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.