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