White working-class adults are leaving our churches. What can we do to keep them?

(iStock/Cecilie_Arcurs)(iStock/Cecilie_Arcurs)

Five years ago, while attending seminary, I was on staff at a small church near Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky. The congregation was white, mostly middle-class and aging. Sorely in need of new parishioners, we threw ourselves into various outreach efforts. We found it difficult to attract our neighbors, however, particularly the working-class whites who made up most of the neighborhood. Our struggles were illustrated by my interaction with a middle-aged white man I will call Roger.

Roger had approached the church for help with a hefty utility bill, citing some difficult life circumstances. Shortly after we had paid the bill, we discovered that his story had been a fabrication. Resolving to be less gullible in the future, we moved on, never expecting to hear from him again.

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A few months later, however, Roger gave us a call on a phone set to be turned off at midnight due to unpaid bills. He had suffered a landscaping accident and needed the phone to talk to his doctor.

Disgusted, Roger explained that he lacked basic necessities, and no amount of religious doggerel was going to fix that.

I drove to his home and offered the use of the church phone. He was uninterested and became agitated when he realized that we were not going to pay his phone bill. He demanded to know why I was there.

“Because you need to get right with God,” I replied.

I expected my comment to open an avenue for pastoral ministry. It did not. Disgusted, Roger explained that he lacked basic necessities, and no amount of religious doggerel was going to fix that. He pointed out that I had a cushy job from which I went to a nice home in a working car. “And you don’t have 40 staples in your frigging stomach,” he said, lifting his shirt to show me his. “So quit judging me!”

That ended the visit, and I never saw Roger again.

The Catholic Church is not alone in struggling to maintain a connection to the white working class. According to a 2012 study headed by W. Bradford Wilcox at the University of Virginia, church attendance by whites ages 25 to 44 without a four-year degree has declined at twice the rate of their college-educated peers since the early 1970s. There has been no such decline in church attendance by their black and Hispanic counterparts.

Working-class whites are simply more likely to never darken the door of a church. A 2017 report by the Public Religion Research Institute found that among white adults in their 30s and 40s, half of those without college degrees said they seldom or never attend religious services, compared with less than a third of those with at least a bachelor’s degree.

Among white adults in their 30s and 40s, half of those without college degrees said they seldom or never attend religious services, compared with less than a third of those with at least a bachelor’s degree.

In early 2019, Charles Fain Lehman of the Washington Free Beacon analyzed weekly church attendance data from the General Social Survey. He found that until the mid-’80s, about 25 percent of whites with a high school diploma or “some college” went to church every Sunday, approximately the same rate as their peers with college degrees. Since then, however, there has been a widening gap between those with degrees and the “some college” and “high-school only” cohorts (with the latter down to less than 15 percent).

Mr. Lehman wrote that he was surprised by his findings, which refute the idea that church is popular among the poorly educated: “I naively expect church attendance to be more common among people of lower social status. I was suffering from what [writer Timothy Carney] amusingly and aptly labels the ‘Lena Dunham fallacy’ of thinking that the upper classes are all bourgeois atheist nihilists."

The decline in church attendance by the white working class has corresponded with their worsening economic prospects. Mr. Wilcox and his colleagues posit that this demographic increasingly finds the “moral logics” championed by middle-class white Christians—particularly marriage, which is challenging enough even with financial stability—to be untenable. By contrast, non-white churches, while certainly not discounting marriage, tend to emphasize other values like solidarity and perseverance in the face of hardship, explaining to some degree why church attendance rates among working-class blacks and Hispanics have held steady.

It would be a disaster for Christian churches to become a strictly middle-class-or-higher institution.

Financial instability itself probably causes the white working class to feel uneasy within the walls of a church. Christians of all stripes, but particularly white evangelicals, are more likely than non-Christians to ascribe poverty primarily to a lack of individual effort. All said, when folks like Roger interact with church people like myself, too often they go away feeling judged and unwanted.

This is a real problem. Jesus included his preaching the Gospel to the poor as one of the key proofs that he was the Messiah (Mt 11:5). It would be a disaster for the church that bears his name to become a strictly middle-class-or-higher institution among those 60 percent of Americans who identify as white.

How could we do better at reaching this demographic? We must be more ready to listen than to preach. Many, if not most of my interactions with the white working class of our community (even those who were not asking me for anything) were characterized by my subtly thinking of them as “projects,” people who somehow need myhelp. I certainly did not approach our middle-class parishioners or my fellow seminarians with this attitude.

