Why Christianity and the Middle Class Are Both in Decline

As the middle class goes, so goes the church.

The church is a bourgeois institution. And not just in our times — it’s always been this way.

From the very beginning, Christian communities were composed of urban dwellers of the middle class. Saint Paul’s travels were focused on cities that had established synagogues and vibrant marketplaces. He engaged the intellectual establishment, praised those who patronized the early movement, and described his work in Rome as a fundraising trip for the poor church in Jerusalem (Romans 15:22-29).

Later, as Peter Brown has shown, Constantine established the clergy in the middle class and gave them the benefits of the elite. Most of the Church Fathers threw in their support. Saint Augustine urged that managing wealth and using it to build and maintain the church was of more spiritual value than vows of poverty.

And while the Protestant Reformation was a critique of ecclesiastical fundraising, it was not a working class movement. Luther’s view of the two kingdoms — church and state being God’s left and right hands — is thoroughly bourgeois. Luther and the peasants had a pretty awful relationship, which ended in a bloody uprising, the victory of the ruling class, and Luther siding firmly with the establishment.

In America, church has always been a free market commodity primarily oriented toward the middle class. In class conflicts, the church has generally sided with management. Church congregants have not been working poor, but rather business owners and managers. Even the noble response of the initial social justice movement of a century ago was bourgeois. Its purpose was not to find solidarity with the poor, but to lend a hand to the poor to hoist them into the middle class.

Today, church planters target bourgeois zip codes and church stewardship and fundraising professionals utilize planned giving and endowments. Modern church facilities mirror other middle class establishments: coffee shops, restaurants, theaters, and college campuses. My favorite example of this is a video called What if Starbucks Marketed like the Church? Its chief complaint is that the church is dated and not bourgeois enough to attract intelligent consumers.

The church is, and always has been, a bourgeois institution.

It is no surprise, then, that the long decay of the church over the past generation coincides perfectly with the long decay of the middle class.

The correlation is unmistakable. Reading Thomas Piketty’s much-discussed Capital in the Twenty-First Century is like reading a history of the incredible rise and decay of the institutional church. Piketty never mentions the church as he describes the bubble of egalitarian economics from 1930-1980. But chapter after chapter and chart after chart tell the same story that denominational leaders and sociologists of religion have been describing for decades: a steep incline in the 30’s and 40’s, a plateau through the mid-70’s, and a steady decline ever since.

Even more haunting is Charles Murray’s Coming Apart. Murray explains that for the past several decades, church participation within the middle class has hardly changed, but it has disappeared almost entirely within the working class. His observation is easily confirmed by attending worship services. The working class is poorly represented in our congregations; people in lower classes have little means to support a congregation with time, talent, or treasure, and they perceive little value in the institution.

Christians around the country are wondering why churches are in decline. The reason is not Darwin or Marx, science or atheism, culture wars, or competition. It’s economics. As goes the middle class, so goes the church.

Dave Albertson
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  • W Maxwell Cassity-Guilliom

    “Christians around the country are wondering why churches are in decline. The reason is not Darwin or Marx, science or atheism, culture wars, or competition. It’s economics.”

    Quite a significant over-simplification of the decline of religion. Obviously there are
    many causes, and I doubt economics is the most impactful.

  • http://www.vidavictoriosa.net Carlos Rincon

    I do not agree with this article, especially with this part, “observation is easily confirmed by attending worship services. The working class is poorly represented in our congregations; people in lower classes have little means to support a congregation with time, talent, or treasure, and they perceive little value in the institution.” I am a pastor of a first generation Hispanics in the city of Los Angeles, and my church its mostly composed of poor inner-city dwellers, and its growing, and its vibrant, and all of our members contribute their talents, their time and their resources, we just bought a 4 million dollar building. (we have a mortgage of 3 million, its not a huge building, but properties are expensive here in Los Angeles CA) My poor working class members see the church as the place where they find meaning for life, friendship, family, support, and sometimes the only place where they can find help, for their material and spiritual needs. I have lived in this city for the last 30 years, and most of the Hispanic churches are pretty much filled with poor members, not all churches are growing but in general Hispanic churches are growing.

  • nwcolorist

    “Christians around the country are wondering why churches are in decline.”

    What are you talking about? Church growth is exploding around the world. Only in America are churches in decline, and that’s only the mainline ones. Conservative churches are maintaining their current levels or growing.

    Mr. Albertson, your article is misleading, and misses the big picture.

    • Jack

      He is talking about the US.

    • Dave Albertson

      My intention is not to mislead. The church as an organization is in decline in America, on both sides of the aisle. Southern Baptists and Episcopalians are both feeling the pinch, likewise ELCA and LCMS Lutherans, PCA and PCUSA Presbyterians, etc. So the conservative/liberal distinction can’t be the driving cause of the decline. It’s something more systemic.

      • nwcolorist

        Thanks for responding. I am sadly aware of how the mainline churches have fallen into decay. It is painful to remember how vibrant they were when I was a kid. But I’m not one who believes that the demise of
        these churches means the end of the “church” as we know it. It is rather a shifting of how we Americans like to worship. Religion here is currently in flux.

