As cycles of unemployment, poverty and death have set in on many working class communities across America, are churches overlooking their responsibilities to help alleviate the pain and suffering of plighted working class families?
Although manufacturing jobs once provided the economic stability needed to make life worthwhile in many small, rural and working class towns located far outside the reach of cities and suburbs, the American industrial job market's decline over the last few decades has left many of these communities to face serious problems with unemployment, drug abuse, and alcoholism that foster a cycle of poor decisions that undermine potential economic mobility.
Dr. Kevin Shrum, who pastors at Inglewood Baptist Church in Nashville, Tennessee, and is also a professor of religious studies at Union University, Henderson, told The Christian Post that there is a "challenge" when it comes to churches "abandoning" the actual residents that make up their neighborhoods today.
He explained that despite the fact that the economic makeup of communities may have shifted in the last few decades, many churches are still acting as if their communities have not changed and are not using time and resources to minister to their impoverished and vulnerable lower class neighbors.
"I think there is a challenge in churches abandoning transitional neighborhoods. A transitional neighborhood can mean either a transition up or a transition down," Shrum, a CP op-ed contributor, said. "A lot of times, churches that are already established in those areas have a difficult time transitioning themselves. Many times, I think that is what causes churches to either fail or die or move."
Shrum explained that churches should be looking for a transition in their methodology to match that of the needs of their neighborhood.
"A lot of times when a church was planted, it was planted in a certain cultural milieu and then that changes but the church continues to act as if the neighborhood is still the same. Therefore, the church is still the same. That doesn't work," Shrum contended. "[Churches need to] come to terms with the actual reality of their neighborhood. A lot of times in churches, we get into a cocoon. We are not even aware of what is going in our community."
Shrum stressed that churches should be less concerned about the "imaginary" people they want to attend their church and more focused on the people in their communities suffering from a level of financial stress that distracts them from "spiritual concerns."
"I think that part of the beginning is to come to terms with your eyes wide open of what is my community, who are the people in this community. They might be rich, they might be poor, they might be on drugs; it's the same principal," Shrum continued. "Let that be a part of the drive of how you take part of the gospel and then meet the people, meet the actual people, not the imaginary people that you would like to be there, but the actual people in your neighborhood."
Shrum argued that many churches and pastors in struggling communities focus too much on what celebrity megachurch pastors are doing in their churches. He stressed that many models used by celebrity pastors can not be transplanted to other communities.
"That's why a lot of pastors of the average church walk around with just an attitude of failure. You go to conferences, it is all the celebrity pastors. They read the books, it's all the celebrity pastors," Shrum said. "There is not much material for transitional neighborhoods or re-plants, restarts, revitalization."
Dr. Anthony Bradley, an author and the chair of the religious and theological studies program at The King's College in New York City, told CP that the problem isn't so much that churches are leaving their rural working class communities but rather that many of the brightest minds from these communities often choose to leave for economic opportunity in cities and never bring the resources back to their hometowns.
Additionally, Bradley explained that many who stay in those struggling communities tend to "get trapped" in the ongoing cultural patterns and systems and norms.
"They actually remain tied to the same sorts of norms that continued to undermine a lot of economic and social mobility," Bradley said. "Some of these patterns include the same sorts of things that you see in low income urban environment."
"[The unemployed] often find themselves involved in abusing drugs, having children outside of the context of marriage, not getting married at all, dropping out of high school," he added.
Bradley pointed out that the working class communities in these small rural towns, consisting mostly of lower class whites, are often overlooked when it comes to church and missionary efforts to revitalize impoverished communities.
Bradley explained that most upper and middle class white Christian leaders who live comfortably in suburbs tend to be more focused on helping lower class African Americans and hispanics who live in inner city neighborhoods within driving distance from their homes.
Black and Hispanic inner city neighborhoods appeal to churches because they believe that it will allow them to help solve issues of race, justice and poverty all at the same time, Bradley stated.
Bradley added that most Christian leaders are also not willing to sacrifice the convenience of ministering in a city neighborhood located about 25 to 30 minutes from their home for a small town that is hours away.
"You can't do that when addressing issues of lower class white poverty because those communities primarily live in rural areas and very small towns across America and the proximity means that if you actually care about those sorts of people, you actually have to relocate," Bradley said. "That is a tradeoff that I think a lot of church leaders and those interested in justice don't really want to make."
Bradley also asserted that many churches have "adopted the mass media image of poverty as black."
"What happens is that a lot of churches don't really pursue poverty to the actual data," Bradley explained. "If you look at the data about who is actually lives below the poverty line in this country, invariably, that population is primarily white. Because we are more influenced by the mass media in terms of our definition of what it means to be poor instead of the actual data about who is poor, we naturally gravitated to inner cities."
Bradley stated that the plight of lower class white communities can go overlooked because of a societal disdain and resentment toward lower class whites.
"It seems that this cultural appropriation of contempt toward lower class whites that has been around for hundreds of years within the context of orthodox Protestant Christianity in America has actually never gone away and never been properly challenged," Bradley explained. "Even within the context of upper and middle class, poor whites are the only group you can get away with in calling 'rednecks,' 'trash,' and 'hoosiers.' But, you would never get away with showing contempt for lower class blacks or Hispanics. That's bad."