Getting to Church

Exploring Narratives of Gender and Joining

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Sally K. Gallagher
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , September
     232 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Sally Gallagher poses probing questions in her sociological work, Getting to Church: Exploring Narratives of Gender and Joining, that bring to focus the polemics of gender that continue to capture the religious attention of Western Christianity (see Janice McRandal, Christian Doctrine and the Grammar of Difference: A Contribution to Feminist Systematic Theology, Fortress Press, 2015, 11). Gallagher’s questions range from the nature of congregational life –what attracts people to different denominational expressions? –to questions about religious identity and the processes by which people affiliate or disaffiliate with a particular congregation. Gallagher maintains that the purpose of such research is to better understand the role and importance of religion in the cultural make-up of America (2).

Gallagher’s research is unique in that it seeks to answer these questions through the lens of gender. Specifically, Gallagher wants to know if, and how, gender factors into the answers to these questions about congregational life and religious identity. Are there distinct differences between men and women when it comes to religious expression and identity? Gallagher makes superb observations about the current landscape of Christianity in North America. Her sociological research is an apt lens for describing the religious and spiritual phenomena experienced in any given week in the United States. Her research demonstrates the ways in which strong religious subcultures and institutions are still alive in America, and how these strong subcultures and institutions contribute to lasting, healthy congregations (179). 

Gallagher substantiates her astute observations with careful sociological research that is transparent about its own limitations. She provides a thorough outline of her research method in the book’s appendix, which illustrates the use of meticulous observation and extensive interviews over the course of ten years with three different denominations in the Pacific Northwest. What is most admirable about Gallagher’s research is her caution about making overgeneralizations, especially about gender (4). The entire book is conscious of this and revisits this possible weakness in later chapters, particularly during conversations about spiritual formation (125) and service (135). 

Gallagher’s research contributes to discussions of gender in religious studies by providing statistical observations that help ground the claim that Christian practice and doctrine takes seriously the issue of gendered difference. Gallagher’s concluding statement is that the transcendence uniquely experienced within congregational life and worship opens space for experiencing a broader and deeper self for both men and women, demonstrating that in a culture that remains divided and stratified by gender difference, religious institutions may be one of the few places where men and women are liberated from the constraints of gender, family, and work found in secular culture (188). The research presented in this book illustrates the way churches take difference seriously by refusing to gloss over the real distinctions between men and women that exist on the institutional level of particular congregations. For example, the most ungendered expressions of church involvement existed within the Eastern Orthodox congregation which maintained the greatest degree of patriarchal commitment in its clerical organization. At the same time, the Presbyterian church which had the least degree of patriarchal commitment in its clerical organization had just as many gender-segregated avenues of participation as the conservative Protestant congregation, which experienced the greatest gender differences in ministry and service (149). Thus, this research shows how gender difference and gender-bending can exist simultaneously. Gallagher’s conclusions demonstrate the paradoxical nature of American Christianity, which overturns society’s expectations surrounding gender and difference. 

While Gallagher’s conclusions regarding gender in congregational life are her greatest contribution, she fails to strongly tie together her two strains of thought: what attracts people to church and how gender factors into that attraction. Gallagher does not revisit her questions about gender and the difference it makes until the fourth chapter. Even then, questions about gender don’t occupy a central focus in Gallagher’s discussion until chapter 8, where gender is explicitly discussed in relation to the previous observations made about congregational life. It makes this reviewer wonder why an entire book that claims to investigate its questions through a gendered lens would wait until the last chapter to seriously consider gender in relation to the previous observations made. It seems that Gallagher’s argument would have been better served by focusing each chapter on gender, rather than reserving one chapter to gather its most significant observations about gender. The book’s organization is unfocused, and therefore runs the risk of losing the reader interested specifically in questions concerning gender. 

Despite its limitations, Getting to Church still presents great opportunities for the wider academic community. Gallagher’s convincing demonstrations and statistical observations provide ample space for theologians and gender theorists to pick up the conversation. While Gallagher’s sociological research provides great descriptive force, the nature of its methodology fails to capture the normative claims that can help answer the “why” and “how” to her questions. For example, how can the Eastern Orthodox liturgy present a gender-bending experience for its practitioners while also maintaining an essentialism within its theological rationale for an all-male clerical organization (144)? Why is it that different denominational expressions appeal to some, but not all, women and some, but not all, men? Is there anything truly gendered about the religious understandings and practices themselves? More broadly, how is Christian doctrine interacting with the ways in which people are transcending the limitations of gender while also maintaining a phenomenological awareness of gender differences? 

Overall, this book has a crucial role to play within Christian gender debates. Its purpose lies within debunking myths about religious identity and gender that some religious scholars and lay people still uphold. The claim that women are more religious than men or that Christianity is somehow a “woman’s religion” can no longer be reasonably accepted given Gallagher’s observations.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Sarah Dannemiller is a graduate student in Theology at Abilene Christian University.

Date of Review: 
July 30, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Sally K. Gallagher is professor of sociology in the school of public policy at Oregon State University. She is the author of Making Do in Damascus: Navigating a Generation of Change in Family and Work, and Evangelical Identity and Gendered Family Life, as well as other works in the areas of gender, religion, family and caregiving.


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