I am a fan of Dr. Robert Wuthnow, the Gerhard R. Andlinger Professor of Sociology at Princeton University. His scholarly expertise is the sociology of religion and he has written more than 30 books. I stumbled upon one of his earlier books, The Crisis in the Churches: Spiritual Malaise, Fiscal Woe (Oxford University Press, New York, NY, 1997), and decided to read it given the steady decline in North American Christianity. Wuthnow writes clearly and dives deeply using both sociological and theological research. He is open and direct, something that appeals to my science and business background.
Written over 20 years ago, Wuthnow’s preface articulates the problem: “the churches are in crisis because they have not understood the middle class and have not focused effectively on meeting its needs.”(p. vii) His statement hit me like an oncoming 18-wheeler! What does the middle-class have to do with declining church memberships? “For all its interest in the poor, the church in the United States is overwhelmingly a ministry to the middle class.”(p. 6) Five of six churches in the United States are middle-class churches. These churches are located in comfortable middle-class neighborhoods that fund the majority of churches.
With all the media focus on the poor and rich, the United States is predominately middle-class. Their needs must also be served. A balance must be maintained between ministering to the congregation and loving neighbors both near and far. Middle-class families have their set of problems: “pressures of working harder to make ends meet, worries about retaining one’s job, lack of time for one’s self and one’s family, marital strains associated with two-career households, and the incessant demands of advertising and the marketplace.”(p. 6) If middle-class churches do not attend to these middle-class issues, then it is no wonder why church memberships are declining. The church is not relevant to middle-class congregations.
Wuthnow is not against Christ’s call to serve the poor. He is just advocating that middle-class churches need to include ministry to legitimate middle-class concerns. “Instead, it has seemed more ‘Christian’ to provide token assistance to the poor and to pray for the needy who live thousands of miles away.”(p. 6) Political and cultural issues of the day crowd out the daily issues of middle-class parishioners.
Most middle-class church members work in jobs that require the majority of their waking hours. If the church is unwilling to relate spiritually to where one spends the majority of their time, then why spend the extra time going to church? If your time spent in the gym does not make you physically healthier, why pay for the membership and allocate your limited time? If your clergy cannot articulate a theology of faith and work, how will you be able to discuss your issues as a teacher, mechanic or salesperson with your spiritual leader? More on this in Part II.