Who Is Going to Church?

Earlier this week, an article titled, “Who is going to church? Not who you think, study finds,” appeared on the MSNBC website. Underneath the title were these words, “Church attendance has declined among whites since the early 1970s, and the rate of decline has been more than twice as high for those who earn low incomes and are less educated.”

The study was done by sociologists at John Hopkins University. The title of the study was, “No Money, No Honey, No Church: The Deinstitutionalization of Religious Life Among the White Working Class.” Here is the breakdown of some of the highlights of the study:

  • Since the 1970s, monthly (or more) participation in religious services dropped from 50% of moderately educated (high school and perhaps some college) whites to 37%.
  • During the same time period, attendance by the least educated (high school dropouts) dropped from 38% to 23%.
  • Church attendance by higher-income whites with at least a bachelor’s degree barely dipped, from 50% to 46%.

According to the researchers, the reason this study focused on white Americans is because black and Latino religious worship is less divided by education and income. The researchers concluded that the decline in church attendance is attributed to two things: (1) The deteriorating labor market position of the moderately educated. (2) Cultural changes that have made non-marital family forms more acceptable.

I don’t doubt that those two things have contributed to the decline, especially #1, but I think there is a more fundamental reason: The people who are continuing to go to church (more wealthy, more educated) are the people the church (especially the white church) have targeted. The people who are dropping out of church (less wealthy, less educated) are the people the church have not targeted.

The modern day “church-growth movement” started in the 1940s, but really picked up steam in the 1980s and 1990s. During this time pastors and church leaders were encouraged to identify their “target audience,” and then build their programming around that “target audience.” And so you had “Saddleback Sam” and “Saddleback Sally.” Both Sam and Sally were white, upper middle-class, educated, professionals who lived in the suburbs.  The idea was to take basic “marketing” principles and apply them to church growth. Simultaneously, during this time, there was an increase in the number of mega-churches in the United States while an alarming number of smaller churches were forced to close their doors. It seemed like these marketing principles of targeting your audience were working, but in reality, church growth in the United States has not kept up with population growth. In other words, the church in the United States has been slowly dying since the advent of the church growth movement; an interesting irony to say the least.

Now, here is the sad reality: Most churches, when targeting their audience, went after the more wealthy, more educated portion of our population. No one (or very few) targeted “Poverty Pete” or “Single Mom Sally Mae.” It’s hard to pay a staff and offer top-notch programs and build large facilities with people who have limited to no resources. Don’t get me wrong, most churches (large and small) do more for struggling households than most people realize, but the poorer, less educated, are seen as a ministry, not as the “core” of church membership.

Most people are smart. Most people know when they are wanted or when they are being used. It should come as no surprise that the greatest percentage of people who are dropping out of church today are lower middle / working class, less educated whites, because that’s the demographic that is most overlooked in our culture.

My dear friends, don’t let public opinion influence how you live out our glorious, Christ-originated faith. If a man enters your church wearing an expensive suit, and a street person wearing rags comes in right after him, and you say to the man in the suit, “Sit here, sir; this is the best seat in the house!” and either ignore the street person or say, “Better sit here in the back row,” haven’t you segregated God’s children and proved that you are judges who can’t be trusted? Listen, dear friends. Isn’t it clear by now that God operates quite differently? He chose the world’s down-and-out as the kingdom’s first citizens, with full rights and privileges…” (James 2:1-7, The Message)

Am I off base? If so, how and in what way?


5 thoughts on “Who Is Going to Church?

  1. Good comments, Kevin. I might also add the following:
    – The poorer and disenfranchised in modern USA have had 50+ years of looking to (and being told they can rely on) government to solve their problems, so they choose that instead of God.
    – As you mentioned, church has become more of an organization rather than an organism, and starting in the 60’s there has been a growing distrust of organizations, and big business, especially among the lower income.
    – People and society have become more introspective than social over the last generation. They have been taught and learned that they can receive all of the input they need in their homes rather than going somewhere to get it, and that they really don’t need relationships beyond their computers, TV, and phones.
    – Educated, rich whites in many cases feel guilt for their blessings, and go to church to ease that guilt. Look at the number of $70,000+ cars in the parking lots.
    – The heresy of prosperity gospel has an attractiveness and a certain reality in the minds of the rich and educated. Unfortunately, many of those folks leave the church when their fortunes and families collapse.
    – Most large churches do not give hope to the poor, and also do not dare point out the danger of riches.

  2. Rick, your comments are right on (and not only because you agree with me). In regards to your first comment (about looking to the government instead of the church) pick up a copy of “Resident Aliens” by Stanley Hauerwas and William H Willimon. The book was written in 1989. I first read it in graduate school in 1990. Some of the things they said in that book hit on exactly what you are saying.

  3. I like htis subject. I think if we are honest with ourselves we do look to be people of some wealth as an avenue to grow our church and provide the necessary resources. Really a form of prejiduce. I don’t think it is intentional, but that does not excuse the fact that it happens way too often.

    Another point. I am not against prosperity, or the message of prosperity, if taught correctly. Prosperity is not all about money and things. Unfortunately when it comes to the church, people associate prosperity with wealth. And, for the middle to low middle class who are not really that wealthy a “prosperity” message can lead them to think they are missing God, because they are struggling.

    We must serve the poor!! Isiah 58 and Matthew chapters 5-7. It’s time for pastor’s and leaders to not only teach the truth, but also to live it before their congregations. Giving their church the opportunity to interact with the less fortunate and put to use the God given gifts they have. Using our resources to reach the unreachable and downtrodden.

    Isaiah 58:6-12
    English Standard Version (ESV)

    6″Is not this the fast that I choose:
    to loose the bonds of wickedness,
    to undo the straps of the yoke,
    to let the oppressed[a] go free,
    and to break every yoke?
    7Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
    and bring the homeless poor into your house;
    when you see the naked, to cover him,
    and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
    8 Then shall your light break forth like the dawn,
    and your healing shall spring up speedily;
    your righteousness shall go before you;
    the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.
    9Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer;
    you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’
    If you take away the yoke from your midst,
    the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness,
    10 if you pour yourself out for the hungry
    and satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
    then shall your light rise in the darkness
    and your gloom be as the noonday.
    11And the LORD will guide you continually
    and satisfy your desire in scorched places
    and make your bones strong;
    and you shall be like a watered garden,
    like a spring of water,
    whose waters do not fail.
    12 And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
    you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
    you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
    the restorer of streets to dwell in.

    Thanks Kevin!!


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