A friend on Facebook linked to an article in First Things by Mark Regnerus. Regnerus is an interesting fellow. He is a sociologist at the University of Texas and has been at the center of some controversy in recent years over a study he released on gay parenting that did not put same sex families in a positive light. Knowing that, I was a little hesitant to share this article because so many will dismiss this article at first read because of who wrote it.
I disagree with Regnerus, but his article on diversity in mainline churches did hit at something I’ve been thinking about. If you can read past the triumphalism of the post, he shares that for all the talk within mainline churches about diversity, there just isn’t that much to be found vis-a-vis Pentecostal or Catholic churches:
There’s a mainline congregation I walk past on my way to the local Starbucks. The church’s advertising signals a key priority: “We value our inclusivity—whether you are young, old, gay, straight, single, married, partnered, all walks of life and all backgrounds and cultures—we welcome you!”
In a world where our devices, apps, and sites foster narrow social circles based exactly on such categories, it’s refreshing to know that Christian congregations are mindful of their call to reach the spectrum of souls.
But it’s not happening, at least not within the mainline. Data from the 2014 Relationships in America survey reveal that mainline churches are anything but diverse. They’re whiter (84 vs. 64 percent), older (43 vs. 28 percent are ages 50-60), more apt to be married (49 vs. 43 percent), have a college degree (52 vs. 31 percent) and are “straighter” (91 vs. 88 percent heterosexual) than the national population. Have you met an Episcopalian plumber? If you ever do, remember it, because it won’t happen twice.
By contrast, 54 percent of American Catholics are white, and 39 percent Latino. Pentecostals are a shred under 60 percent white, with an additional 23 percent African American and 14 percent Latino. Even evangelicals are less white—at 76 percent overall. And Pentecostalism and Catholicism, by comparison with the mainline, are veritable youth movements (26 percent each vs. 16 percent between ages 18–32). Evangelicals even more so—at 30 percent. Only 28 percent of American Catholics have a college degree, slightly below the national average.
I think there is truth to be found here. I’ve heard more than enough stories about mainline clergy who are persons of color and how they are treated. I know some of the hidden racism I’ve faced over the years from people supposedly committed to social justice. There are problems within other sectors of American Christianity, but mainline congregations have never seemed to me to be naturally diverse in a way that I’ve seen in Catholic or some evangelical communities. We are good at talking about race and racial injustice, but I think we aren’t that good when it comes to living it.
To add to that, Regnerus’ joke about Episcopal plumbers shows another embarassing truth about most, but not all of the mainline: there are almost no working class folk in the pews. I’ve noticed over the years that a lot of the mainline congregations in my hometown of Flint, Michigan as well as here in Minnesota that are closed tended to be less middle to upper middle class and more working to middle class. When I think of some of the strongest mainline churches, they tend to be large urban congregations that again have few working class people. Regnerus’ quip about rich and poor Catholics taking communion together is very true. My years attending Catholic schools and having many Catholic friends have shown me congregations where doctors and carpenters worship together. My Catholic high school in Michigan had a mix of people from various economic classes. Maybe that’s because I came from a working class town where General Motors had a big influence, but I don’t think I’m far off.
In contrast most of the mainline churches I’ve been involved in tended to be folks that were professionals of some sort. Nurses, teachers, middle management folk are what make up some of the Disciple, Presbyterian and UCC churches.
Three years ago I wrote about the fact that the white working class are few and far between in mainline churches. I wrote in 2012:
The thing is, I don’t think the people who make up most mainline churches, who tend to be from a more professional background don’t like these folks very much. I know this, because I hear how pastors talk about working class whites in meetings with other pastors, and I can tell you they aren’t looking at them as some kind of salt of the earth figure. I’ve also heard it from people in the pews of mainline churches as well: this kind of contempt for them.We look down at them because we see them as racist, homophobic, sexist and any other -ist and -ism that you can think of them. The thing is that working class whites can be all these things, but they are more than that as well. As Packer notes in his essay, these are people who see very little hope and take it out on everyone for their lot in life.When we talk about planting new churches to reach young adults, we mostly mean reaching people of the same socio-economic class that we are a part of. As much as we want to talk about caring about the poor and the workers, I sometimes wonder how accepting we are of those that actually fit this description. How willing would folks be to accepting a man or woman that you can tell has lived a hard life and whose moral life is kind of a mess?My own opinion is that the mainline church has a class issue and we don’t know it or at least don’t want to acknowledge it. A good number of the mainline churches I know exhibit the values of the middle and upper middle classes. We don’t have any way to connect culturally with the working class.