        The problem I have with this topic is that is too narrow-themed. It’s constantly being re-run in the media year after year, as if it signaled the end of religion. It also ignores the bigger news of the extraordinary growth worldwide. It’s like going to the Louvre to view the Mona Lisa and then only looking at her hands.

        More questions need to be asked. Where are the people going who leave these mainline churches. Some die, but not all. Another unanswered question is, what about the rise of the non-denominational churches. Where are their members come from?

    • http://www.everybodyschurch.org john judson

      to nwcolorist, your belief that conservative churches are maintaining or grow is one of the great church myths of the 21st century. Conservative churches are declining (the Southern Baptist Convention being one example) just as are more liberal ones. Conservative churches are merely a decade behind the liberal ones. Currently growth is coming in mega-multi-site churches who have charismatic leader/preachers. The question with those congregations will be can they continue after the loss of the founding pastor….note the Crystal Cathedral. As Mr. Albertson states the issue is much more nuanced and complex than liberal vs. conservative.

      • nwcolorist

        Southern Baptist Convention has had three years of small decline. Nothing as compared to the decade long fall of the liberal churches. Also mega-churches account for about 1% of the total churchgoers. They are high profile but have little impact on the numbers.

      • JTapp

        What do the data say? If we define “conservative churches” as ones being made up of people who would say that they have met a resurrected Jesus who changed their lives and since that time their lives have been increasingly
        oriented around their faith in Him, then they have not declined since the 1970s according to several surveys. As mainline congregations have declined, more evangelicals ones have grown or new ones have sprung up to offset the loss. Albertson is reasoning from his own observation, but he doesn’t say how many observations, where they took place, whether it was scientific or not. He’s put his cognitive bias on display for all in his jumping to conclusions rather irresponsibly.

        I live in a mostly rural community with plenty of lower middle-class people who struggle to find ways to make it to church every week. Some in our church are recovering alcoholics, some have escaped the sex industry, most are on Medicaid or rely on other public assistance, as well as the church, for help. Very few are highly educated. We apparently didn’t make it into Albertson’s sample.

  • David Drake

    I think this is a very accurate description of the main thrust of the Evangelical American church…what I wonder about though is why Christianity explodes amongst the poor all over the world outside of America.

    • nwcolorist

      “I wonder about though is why Christianity explodes amongst the poor all over the world outside of America.”

      That is the real question we should be discussing here.

  • Judith Gotwald

    The church was structured to serve a society that was led by the few who had the luxury of higher education. They weren’t particularly trusted, but as long as they toed the line they had great influence in their little corners of God’s kingdom. If they wanted to advance, there was a clear road to follow to be promoted.

    Back then, everyone understood the working class. Jobs (trades) were distinctly defined. It was not easy to stray from the class of your birth. The church was one road to social advancement for those of low birth. The army was the other!

    Today’s mature laity grew up in the modern Church’s heyday — the 50s through 70s. We have equal or better education and management experience than the clergy—but little recognition.

    This trend is going to continue. College is now the norm. Graduate and doctorate degrees are abundant. Life-long learning is necessary for survival. Yet to the church, we are just the working class—called to give and obey.

    So who is today’s working class? Does this term cover everything from the hamburger flipper to the Fortune 500 executive suite?

    It is no wonder the educated laity find more validation in their spiritual lives by giving and volunteering where their gifts are not taken for granted and they have a sense that they can make a difference and grow in their involvement. It’s what we expect in every other aspect of our lives. It is more than economic. It is cultural.

  • tanyam

    Where to start. I find the use of terms like”middle class” anachronistic — not applicable across time and place. What was “middle class” during feudalism? How do we know or account for religious expression by the poor, when the poor have had little or no access to written communication. Do we assume that peasants had no religion — or should we perhaps say that religion among the peasants is not well documented. We are talking about a phenomenon which has included the dalits of India and the religion of slaves in the US in the 19th century. This essay seems to follow the popular line of understanding the 19th century missionary movement. — and that is made to stand in for the whole.

    What does this mean– “Even the noble response of the initial social justice movement of a century ago was bourgeois. Its purpose was not to find solidarity with the poor, but to lend a hand to the poor to hoist them into the middle class.” Hmm. Maybe grinding poverty, slavery, and child labor are not romantic ideals that we would want to advance. For anyone. Jesus, after all, fed the poor and suggested we do the same.. Is it a problem that churches included abolitionists, prison reformers and those opposed to child labor,– not to mention the promoters of education and health care. Sure, Victorian values were also foisted on 19th century missionary subjects, but if we are to understand what was wrong and what was right, we need a more careful analysis.
    Finally, it is very hard to read Charles Murray’s name attached to careful analysis of anything. This is the conservative, American Enterprise Institute, libertarian who brought us “The Belle Curve,” and whose larger body of work has been largely discredited pretty much everywhere.

  • Tom Blair

    I thought I’d be reading much more than what he jotted down here…
    I get it that the middle class is in decline- but, where are the numbers? ( And what about a ‘re-do’, from the Ground Up– not Lutheran, but led by the Spirit?)