When it comes to who fills the pews, every Sunday is Mother's Day in most mainstream American churches.
And what about Father's Day? That can be a touchy subject for pastors in an era in which men who religiously avoid church outnumber active churchmen roughly three to one. Worship just doesn't work for millions of ordinary guys.
"What churches are doing isn't getting the job done. Mom is having to take the kids to church because Dad doesn't want to go," said Marc Carrier, co-author, with his wife, Cynthia, of "The Values-Driven Family."
"That leaves Mom in charge of the spiritual upbringing of the children, which means faith is a Mom thing and not a Dad thing. … So why is little Johnny — who is 25 and has his first child on the way, whether he's married or not — never in church? The odds are that his father was never in church."
Church attendance among men had already fallen to 43 percent in 1992, according to the Barna Group, which specializes in researching trends among Evangelicals. Then that number crashed to 28 percent in 1996, the year before the Promise Keepers movement held its "Stand in the Gap" rally that drew a million or more men to the National Mall — one of the largest gatherings of any kind in American history.
No one involved in national men's ministries believes that those stats have improved. That's one reason why a nondenominational coalition wants to hold a "Stand in the Gap 2007" rally on Oct. 6, hoping to gather 250,000 men at the Washington Monument and on the Ellipse, just south of the White House.
The American numbers are sobering, noted Carrier, but they are nowhere near as stunning as another set of statistics in an essay entitled "The Demographic Characteristics of the Linguistic and Religious Groups in Switzerland," published in 2000 in a volume covering trends in several European nations. The numbers that trouble traditionalists came from a 1994 survey in which the Swiss government tried to determine how religious practices are carried down from generation to generation.
Apparently, if a father and mother were both faithful churchgoers, 33 percent of their children followed their example, with another 41 percent attending on an irregular basis and only a quarter shunning church altogether.
But what happened if the father had little or no faith? If the father was semi-active and the mother was a faithful worshipper, only 3 percent of their children became active church members and 59 percent were irregular in their worship attendance — with the rest lost to the church altogether.
If the father never went to church, while the mother was faithful, only 2 percent of the children became regular churchgoers and 37 percent were semi-active. Thus, more than 60 percent were lost.
This trend continued in other survey results, noted Carrier. The bottom line was clear. If a father didn't go to church, only one child in 50 became a faithful churchgoer — no matter how strong the mother's faith.
"These numbers are old and they are from Switzerland, but they're the only numbers that anyone has," said Carrier. "Someone needs to find a way to do similar research in America to see if the same thing is happening here.
This is shocking stuff."
At the height of the Promise Keepers movement, researchers did study one related trend in churches that began emphasizing ministry to men, said the Rev. Rick Kingham, president of the National Coalition of Men's Ministries, a network of 110 regional and national groups.
Surveys found that if a father made a decision to become a Christian, the rest of the family followed his example 93 percent of the time. If a mother made a similar decision, the rest of the family embraced the faith 17 percent of the time, he said.
"It seems that when a man takes that kind of spiritual stand it usually affects everyone else in the whole constellation around him, including his family and even other men that he knows," said Kingham, who is helping organize Stand in the Gap 2007.
No one wants to minimize the importance of faithful mothers, he said, but it's clear that "fathers play a unique and special role in helping their children develop a living faith — especially their sons. … There's no way to deny that."
Terry Mattingly is director of the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities and leads the GetReligion.org project to study religion and the news.