The gender gap in worship might not have been a great thing, but some religious leaders might prefer that to what’s happening now.
The share of women attending religious services each week at a church, synagogue or mosque — long much higher than men’s — is narrowing. It dropped from 36 percent in 1974 to 28 percent in 2012, according to a new study by the Pew Research Center.
During the same period, the share of men dropped from 26 percent to 22 percent.
Put another way, a 10-point gap in attendance narrowed to 6 points.
So what’s going on?
Researchers checked out a couple theories.
One was that as the number of women working full time has soared — one in three in the 1970s compared with one in two today — work time took a bite out of time at church, synagogue or mosque.
But the biggest influx of women into the workforce occurred in 1970s and early 1980s, a period when the gender gap in church attendance was actually widening — reaching 13 points.
Another theory was that as women gained college degrees, fewer would attend religious services. But it turns out that church attendance doesn’t differ much between college-educated women and others.
What could be driving the trend is the growing number of Americans who are no longer affiliated with any religious institution, and their numbers among women are growing faster than among men, the center said.
Plus, women who do belong to a religious institution aren’t showing up as often. About 40 percent attended weekly services in the 1980s, compared with 33 percent today.
Their male counterparts, however, have been relatively steadfast. Twenty-eight percent went to church weekly in 1972, same as in 2012.
But something else may be at work, said Carla Bailey, senior minister at Plymouth Congregational Church in Minneapolis. Call it the modern family.
Over the years, as the roles of mothers and fathers have evolved, Bailey has seen a growing number of dads bringing their children to church and participating in church activities.
That trend may be playing out nationally and contributing to the gender shifts.
“Historically women have taken religious responsibility for their children,” said Bailey. “I’m seeing more younger men bringing their children to church. We now have more male schoolteachers than ever before.”