Who the Unchurched Really Are

Most evangelism programs, church growth tactics, and other attempts to reach the “unchurched” concentrate on Millennials, young urbanites, college types, and the suburban middle class.  But, as Robert Putnam reminds us, the demographic that is the most unchurched is the working class, the lower income non-college-educated folks.  A big segment of these blue-collar workers has just stopped going to church.  They are also, with the personal and family problems that Putnam documents, arguably, most in need of ministry.  This is ironic, since the working class used to be the biggest supporters of conservative Christianity.  And yet, I’m unaware of any concerted effort to reach them, other than individual pastors in these communities doing what they can.I’m as middle class as they come, but I have a lot of affinity with these folks, having grown up in rural Oklahoma and working on jobs that for me were temporary ways of paying for school but for them were their permanent livelihoods.  They are typically good-natured, hard-working, and admirable in many ways.  But I can see in my old friends–more accurately, the adult children of those friends–the break-down that Putnam documents.

So many young men and women in this slice of the culture are just not getting married, showing no interest in it, being content to live together in serial relationships.  The men are fathering children, but have little to do with them.  The women choose to have children without bothering with a husband, but then they have to work multiple jobs to provide for them while often leaving them more or less on their own.

The individuals often derided as “red necks,” listen to country music rather than rap, metal, or other art forms criticized for their baleful influence.  They never went to college to learn from a left wing professor about postmodernism and how morality is culturally relative.  But they are as postmodernist and relativist as they can be.  They are, arguably, casualties of contemporary thought, living out its consequences, but without the social capital that college graduates have that allows them to live a stable life despite their ideology.

Working class young adults are the farthest removed from the hippies of the ’60s, but lots of them in small town America smoke weed and are addicted to crystal meth.

This demographic is often conservative politically, but if they bother to vote they will do so for Hillary Clinton, since they see Bill as one of their own and his administration was the last time they were financially ahead.

They are often religious.  I pity the new atheist who would hold forth in a red neck bar.   But they tend not to go to church.

My sense is that these souls are imminently reachable.  A generation or two ago, they were bulwarks of conservative Christianity, both Roman Catholics in the cities and fundamentalists in the country.  They tend to hold a non-reflective  “good-people-go-to-Heaven-and-bad-people-go-to-Hell” theology, but, sinners that they are–and they tend to know they are sinners–they can be receptive to the Gospel.   They need teaching and discipleship.  They need pastoral care.  They need to be accepted as part of a spiritual community.

Can it be that American Christianity, with roots in this culture, has become so prosperous and middle class that it would rather not deal with people from this social class?  I’m sure that one could have a more interesting theological discussion with a young college graduate than with the young man who fixes your car.   Ministering to cool people allows indulging one’s own inner bohemian, and hanging out at coffee shops and film festivals is more pleasant for most church workers than going inside a run-down honky tonk.  Research indicates that after middle class young adults just starting out go through their cool phase and get married and have kids (which most of them will), they will start going back to church.  But the mechanics and construction workers and factory hands who go to the honky tonks probably won’t.

Certainly, we need to proclaim the Gospel to everyone, and I don’t want to downplay the importance of evangelizing millennials, urbanites, college students, and everyone else.  But doesn’t the church need to give some attention to the main demographic where the unchurched are?

Furthermore, what Putnam says and what I’ve just said, doesn’t apply to all working-class people. Many have built loving marriages and are good parents. They have resisted the pathologies that Putnam documents. That they have done so against so many odds and at the cost of great struggle makes them even more admirable.

Many still are strong Christians and church members. In fact, I would say that most of our churches in the boarded-up small towns of mid-America and in the rust-belt cities still have them as their faithful backbone. That such churches are often struggling is a testimony that they are on the front lines of American Christianity. They and the pastors that serve them deserve more credit and more support.

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