Thursday, February 02, 2012

Planting Churches Where The Money Is

There is a new book out by Charles Murray with the provocative title: Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. Charles Murray is perhaps best known for his book The Bell Curve that was quite controversial. I think all of his books are controversial. Anyway, in his latest book Murray is looking at some detailed stats on "white America" but his focus is on the difference between "classes" and he is looking at just white Americans to avoid the sticky issues that crop up when you talk about race.

One of the things that Murray's book reportedly reveals that is somewhat unexpected is that among white America, the "upper-class" is more church going than the "working class". This seems out of place, especially with politicians talking down to Americans working class people in the Midwest who cling to their guns and religion. The well-to-do are supposed to be above this and the working class are supposed to have folksy values like patriotism and religious fervor. The stats behind his study should be fascinating.

Anyway, the book looks very interesting from a completely secular view of America. I bought it for my Kindle and if it is any good will post a review. What brought this up was a posting about the book by Collin Hansen over at the Gospel Coalition: The Poor, No Longer Among Us. Collin talks a bit about the book and then asks what it should tell us as the church...
Why It Matters: If you've ever wondered why church planters tend to target upper-middle-class suburban and urban territory, now you know why. This is where they're most likely to find willing churchgoers, whether new converts or established Christians looking for a place to worship and raise up their children. We've long assumed that areas of the country where many reject traditional Christian teaching on sexual morality, for example, pose the strongest challenge to church growth. But consider where you find many of the most vibrant, influential churches with predominantly white or Asian members. You'll find them today in the hipster districts, the city centers, the wealthy suburbs---places that tend to vote Democratic in presidential elections in part due to their mistrust of the Religious Right. Meanwhile, the areas we regard as bastions of religious conservatism struggle with high incidents of family breakup and economic distress.
A couple of points on that....

One, it is interesting that "church planting" tends to take place where there are already Christians, presumably Christians who are already part of a church. That begs the question. Is the modern "church planting" movement a disciple-making movement? Not really. Shuffling Christians around into different local churches is not disciple making, it is simply catering to the preferences of existing Christians by offering them something "better" than what they already have. I get that from a pragmatic standpoint. If you depend on the church for your living, it is far more secure to plant a church in a location with a ready supply of existing Christians who will "tithe" right away. That brings me to my second point....

The second point is that I would agree that church plants tend to be planted in middle to upper middle class affluent communities and for "good" reason. To again paraphrase Willie Sutton "that is where the money is". Starting a "church" can be an expensive proposition, at least as we understand "church". You might start in a school or other rental location and your minister may be paid by the sending organization initially but it is the expectation that in short order the church will "grow up" and get its own building and start "supporting" their minister (i.e. paying him). Starting and running a self-perpetuating organization, like starting a new business, requires a lot of capital and just like a business you don't look for capital and investors among people who rely on food stamps and working minimum wage jobs, you go to the venture capitalists. In the church the venture capitalists are affluent, engaged Christians who can be counted on for a check in the plate each week. The financial constraints of church finance seem to have a big impact on the location of the church plants, which may explain why churches keep getting planted in the same zip codes over and over.

Third, what does it say about our traditional form of church that it seems, at least in America, to appeal mostly to upper and middle-class people? I can see planting a church that will "succeed" in most affluent suburbs. Now a similar plant in a lower income area? Not as much. It certainly is not that upper class folks are more moral or more likely to be Christians. Sure there were some affluent and highly educated individuals who followed Jesus  but they are overwhelmed in comparison to the poor, the ignorant, the outcasts who followed Him. What has gone awry that people who allegedly follow a Man who came to "proclaim good news to the poor...liberty to the captives...sight to the blind...liberty those who are oppressed" (Luke 4:18) tend to be just the opposite: the wealthy, the free, the healthy?

This should make you pause, if you haven't already, and really wonder where our focus is. What do we think we are doing? In our quest to make good Christians into great Christians and congregate among people who look and think and act like us, have we lost a large chunk of our audience? Are we willing to abandon large populations of the world to the cults and the culture? Mormon missionaries are in trailer parks. Jehovah's Witnesses are in lower income areas. Liquor stores and pawn shops are on every corner. Where are the Christians? Why do we think we can get away with hiding in our suburban enclaves with our fancy buildings and our Sunday best, often while scolding and sneering at the poor for being lazy?

There is something really, really wrong here.


Bean said...

Part of the problem is that the poor simply are not accepted in a lot of church communities. Fortunately this is not true of all church communities some do an amazing job of TRULY welcoming all and ministering to all.
Poor people generally feel intimidated in a large congregation of mainly middle class Americans, because they have difficulty fitting in. It is unlikely that middle class mom will allow her child to go play or visit with poor moms child because their home is in an undesirable neighborhood. The low income person may feel intimidated because they do not have higher education, they work a menial job, they dress differently, and the middle class person will be polite but will always want to make sure that the poor person is aware that they are not alike.
Not to mention that in low income neighborhoods there is much family breakdown, people move in and out all of the time, and many put their faith in the government to take care them. And when life is chaotic and stressful, and work hours are odd, it becomes difficult to attend a regular worship service even if the heart is willing.
Middle class people go to church for one of two reasons, some because they are christian and they live their faith and enjoy Sunday worship, but many go because it is what they think they should be doing and they enjoy the social aspects and a bit of entertainment.
And, lets be honest, if you were to plant a church wouldn't you want to choose the optimum location in the hopes that your future parishioners will be able to support the church, your family in the manner you desire. Sadly, planting a church is perhaps a bit like determining the best location for a fast food restaurant - What is the population? What is the average income? What is my direct competition?

Arthur Sido said...


Those are great comments, especially this one:

Middle class people go to church for one of two reasons, some because they are christian and they live their faith and enjoy Sunday worship, but many go because it is what they think they should be doing and they enjoy the social aspects and a bit of entertainment.

I think it is without question that many faithful churchgoers are "going to church" for lots of reasons other than worshipping the one true and living God. Maybe if the chuch was less appealing to middle class culture it would be more welcoming for the poor?

Bean said...

You state, "maybe if the chuch was less appealing to middle class culture it would be more welcoming for the poor?" I don't know, it is a hard question to answer. Ideally the church community needs to be welcoming to all and not see one parishioner as better or worse than another.