Re-examining my failed pastoral visit with Roger, I now realize that I had come without any intention of making real contact with him. Instead, I imperiously offered a solution to a problem he did not find all that pressing. It would have been far better for me to have treated him like I would have one of our regular attendees, to have opened with, “Tell me how things have been going lately,” and then to have kept my mouth shut for a while.

The white working class inhabits a harsh world that in many ways is getting harsher, as evidenced by the rise of “deaths of despair” via suicide, alcohol and drugs. Any hint of God’s compassion revealed in Jesus Christ (which throughout Scripture is especially directed toward the “least of these”) would likely work wonders. The church has a great opportunity here, if Christians such as myself can learn how to interact with the individuals who comprise the white working class with real, Christ-like humanity.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
J Cosgrove
1 month 2 weeks ago

Tell them why everyone should be a Catholic in as diplomatic way as possible. It is a matter of belief. Find out why they do not believe and try to understand that. We are in a world where belief in God is not relevant especially for day to day problems that are often financial or medical. A century ago and especially two centuries ago everyone was poor. Now that a lot are not, the focus is on why me.

The author should read Charles Murray's Coming Apart about the difference between different levels of whites, in terms of education and income and family background. The breakdown started in the 1960's.

Nora Bolcon
1 month 2 weeks ago

The problem is that the Church does not really support the union laborer as it used to do. Our hierarchy has often fought against union labor. Our middle class - blue collar worker is getting paid less and less as unions grow weaker and weaker and our church leaders are too afraid to lose the money of Rich Republican Catholics to stand up for the blue collar worker's needs. Also, our sexism in Catholicism has women fighting their church for rights to free birth control so they don't have the amount of kids that will drive them into bankruptcy and divorce but alas there are our bishops with their heads in the sand as usual.

J Cosgrove
1 month 2 weeks ago

The bishops are bad except for when they are for a program of the left. Then they are wonderful.

Nora Bolcon
1 month 1 week ago

I would say that they should stay out of politics altogether and stop telling women what to do in marriage unless they plan on ordaining women bishops and giving them equal vote and authority.

Blue collar laborers need unions and so does our country. What has been proven is that weak unions in a democracy make for a smaller middle class, more poverty overall, and a weaker economy since no one can afford to buy anything. In the long run even the rich lose from a weak economy. I don't seek that our Bishops support unions as a political stand but stop fighting the benefits they are trying to get to their people. Mainly, they need to stop supporting the Republican Party of the filthy rich and get out of politics and that means Pro-Life Political involvement too. Bishops are supposed to teach what Jesus proclaimed is right or wrong, not condemn anyone, or try to have any people imprisoned for any immorality regardless the subject. The bishop's support of the Republicans has been obvious and partisan and helped us to get a complete racist and misogynist as a President. A man who has shamed us on a global stage and continues to do so daily.

Jay Zamberlin
1 month 2 weeks ago

Well, if we lost the fake post Vatican II social justix warrior, doctored language, horrible, non, poetic translations, awful banal music and liturgites, we might have a chance.

I'm not against married priests, but how in the Latin Rite is a married man a "pastor" of any sort, associate or otherwise? In the Catholic Church, ONLY priests can be de facto pastors, (please do not bring up examples in YOUR Catholic church, those are ALL mislablings. Guaranteed.)

Charlotte Newman
1 month 2 weeks ago

The author says he is Christian but never says he is Catholic. Perhaps he's an Associate Pastor of a non-Roman Catholic Christian church.

Anne Chapman
1 month 2 weeks ago

Mr. Cosgrove is always first off the mark, with two or three varying themes, which are often not addressing the topic at hand. Perhaps he doesn't actually read the articles?

Perhaps the reason the author of this article has not explained to his white, working class neighbors why they should be Catholic is because he is a Baptist and the pastor of a non=denominational church. It's in the bio at the end of the article.

J Cosgrove
1 month 2 weeks ago

Why not address my comment directly instead of in someone else's comment. You are right that I did not see that the author was a Baptist minister. I did read the article and stand by it if it was a Catholic who wrote it. The photo shows the Stations of the Cross, a particularly Catholic thing and talks about the problems in the Catholic Church. I wonder why it is in a Catholic magazine if they did not think it applied to Catholics.

