By Jason Coker
Are you tired of hearing about the Pew Research Center’s demographic study outlining the decline of Christianity in America? It was earth-shattering news for the few people who read it, but energized others who were tired of traditional mainline Protestantism. The panic that it produced was interesting to read, hear and watch. The research only confirmed what we religious types already knew — there are fewer people in our pews.
The “Nones” do not come and really never have. The “Dones” do not come because they are pretty tired of whatever it is that they are tired of. Opinion pieces not unlike this column have poured serious time and energy into culturally diagnosing the perceived problem from a religious perspective. “We need to (fill in the blank).” Responses to this study have been a cornucopia of “You’re Doing It All Wrong” YouTube videos about church. The Pew Research Center probably didn’t realize that it was creating even more fuel for the fire of apocalypticism in popular culture. Maybe that’s what it is! The Zombie Apocalypse is really hurting church attendance.
All jokes aside, we are facing the same old new problems of every generation, but this happens to be our generation and church attendance is declining. Another major demographic that has been on the decline in the United States approximately over the same time period is the middle class. According to a New York Times article (let the name calling begin) earlier this year, middle income families in the United States have declined by 10 percent since 1967 — that’s the overall numbers for our whole country.
The good news is that some of the decline of the middle class is because a few of them moved into the upper-middle class. The bad news is that many of them fell into the lower income bracket. I think most Americans would agree that the middle class is the backbone of the United States. And a healthy middle class is a healthy America. A recent article from The Brookings Institution highlighted some of the possible dangers in the “slide” from middle class to upper-middle class in relation to self-preservation. This fascinating piece attempts to show that this upwardly movement tends to be characterized by self-interest rather than social-interest, which has decidedly economic and political implications.
Class matters always tend to be controversial in America because of our “classless” ideology. The issue of class, however, that I want to explore is where and how the decline of the middle class intersects with the decline in religious affiliation, specifically Christianity. Is the decline in the middle class over the past 50 years a causative effect of the decline in church membership and attendance during that same time period? Have we so intertwined the American Dream with Christianity until they have become one and the same, and to lose one is to lose the other? If the middle class has been the backbone of America, it is also true that the middle class has been the backbone of the churches in America. For whatever reason, the down-and-out and the up-and-out have been historically difficult demographics for many churches. While that may be a gross generalization, I think it is true.
This may be due to the fact that the poor and the wealthy simply don’t have time to go to church on a regular basis. As more and more families move up or down on the economically mobile chart, they tend to work more and more. Those living in poverty work multiple jobs just to put food on the table. For instance, we recently had Christine Browder from the Texas Hunger Initiative to speak to our church. Christine told us a story about how a little girl who participated in one of their Summer Food Programs asked how many jobs Christine had. When Christine told her she only had one job, the little girl couldn’t understand how anybody could survive only working one job. Both of her parents had multiple jobs and struggled to make ends meet. A Monday through Friday vocation rarely exists among people living in poverty, which challenges the traditional worship time on Sunday.
On the up-and-up, vocational opportunities tend to be more than a simple 9 to 5, five days a week. With so much travel built into business these days, the upwardly mobile are very mobile. Traveling across the country or internationally is par for the course where I live in lower Fairfield County, which is indicative of many of the work-worlds the upper-middle class inhabits. Work life is not a day-to-day routine, but a week-to-weekend routine. Basically, you work all week and have Saturday and Sunday off — unless, of course, those are your travel days back home. By the time the weekend arrives, there is little space for religious ceremonies because that’s the only two days you get for any semblance of family time.
Paradoxically, in both cases — the lower income and the upper-middle class — work dictates life. For those in the lower income category, work dictates life by necessity. For those in the upper-middle class, work dictates life by design. All the while, the middle class, who continues to work hard, is evaporating — just like those who have enough leisure time to give to religious organizations (like churches). When looking at the economic trends in our country over time, I wonder how related middle class decline is to church decline. As people are working more and more and work continues to dictate life, how much time is left for church? Good Christians and the pastor types may say that this is an issue of priority, but I’m not so sure. It’s not easy to be in the middle class these days, and I’ve just about glamorized that whole swath of humans in America as having a ton of leisure time! Most of us know that’s not true either. I think these two narratives of decline in the middle class and church attendance are related because I think our economic system is killing us — and the church. “Dones” may be done with church because they just don’t have any time for it.