Is the Church No Longer a Refuge for Struggling People?


(OPINION) If you, like me, think faith in God and religious affiliation are generally good things for people, then you, like me, ought to feel unsettled by the findings of political scientist Ryan Burge.

He argues that religious participation in the United States is now largely the domain of the educated and comfortable, rather than a buttress for those on the margins of society, who historically were the core audience for Christianity.

“Religion in 21st century America has become an enclave for people who have done everything ‘right,’” he wrote in a recent piece on “They have college degrees and marriages and children and middle-class incomes. For those who don’t check all those boxes, religion is just not for them.”

This trend has implications not only for churches, but for the country itself, Burge argues.

A professor at Eastern Illinois University and also a pastor in the American Baptist Church — the northern, progressive branch of Baptists — he’s among the more insightful thinkers about spirituality right now.

(Disclaimer: My columns also are carried by Religion Unplugged, but I’ve never met Burge.)

Consider these findings, based on Burge’s analysis of 15 years’ worth of the Cooperative Election Study, which has a sample size of roughly 60,000 people per year, and at the Nationscape survey, with 477,000 respondents:

  • People with higher levels of education are less likely to identify as atheist, agnostic or nothing in particular. The people most likely to be nonreligious are those who didn’t finish high school. As their education increases, so does people’s rate of religious affiliation. Those with master’s degrees have the highest level of affiliation. 

  • There’s a correlation with income. The Americans likeliest to attend religious services regularly are middle-class professionals with college degrees who make $60,000 to $100,000 a year. 

  • Married people are significantly more likely to be involved in a church than those who are divorced, separated or never married. Among 40-year-old married people, nearly 30% attend services weekly. For those who are separated, divorced or never married, it’s half that. 

Of course those married 40-year-olds are likelier to have young children whom they may want to provide with religious instruction, so having kids at home accounts for a lot of the discrepancy. But a gap in church involvement between married and unmarried people continues all the way into Americans’ retirement years.

“Marriage leads to much higher levels of religiosity — at any age,” Burge says.

  • Although Burge doesn’t say so, marriage is also significantly more common among those with middle and upper incomes — suggesting that those churchgoing married folks in the above item tend to be more affluent than the unmarried folks who don’t attend.

My experience bears out what Burge’s numbers show. 

I hail from generations of working-class Kentuckians, people who sometimes lived on the margins. As a pastor, I’ve led and ministered to people of every imaginable background.

I’ve seen up close the shifts Burge is talking about. Decades ago, church often seemed to serve as a refuge for people who were struggling in life. Not anymore. Now they avoid religion.

I’ve asked a great many of these non-churchgoers — not pressuring anyone, mind you, just curious — why they don’t go to church.

The answers are numerous: Their jobs require odd hours and unpredictable shift work, making attendance difficult. They think churches only want their money and don’t have any to spare. They’re caught in despair, depression or addiction and don’t believe religion can help. They’re living in a nontraditional arrangement such as cohabitation or a gay or polyamorous relationship and think Christians will condemn them. They can’t afford “church clothes” (although most churches today accept any attire).

It’s hard to tell sometimes what’s a genuine reason and what’s a convenient excuse. But they plainly don’t want to go to church. That is their right, obviously — it’s a free country. I don’t pressure anybody. Or judge. 

Burge thinks there are serious implications in this trend.

“This is also troublesome for American democracy,” he writes. “Religion, at its best, is a place where people from a variety of economic, social, racial and political backgrounds can find common ground around a shared faith. It’s a place to build bridges to folks who are different than you. Unfortunately, it looks like American religion is not at its best. 

“Instead, it’s become a hospital for the healthy, an echo chamber for folks who did everything ‘right,’ which means that it’s seeming less and less inviting to those who did life another way.”

I can’t help thinking that somewhere along the line Christians have failed those who are having the toughest time. And while I think they’d be better off in church, it’s equally true that those of us who are in church would be better off if they joined us. We need fresh eyes.

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