But given that the article is about what to tell someone to be a Christian, how is my comment not addressing the topic?

Nora Bolcon
1 month 1 week ago

Hi Charlotte,

The author is Baptist. It says this next to his name at the bottom of the article. Yeah, I have no idea why we need the baptist viewpoint. Given that both Baptists and Catholics are patriarchal and suffering with big pedophilia or child molestation crisis, you would think they might consider misogyny as a possible reason for the fall off of White America. However, that would make sense and we know common sense isn't all that common after all.

James M.
1 month 2 weeks ago

“This is a real problem. Jesus included his preaching the Gospel to the poor as one of the key proofs that he was the Messiah (Mt 11:5). It would be a disaster for the church that bears his name to become a strictly middle-class-or-higher institution among those 60 percent of Americans who identify as white.“

Maybe the answer is, that ideas that are relevant to Second Temple Palestine cannot be assumed to be timelessly relevant anywhere else. It could well be that Christianity is simply irrelevant to society today, and that it has nothing to offer that anyone wants, or is conscious of needing. It could well be that Christianity and its ideas are terminally and irreversibly senile.

This is a possibility that those who rule in the Church have to take seriously. They cannot afford to treat it as unthinkable. They absolutely must look it in the face, and not try dodging it. If the CC, or Christianity generally, is on its deathbed, nothing is gained by pretending otherwise.

Alan Johnstone
1 month 2 weeks ago

US Catholicism is clearly tainted and severely hampered by the fictitious Social Justice Teaching which developed during and after the Second Vatican Council was being held.

The heresy that Christianity is a social work institution is not any fault of the Council.

What one of the core principles as published for example by Caritas needs the life, suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ to be understood as a good?
Life and Dignity of the Human Person.
Solidarity.
Care for God's creation.
Call to Family, Community and Participation.
Option for the Poor and Vulnerable.
Rights and Responsibilities.
Dignity of Work and Rights of Workers

Roger teaches us a valuable lesson and there are legions of Rogers all over the world.
In some places they are known as rice Christians, around here they are known as bludgers.

I know about a group of people who drive from town to town, city to city, and present to every outlet of the St Vincent de Paul op-shop/office, Salvation Army ditto, Anglicare ditto with the same sob story and getting substantial free money from them all regularly.
I also know that their stories are lies - I am their local doctor in the small community they indwell.

Can you imagine that receiving this charity makes a blind bit of difference to their spiritual life in the right direction? Do they say amongst themselves, 'see those Christians how they love one another and us, strangers?'
Do they say to themselves, 'what amazing facts in their lives has given them the urge to do this?'

We are entrusted with the good news of salvation, not the secrets of financial success and it is the good news we are to give away freely.

God has not abandoned any of this creatures and He talks to them about their disgrace each and every time they sin.
US public opinion and political correctness is ready to contradict the Holy Spirit and we are here to agree with the Holy Spirit.
Agree with the fact that when they tell a lie, they have done wrong; when they have sex with someone not their spouse, they have gravely sinned; when they assassinate someone's character, they have done serious damage; when they use violence they have done something very bad.
The path to accepting salvation begins with being convinced of the need for it and that means accepting it is absolutely true that I am an evil doer for sure and seem unable to avoid it even when I try.

At the core, to be saved from our sins is still a contemporary and relevant desperate need.

Stefan Svilich
1 month 2 weeks ago

Stop buggering the altar boys and selling Marxism would be a nice start. Just because they’re ‘working class’ doesn’t mean they’r gullible.

Stefan Svilich
1 month 2 weeks ago

X

Helen McCaffrey
1 month 2 weeks ago

Well "White" working class folks especially heterosexual men are constantly being told by the culture that because of their sex and the amount of melanin in their skin they are responsible for all the evils in the world.Then they come to Church and hear homilies about Social Justice instead of God's lovee for them and His POWER. and how they should feel guilty about how people a world away are treated while they cannot provide for their own families. Get a clue.

Ellen B
1 month 2 weeks ago

Darn that gospel talking about caring for others!

Greg Heck
1 month 1 week ago

Right you are, Helen

J Jones
1 month 2 weeks ago

David, I appreciate your reflection. A pastor interested in building a relationship with each child of God who contacts the church sounds like a man doing God's work. A pastor asking "what could I have done differently as one child of God responding to another child of God who knocked on God's door" sounds like an even better pastor. God bless you.

