As the holidays come around, with them comes a particular generosity and care that’s often expressed through charity initiatives. For the next month, this spirit will give rise to toy collections, food poundings, and coat drives. A lot of local churches will act as points of access and distribution.
But what if what the poor need something more from Christian communities? What if the gift that churches can uniquely offer them is a place to worship and belong?
One of the most discussed religion stories of the past decade is the rise of the “nones,” or those who don’t affiliate with a specific religious community. Today, that number stands at 29 percent of the American populace, up 10 percentage points in as many years. Pew Research predicts that if current trends hold, nones will be a majority by 2070.
But the data reveals an even more startling picture among the poor and working class. According to Ryan Burge, author of The Nones: Where They Came From, Who They Are, and Where They Are Going, 60 percent of nones make less than $50,000 a year, while only 21 percent have a college degree.
In a word, church affiliation is increasingly the purview of the educated professional classes.
To some, this data might suggest a correlation between religious commitment and the kinds of choices that lead to wealth, based on the theory that faith and local church attendance bring about social success. Others may note that marriage correlates with socioeconomic status, and that adult children of continuously married families are 78 percent more likely to attend church than those from divorced, never-married, or widowed homes. Perhaps those who commit to spouses also end up in more stable places in society.
My experience in working class congregations suggests another, more pressing reality: Too often, structural hurdles prevent the poor from meaningfully integrating into religious communities. The most vulnerable people are put at further risk when they’re shut off from the benefits of stable fellowship.
Scheduling is one of the hurdles that keeps the poor out of the pews, since traditional church worship calendars often align with the professional class. Gathered worship takes place mostly on Sunday mornings, with other events on evenings and weekends. But the poor and working class often have erratic schedules that change without much notice.
Even those with more stable, structured schedules might find themselves on night shift, working while others sleep and sleeping while others worship. Given the habitual and ritualistic nature of church community, those who aren’t able to attend gatherings are significantly hampered in their ability to meaningfully integrate.
The end of “blue laws” is also a factor. Once widespread, these regulations limited commercial transactions and other activities on Sunday. While rooted in Christian religious practice, the laws also served a common need for rest, if only because they checked employers’ ability to demand workers’ time on Sunday. This was especially significant for those in service industry.
Restaurants and stores that are open on Sunday must be staffed on Sunday—a weight that falls disproportionately on those at the bottom of the market ladder. So while the professional class can opt to attend worship and then grab lunch at a restaurant afterward, the service class has less control over whether they can choose to work. The unavoidable reality is that one person’s need to be served on Sunday means another person will face challenges to worshiping.
But hurdles for the poor go beyond work schedules to family and household structure. Compared to their professional-class counterparts, the poor and working class experience much lower rates of marriage and much higher rates of divorce, along with higher rates of children born out of wedlock. The result: eclectic households that include extended kin networks, chosen family, and a revolving set of romantic partners and their children.
Insofar as poor and working-class households don’t map onto the nuclear family structure, it can be difficult for them to integrate into church community. This isn’t to suggest that churches change their ethical teaching on marriage or family formation, but it does mean that if having an intact home is a prerequisite for meaningful involvement, those outside the norm will get stuck on the margins.