’s so shocking is that so many now admit it. It’s become acceptable among churchgoing women to publicly proclaim, “I place my family above all else.” David Kinnaman, president of Barna research said, “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.”

While the Bible certainly endorses interpersonal harmony, Scripture is not chock-full of happy relationship advice. When Jesus spoke of relationships he usually predicted their demise (Matt. 10:34-35), or promised rewards for people who abandoned their loved ones (Luke 18:29-30). God takes no delight in dysfunctional relationships, but neither did he send his son so you could have a regular date night. Good relationships are a blessing. They are not the reason Jesus went to Calvary.

The church’s increasing focus on relationships may be leading women to take an unrealistic view of their faith. Parts one and three of the survey reveal women’s very high levels of satisfaction with their churches and their spiritual lives. More than two thirds of women say they are making the most of their gifts and potential at church and doing meaningful ministry. Speaking of their personal lives, more than two-thirds say they are filled with, “joy, spiritual freedom and fulfillment,” while just 3% admit to struggling “a lot” with fear, doubt or confusion. (When I shared this statistic with my wife who ministers to women, she laughed out loud. “They’re in total denial,” she said.)

Commenting on the research, Kinnaman asked:

Has raising children and doing it well become central to the definition of being a good Christian?

If the answer to Kinnaman’s question is, “yes,” then we’ve given men another reason to find their purpose outside the church. As Christianity becomes known as a family-building institution, it will attract more women. Some married men will still come, but young, single childless men will have no reason to get involved. These are precisely the men Jesus attracted as his followers, and precisely the men we’re losing in the church today.

We owe Barna Research a big “thank you” for this survey. And I commend these women for being honest about their true priorities, instead of blindly parroting the “God comes first” language they’ve heard in church. However, I’ll close this post with four challenges:

To Christian women: honestly, ruthlessly examine your priorities. Everything in this life passes away, even family (except if you’re a Mormon?). As followers of Christ, your identity should be rooted in the eternal.

To Christian men: ask your wives the same questions Barna asked the women. Help them see the larger picture of what God is doing in this world. When you pray with your wives, ask for things besides safety, health, and happy relationships. Pray for big things outside your circle, such as the advancement of the kingdom, mercy for the persecuted and food for the hungry.

To Pastors: please, dial back those sermon series on relationships. I know it’s a hot topic and it packs the pews, but you need to realize that these series can alienate men and breed narcissism in your congregation. Teach your people to derive their identity from God, not from their relational network. Your men will thank you.

And finally, to Barna Research: please survey Christian men with these same questions. I feel another book coming on…

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