The Gospel According to the Joneses: Christianity and the Middle Class

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.

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7 thoughts on “The Gospel According to the Joneses: Christianity and the Middle Class

  1. Michael,

    Right on the spot, of course.
    A major consumer problem within the church over the last fifty years is also the proliferation of special interest groups within the local congregation. For example, did “youth group” exist before the 50’s? And what has this really done for the church other than train people from an early age to think that church is supposed to cater our needs rather than about us serving God. All the while ensuring that walls are built even within the faith community based on age and other demographics.

    And your last point also points to the danger of following Jesus as simply a matter of folowing the right morals, which BTW, as many churches have taught over the last fifty years, seem to exactly support the middle class American lifestyle, oddly enough…

    Thanks for the thoughts.

    Randy

  2. Excellent post. This is a subject that bugs the hell out of me and mostly because of my own personal experience with 20th century America’s idea of “church.” I’ve not been able to fully articulate the theoretical reasons and problems as well as you have, but, anecdotally, it seems so antithetical to what the gospels teach.

    For example, I grew up going to a very old church from a very conservative protestant denomination. When the church was founded in the mid-1800’s, it was in a rural community outside Charlotte. It currently sits next to the new light rail transit system in a lower-income area of town that’s often referred to as “Little Mexico.” As a kid, I used to pass pawn shops and nudie bars on the way to church.

    The baffling thing is that the church was lily white, with the exception of one Hispanic family, and solidly middle class. The church had a strong missions outreach program; however, it always focused on international evangelism. Whenever the leadership undertook the issue of local evangelism (e.g., in the church’s neighborhood), it fizzled and burned because, to be honest (and people were honest), no one was comfortable reaching out to the community.

    And what support this church could’ve offered to the community! What a church community could have been built in that way. It would have changed the profile of the church and would have made it both more racially and economically diverse, but it would have been a really amazing thing to see. As it was, the church remained pretty insular, and though it has remained viable, it has since fizzled to a tiny, withering congregation.

    That, to me, is a perfect picture of what the middle-class-ization of the American church has done.

  3. Mike, this is an interesting post. I agree that we need to be challenged in the area of consumerism and reaching out to the poor. I have a couple thoughts.

    1) I’m not sure that American Christianity is the realm of the middle class. We do tend to segregate ourselves by income level, however. You and I are both middle class people, so we grew up in a middle-class Christian environment. There are other churches, though, that primarily serve the poor. This division is not simply the result of middle class people refusing to associate with the poor; people from every walk of life are most comfortable with associating with others who are like them. Obviously, the Gospel should challenge us to go beyond this.

    2) Things like alcoholism, drug abuse, and family brokenness cause a lot of poverty, not only here but in every culture. The Gospel discourages these lifestyle choices and, we believe, provides power to overcome them. Furthermore, discipline and hard work are an important part of Christian ethics. If Christianity truly transforms lives, one would expect there to be less poverty among Christians than non-Christians. Of course, the Gospel radically challenges us to give ourselves away, and we are not perfectly living that out. However, that is only part of the equation.

  4. Hi Dan. I think you’re right that American Christianity is not the realm of the middle-class, at least not exclusively. There are plenty of churches, as you say, that serve the poor in urban and rural areas. Perhaps a better way of posing the question would be, “How did American Christianity gain the reputation of being a middle class religion?”

    Also, if you haven’t already, check out the comments this note received on my facebook profile. My InterVarsity colleague, Harry Lew, has some very helpful insights.

  5. I do think it’s fair to say that “Christian culture” or the commodity of Christianity (the books, music, conferences, Jesus fish, etc.) is pretty safely entrenched in the middle class. And perhaps that’s perfectly natural, since that’s what the bourgeoisie (particularly the bourgeoisie in America, where capitalism is its own god) tend to do to things: commodify them.

    I also think it’s interesting that discipline and hard work, at least as conceptualized by our society, is considered an essential part of Christian ethics. I would argue that it’s more an essential aspect of our protestant Christian culture and not intrinsically “Christian” per se. Not that I think Christ was against hard work and discipline, but I think he is pretty clear that working hard simply to make money is antithetical to his message. Additionally, it seems to me that claiming that Christianity would not, based on its emphasis on hard work and discipline (and, in effect, making money), contain much poverty among its members is an unfortunate reiteration of the American dream mythology and firmly entrenched in an American middle class ethos.

    Christianity (as distinct from “Christian culture”) makes room for all kinds of people, rich and poor. To imply that the state of “being poor” is inconsistent with Christian ethics is I feel a gross marginalization of those Christians living in poverty. Certainly, there are lifestyle choices that can lead to poverty; however, there are plenty of people who have not made those life choices and are still poor.

    This idea that poverty and Christianity are mutually exclusive is pretty pervasive in the middle class churches I’ve attended and also in American Christian culture, and I think it’s just another reason why Christianity in our country appears to be the realm of the middle class and why the commodity culture that accompanies it is most certainly the realm of the midle class.

  6. Not an easy topic to fully grasp. It’s the same in the UK as well. The white Middle class, Christian or not, seem rather uncomfortable dealing with poverty in the UK, the foodbanks, the growing economic divisions, the destruction of workers rights, the exploitation of the Working class be they black, white, Polish or immigrants from here and there, so there interest lies in poverty in dusty faraway places. As for the organised Christian church like the Church of England, not to be too blunt but it is horrendously Middle class, White, Suburban and at worst just the ‘spiritual’ arm of the establishment. Bishops sit in the House Of Lords! How establishment is that?

    For aspiring types like me, from very Working class backgrounds, the CofE particularly seems just another bastion of the Middle class like politics, the media, the banking industry which is filled with polished well spoken types who look to the elite above them and keep their distance from those perceive to be beneath them. In the world this is to be accepted, in the realm of Christianity it is most certainly not. But, sadly, the organised church here is just a reflection of worldly and acceptable Middle class values, and sometimes not much more. I know this is different from the US experience, but the result seems to be the same, a church and religion for and about white, affluent, Middle class people who are being religious far more than they are living the Gospel call of Jesus. Middle class values are seen as concomitant with Christian values and they are not!!! The Middle class turn everything into a commodity, something to be bought and sold and placed safely in an acceptable package that doesn’t challenge their very entrenched prejudices of all kinds. That isn’t Christianity, it is religion.

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