In my last post, my friend, Lindsay (who has a great blog you should check out), left a comment posing a question too big to answer in a simple reply:
How did Christianity in America become the realm of the middle class?
It’s really a strange phenomenon that if one were to make a mental picture an American Christian, they’d likely see a White suburbanite. In most countries, this wouldn’t be the case. For starters, there simply is no middle class in many countries. However, I think it’s also significant that in most countries, especially in countries where the church is growing, Christianity is more frequently associated with the poor.
So why, then, is Christianity in America associated more with the middle class than with the poor? What does a religion whose leader taught “Blessed are the poor in spirit…” have to offer a class of people who are economically more stable and wealthier than the majority of the world? Why would a class of people so obsessed with “keeping up” with fashion, technology and material possessions be so ready to call Lord the one who told one man to sell all the had and give to the poor? I have a number of theories, and I’m guessing the truth lies in a combination of these and other ideas.
1.) America’s heritage and values. Christian values have been woven into the story of America, at least as many people tell it. The first (European) settlers came seeking religious freedom. Our founding fathers designed the law of the land around Christian values. Even early on, people considered America a “Christian nation.” (This is despite all of the very unChristian pieces of our history, like stealing land from natives and participating in the human slave trade, but that’s a whole other blogpost.) Christianity in many ways is considered as American as baseball and apple pie. And who likes baseball or apple pie more than the middle class?
2.) The evangelical church’s evangelism strategy in the 20th century. I’ve become more aware of this as a church planter. For years, the “church planting model” for evangelical churches in America was something like this: 1.) find a new developing suburb. 2.) buy several acres of land there. 3.) build your church. 4.) watch the people come. This is how most evangelical churches grew, particularly the evangelical megachurches, which are almost always located in the suburbs. The problem is that while this was happening, most were completely ignoring the fact that demographics in the neighborhoods of existing churches were changing, especially in the city. Most urban churches, however, continued their ministries as culturally White, middle-to-upper-middle class congregations, despite their surrounding context becoming increasingly less wealthy and less White.
3.) Our consumerism. I’m becoming more and more convinced that this has been the source of much of the church’s problems in the past 50 years. Along with buying land in a growing suburb and building there, church planters in the 20th century (and many still) stressed the importance of finding your churches ‘niche’ ministries. The underlying assumption was that everyone was looking for a church; your church just needed to provide what ‘seekers’ were looking for. This resulted in church buildings that resemble shopping malls and movie theaters, church music that imitated top 40 pop music, and ministries targeted to very specific demographics. This consumerist model of doing church led to divisions among Christianity; most evangelical churches today can be linked to a particular race and economic class. (The consumerist model also led to the church losing it’s appreciation for beauty and shifting its focus more toward cultural imitation as opposed to culture making. But again, a whole other blogpost…)
4.) We’ve watered down the gospel. A friend of mine who used to work for the administration at my alma mater, Grove City College (a college that’s about as Christian middle-class as you can get) once said to me, “Grove City College talks a lot about ‘Christian values,’ but they never talk about Jesus. Jesus is far too radical for Grove City College.” I think this is an absolutely true assessment (at least in terms of the administration and overall culture of the place). The Christian values of the Christian American middle-class are an incomplete, if not at times inaccurate, representation of the teaching of Christ and his first followers.
To sum up, Christianity has become the realm of the middle class mainly because the evangelical church in America has targeted them in the past century. The evangelical focus on church-planting in growing suburbs often left many urban and rural areas neglected. Our focus on the middle-class included ministry models that reinforced already-present class divisions in America, and failed to challenge middle-class Christians with portions of the gospel that challenge middle-class values.