What Christian women really, really want

Family on a pedestalWhen 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.

Women prioritize family

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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  • Brent R. Orrell

    This analysis is highly problematic. Unless one accepts the premise that faith is separate and apart from family, the dichotomy posed is a false one. One of the principal ways God transmit faith is through the family. A Christian woman who focuses on a healthy family as her priority is helping to build into her children the imaginative resources required to know and understand their Heavenly Father and equipping its members to share the Good News with the world. When did the prioritization of a divinely ordered institution become a hindrance to spiritual development in the temporal realm?

    • Mo86

      Believe it or not, there are more people in church and following Christ than just married people with children.

      Believe it or not, life is not (mainly) about having a spouse and children.

      Life is about loving Jesus Christ with all your heart and calling others to repent of their sins and follow Him.

      • Brent R. Orrell

        Hi, Mo – I didn’t say there weren’t more singles in church or that having a spouse and children was the only way for a Christian to live. My point, and I do have one :) , is that God ordained marriage and family with a particular mission to sanctify the spouses, transmit faith to children and share the Gospel of Christ with the world. Single people do this as well, of course but only married people bear within their relationship the sign of the Trinity. This is as the Lord intended and why the Bible uses marriage as one of the three main metaphors for communicating who God is.

        Have a blessed day.

        • Mo86

          Do you not even hear how arrogant that sounds?

          What you’re basically saying is that single people are second class citizens. This is not what we see in Scripture.

          Jesus was single.Paul was single.The spouses of most of the disciples are not even mentioned. It’s simply not relevant. (I mean in the big scheme of things. Of course if people are married/have kids, they are to do a good job taking care of their family. But it is NOT the be-all, end-all of life.)

          This idolatry of marriage is STUNNING.

          But it is good to see it being stated outright for all to see.

          • Brent R. Orrell

            Hi, Mo – I’m very sorry it comes across that way; please forgive me for not being able to communicate more clearly over the web. Nuptial theology is not about exclusion but about highlighting one of the ways that God expresses himself in the world. The beauty of marriage is worth contemplating regardless of individual status – single, divorced, etc. – not because of what it tells about the couple but because of what it tells us about the Lord. He chose the metaphor (along with kingship and fatherhood) to tell us about himself.

            With fond best wishes to you.

          • Mo86

            It’s a nice metaphor, yes. It’s not supposed to be the ultimate focus of any follower of Christ, whether married or not.

            Those whom God has not chosen to bless with marriage and kids are not second class citizens. We are supposed to put Christ FIRST, not our families first.

            I don’t know what people who put this undue emphasis on marriage and family are going to do when they get to heaven and realize there’s no marriage there!

            Perhaps this is why there’s so little longing for Christ to return. I bet if people were honest – I mean really, gut-level, naked before God honest – they’d say that they prefer being on this broken, messed up world and married, over being with Christ in the afterlife and having marriage no longer exist in the way we know it now. I mean really, ask anyone who’s about to get married – especially females – if they think more about that day and their upcoming life together than they do about Jesus!

            THAT is the level of idolatry we see regarding marriage and family in so many Christian churches today.

        • LoreneFairchild

          I think you are making claims for marriage that God never makes. Singleness is not substandard in any way. I do not see anywhere in the Bible where “only married people bear within their relationship the sign of the Trinity”. Many of the most fervent servants of Christ were single.

  • splash.graphics

    Thank you for your ministry to men. I’m grateful for our God-given gender
    differences, and the ways we complement each other so beautifully.

    We know it’s their God-given female hormones (estrogen & oxytocin)
    which incline women toward family and relationships. When she fills her
    “love tank” regularly, women gain a sense of well-being and stays
    healthy. Women are hard-wired for an important spiritual purpose.
    Scripture underscores the importance of making believers out of one’s
    own children.

    “Did he not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union? And what was the one God seeking? Godly offspring.” (Mal 2:15)

    “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.” (Prov 22:6)

    According to George Barna’s research, the most fertile age for evangelism is
    pre-school. (Adolescence is another prime window of opportunity.)
    Therefore, In my view, the church should put MORE emphasis on reaching
    children, especially very young BOYS–a task that women are uniquely
    suited for.

    We know it’s testosterone that drives men to compete, provide and protect–a good thing. Men are naturally drawn to work, sports and leadership because these things help them feel successful and contribute to their overall health and well-being. I believe the two genders must each “play their positions” well in order for society (and the church) to function most effectively.
    Unfortunately, Malachi acknowledges that it’s the FATHERS who get out of
    balance:

    “And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their
    children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and
    strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.” (Mal 4:6)

    Your books are a treasure trove of information to help churches succeed in
    their efforts reach men. Just as the natural outcome of a maturing Christian woman is her ability to RESPECT, the natural outcome of maturing Christian masculinity, is his growing ability to LOVE. When a man is secure in his masculinity, he has no trouble dipping into the world of women.

  • ansonheath

    Mr. Murrow is into serious ‘meddlin’ here with some heavy American icons, and many shall be offended. :)
    Seriously, however, this worship of family and children, which began largely as the secular psychological self-esteem movement at least 40 years ago, has had some devastating after effects on our entire culture, including the church.
    I have to admit that we were affected by it in our child rearing then and see it in our grown children’s raising of our grandkids. In fact, we have had discussions with them about this, as we can now see how it affected our entire Christian mindset.
    The good news is that they are recognizing the danger signals and are adjusting their own parameters accordingly.
    Undoubtedly, a large percentage of our brethren are still unaware of this, including pastors, so it becomes important for us to bring this up for discussion. Expect pushback. Icons are not easily disposed.
    We live in a child-centered culture. Isaiah seemed to address this with Israel, when he wrote ‘women shall rule over you and children shall be your oppressors’. Human nature hasn’t changed, has it?
    A tough assignment, Mr. Murrow, but in the words I hear all too often said needlessly – I truly mean it when I say: “Good job!”

  • labreuer

    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.

    Actually, Jesus went to Calvary to repair our dysfunctional relationship with God, and in so doing, gave us all we need (Eph 1:3) to restore our relationships with others, which is something that has higher priority than the living sacrifice of Rom 12:1-2 (see Mt 5:23-24).

    Heaven is not you + Trinity. It is all things and all people united with Jesus (Eph 1:7-10). The kingdom of heaven on earth is that unity breaking into our reality. Anyone who says that ‘eternal salvation’ is more important than relationships is ignoring large swaths of scripture, probably due to the rampant individualism that infects modernity.

    In case I wasn’t clear, I think that the term “regular date night” does a disservice to people who want true, deep relationships. To the extent that they don’t know how excellent of a relationship can be hoped for, they need ‘existence proofs’ of such relationships. If they’re hoping for the best that they know, whose fault is it that they do not know better? (A: Partly theirs, but not all theirs; see Ezek 34.)

  • Mo86

    While I always hesitate to use studies/stats to make any argument on any topic, it’s good to see this being stated out loud in this way!

    This problem of idolatry of marriage/family over Christ is something I’ve observed for YEARS, but no one talks about it. And if you bring it up, you are immediately chastised!

    “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.”

    AMEN!!!

    This idolatry is especially harmful to single people! When church and Christianity itself becomes about family of all else… what place do we have in the church or even in Christianity?

  • Ama

    I’m thankful to see an article like this. A comment … the interesting thing about this
    is that when you put God and His ways first, He will then show you how to love because
    He is love. He will show you how to love in your relationships and the right
    order to have. His way will be SO much
    better for all concerned whether it is recognized or not. The other may not be love at all.

    God is into relationships, but His is first.

    Thanks for raising this issue.


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