Of the many myths about church attendance in the United States, one of the most enduring is that “educated people are too smart to go to church.” Our system of education, which has been so effectively secularized, is not expected to create committed Christians, and people who are educated, in turn, are not expected to commit to a life of faith. The late atheist Christopher Hitchens maintained, “If religious instruction were not allowed until the child had attained the age of reason we would be living in a quite different world.”
You might think, then, that the majority of American churches would be filled with people who have barely attained a High School diploma, probably aging white Trump voters. In fact, while church attendance rates have dropped slightly across the board, the decline has been much more pronounced among poor and uneducated Americans. Additionally, data from the Pew Research Center shows that although highly-educated people in general tend to be less religious, highly-educated Christians are more likely to pray regularly, attend religious services weekly, and have “overall high religious commitment” than their less-educated peers. This is in contrast with other religious groups, such as Jews and Muslims, in which more educated adherents were overall less religiously committed.
So over the past few decades, as many poor and uneducated Americans have left the church, the institution has become wealthier and more educated, relative to the American population as a whole, than it once was. And among Christians today, highly-educated people, far from being on the verge of abandoning the church, are among the most active congregants.
But why? Why has the church been hollowed out? Why doesn’t it hold the appeal it once did for the poor and uneducated? Emma Green, writing in The Atlantic, postulates that “high-school-educated Christians [may] feel less able to find and connect with a religious community in a broader context of financial strain, family stress, and geographic isolation.”
This is probably true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t explain why high-school-educated Christians would be less involved with their faith compared with Muslims and Jews at the same education level. There has to be more to the story. This short post can’t possibly deal with all the factors at play, but here’s a particularly uncomfortable one for Christians to talk about:
The church in America has in part given way to a social club that maintains the apparatus of Christianity while providing different social classes, from the lower middle class on up, respectability and community. This respectability and community sometimes comes at the cost of exclusion of the poor and less-educated.
Although the true church of Christ is meant to be a home for the rich and the poor (“The rich and the poor meet together; the LORD is the Maker of them all.” Prov. 22:2), this has not always truly been the case.
Part of the tension here is that “The Church” as we normally speak of it is really two things: it is on the one hand the invisible body of Christ (Eph. 5:23), faithful men and women chosen by God from the beginning of Creation. On the other hand it is the earthly, visible manifestation of Christ’s body, which includes Christ’s elect, but also a multitude of “fellow travelers,” who have not, or not yet, become true servants of Christ. The Westminster Confession of Faith puts it this way: “On this account the church is compared to a floor, in which there is not only wheat but also chaff” (cf. Matt. 3:12). Jesus in Matthew 25:32-33 calls the distinction one between sheep and goats.
So the church is just a visible appurtenance of an invisible truth, but at the same time also the home of all who call upon the Lord. To complicate things further, the “sheep,” that is to say, Christ’s elect, often wander into foolishness. In this duality it is possible for the church to be a vibrant home for the educated, while failing to meet the needs of the destitute.
The facts are undisputed, but don’t lend themselves readily to any single conclusion: Between 1971 and 2011, church attendance among white high school dropouts (who tend to be in lower income strata) dropped from 38 to 21 percent, according to the paper referenced above, published by sociologists from the University of Virginia and Johns Hopkins University. In the same period, church attendance among educated whites dropped only a little, from 50 to 46 percent.
Something is happening in the church that is driving away the poor and uneducated, and something else (or maybe the same thing) is keeping affluent and educated people within its fold. It would be hard to overestimate the complexity of sociological analysis you would need to figure out why certain groups have stopped going to church, not that researchers have stopped trying. But the question at the center of everything is this: how do Christians engage the poor and uneducated, people Christ called blessed, while maintaining the heady intellectual faith and culture that is present in so many American churches (perhaps more than we sometimes realize)? For now, recognizing that there is a problem is the first step toward finding a solution.