Lach Satsuma
1 month 2 weeks ago

There is only one way to stop the decreasing of faithful : To return to the Christ's commission of "preaching ALL TRUTHS he commands". That involves stopping the process of "dogmatic development" and adaptation of Gospel to the world's and clergy's wantonness.

Thomas Butler
1 month 2 weeks ago

It is encouragement of "solidarity and perseverance in the face of hardship" that should have been provided, and NOT the amount due on the man's electric bill. That only opened up the Church to be a cash cow. The same is being done by the Pope's man recently going around the US and doling out cash; buying parishioners won't work.

John Chuchman
1 month 2 weeks ago

How about espousing a theology that’s relevant and current. How about returning to the essence of Jesus’ life and teachings. How about ending rampant clericalism and misogyny.

Nora Bolcon
1 month 1 week ago

Amen Brother! We need to get real and face our past wrongs against women and others and demand total change of ourselves if we expect sane youth to come back to the fold. Treating others the same as you wish to be treated includes Bishops treating women called to priesthood the exact same way they wanted the Bishop who ordained them a priest to treat them - ordain them - No different treatment! No more I get more sacraments or opportunities than you women because that breaks Christ's main command to love others as self.

John Chuchman
1 month 2 weeks ago

Dear Roman Catholic Hierarchy,
You abuse our children,
even protecting the abusers
thus perpetuating the abuse;
You misuse our hard-earned donations,
You intentionally mislead us
about this life and the next,
perpetuating a fear of eternal damnation
if we don’t abide by your teachings;
You call Church Holy Mother,
while practicing misogyny at every turn;
You erroneously treat Scripture Stories
as historical facts
in order to serve your needs;
You promote an outdated and irrelevant theology,
completely ignoring today’s reality;
You completely disregard and have abandoned
the life and essential inclusive teachings of Jesus;
and yet
You expect us to believe
that you are some sort of essential link
between us and our Creator?

You must be kidding.

John Barbieri
1 month 1 week ago

Well said!

A Fielder
1 month 2 weeks ago

“Because you need to get right with God,” I replied. ...

This is when I stopped reading the article. I am glad the Roger never contacted this so-called minister again. It's quite the nerve to assume that a virtual stranger is not right with God. What a waste...

J Jones
1 month 2 weeks ago

A - I almost stopped reading, too, for the same reason. I am glad I didn't. This young pastor learned from Roger's response to his hubris. This is a gem of a story and, I expect, a gem of a pastor.

Christopher Scott
1 month 2 weeks ago

The clergy have become either too effeminate or gay for straight males and that’s how they view Catholicism ... it’s the obvious elephant in the room, duh

Vince Killoran
1 month 2 weeks ago

Catholic parishes should address economic justice more frequently and put parish resources into the effort. Remember the "Labor Schools" in the mid-twentieth century? Economic inequality, the importance of labor unions, and opportunity for all people are messages that will resonate with Catholics across race and ethnic lines.

J Jones
1 month 2 weeks ago

I agree, Vince.

J Cosgrove
1 month 2 weeks ago

Then why are our poor, richer than most of the world? A recent study: The Poorest 20% of Americans Are Richer on Average Than Most Nations of Europe. http://bit.ly/2zCt48T Maybe it was labor unions that suppressed the poor?

Ellen B
1 month 2 weeks ago

I don't know that "Roger" is the sole example that I would have put forth for working class men & women. But what could have helped "Roger" to become a member of the church? One area where I admire the LDS church is that they WILL help their congregation, but they expect those receiving help to work in return for that help. A hand out wasn't helping Roger. Would feeling that he had earned that support in some way have helped him feel like he wasn't a beggar? Given him a sense of participation in the community? Maybe, maybe not but it seems like a better path than becoming Rogers second income & thinking that will make him a believer.

David Clay
1 month 2 weeks ago

Hi Ellen - the author here. If I were to criticize my own piece, this is the tact I would take. I don't mean to insinuate that working class people in general are dishonest and I hesitated about using "Roger" as my example. But this conversation highlighted a couple of things that I think are important: (1) the pressing or even debilitating material/financial concerns that so many in this demographic face, and (2) my own (hopefully abating) cluelessness on how to interact with this demographic. I really like your idea about expecting "those receiving help to work in return for that help." We're trying that at my current church. Thank you for reading.

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