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?