The Poor, No Longer Among Us

The Story: Political scientist Charles Murray‘s new book Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 marshals mountains of data to argue that the United States is fragmenting along class lines, threatening to undermine the values that have long held together a diverse society. While the wealthiest 20 percent of white Americans enjoy relatively stable if sheltered lives surrounded by like-minded peers, the poorest 30 percent endure fractured family lives in downtrodden communities. Formerly these groups lived in close proximity. Earnings for white collar and blue collar employment did not dramatically diverge. But now their problems seem worlds apart.

The Background: The New York Times columnist David Brooks frequently comments on the cultural and political implications of these long-term trends. Based on American political discourse, where “real America” is often identified with the white lower class that predominates in rural and exurban locales, it might come as a shock to learn that the upper class is now responsible for perpetuating the bourgeois values associated with the 1950s: hard work, stable families, and disciplined children. Brooks writes:

Republicans claim that America is threatened by a decadent cultural elite that corrupts regular Americans, who love God, country, and traditional values. That story is false. The cultural elites live more conservative, traditionalist lives than the cultural masses.

Of course, not everyone seems pleased with Brooks’s plan for a National Service Program that would force the classes to mix.

Why It Matters: If you’ve ever wondered why church planters tend to target upper-middle-class suburban and urban territory, now you know why. This is where they’re most likely to find willing churchgoers, whether new converts or established Christians looking for a place to worship and raise up their children. We’ve long assumed that areas of the country where many reject traditional Christian teaching on sexual morality, for example, pose the strongest challenge to church growth. But consider where you find many of the most vibrant, influential churches with predominantly white or Asian members. You’ll find them today in the hipster districts, the city centers, the wealthy suburbs—places that tend to vote Democratic in presidential elections in part due to their mistrust of the Religious Right. Meanwhile, the areas we regard as bastions of religious conservatism struggle with high incidents of family breakup and economic distress. Brooks explains:

People in the lower tribe are much less likely to get married, less likely to go to church, less likely to be active in their communities, more likely to watch TV excessively, more likely to be obese.

Consider your own church. Is it a place where the classes mix? Have you considered planting a church or even starting a small group somewhere the lower classes predominate? Especially for those of us who may not encounter them in our regular routines, the poor must not be neglected in our prayers or our evangelistic efforts. That process starts with overcoming the misconceptions about the spiritual needs and practices of our neighbors. Don’t be fooled by the political rhetoric. They might vote Republican, but they need Jesus.

  • Steve Cornell

    Reading this made me think of the words:

    “My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?” (James 2:1-5).

  • Arthur Sido


    “If you’ve ever wondered why church planters tend to target upper-middle-class suburban and urban territory, now you know why. This is where they’re most likely to find willing churchgoers, whether new converts or established Christians looking for a place to worship and raise up their children.”

    Is that true or at least the whole story? Is it not at least as pertinent that upper-middle class areas are where the money is and that translates into financial support? For a church planter raising financial support is a crucial factor for “success” so I would daresay that one is more likely to find enough money in the offering plate to financially support a “full-time” church planter once support runs out from the sending organization among the affluent than among the poor.

    If we would get back to the model that Paul lived where our leaders worked for a living and supported themselves by the work of their own hands, we would perhaps seem more likely to see church planters starting works among the poor.

  • Ryan Phelps

    My brain says not to believe you. My gut says otherwise. Thanks, Colin, for having courage enough to post this.

  • Andy

    Definitely true. Another thing people don’t seem to realize is that generally less than half our population actually votes, and those who do tend to be either well-educated or older, leaving a huge class of poorer, younger people who simply don’t fit into our our neat little classes of left and right. Its wrong to make generalizations about the spiritual makeup of an region based on how red or blue the voting. Its wrong for conservatives to assume the rural south is a spirital utopia because its generally conservative republican and its also wrong for liberals to assume Christians are complete hypocrites because the rural south is so full of racism, divorce, and illegitamacy.

  • Hal

    I am a pastor of a church in a middle to lower middle class town in the Northeast. I have often thought of how underserved this type of city is even as there is a revival of interest in the Northeast. The new church planters want to plant churches that will have people like them. Not like them in color, but like them in intelligence, humor, education, sophistication. There is a desire to plant churches among the Bereans (Acts 17:11) rather than the brutish Cretans (Titus 1:12).

    So yes, those churches that are “cool” need to find some people that are “uncool” and intentionally love them long-term. Find an older man who is a retired Sears repairman taking care of his wife with Alzheimers and on the receiving end of elder-abuse. Find the overweight woman with the illegitimate child and mentor her.

    It won’t be as fun as discussing Francis Schaeffer or the Elephant Room but…….

  • Stephen

    Thanks for bringing this up. These trends match what I see every day living in South Florida…an area characterized by extreme wealth and extreme poverty and less and less in between.

  • Randy Nabors

    That is a very good idea, planting churches among the poor and among people that don’t look like you. When did someone ever think up the idea of preaching the Gospel to the poor? I mean think of what they are if they should be called (by God to Christ), not many noble, not many wise, not many of good report, how could God take such material and turn the tables on those who have and assume they are so much? Where do these ideas come from? (I apologize for my sarcasm, and I am thankful for the article).

  • Phillip Fletcher


    Thank you for making TGC aware of this. I have planted a church in a very low income area here in Conway and we have planted a second as of Sept 2011. I must say that the work is difficult but it has been rewarding to have my theology challenged and rethink how the church is to participate in the lives of people.

    The poor have as much to offer as the middle and upper class. I would even press the point that the poor have a greater understanding of God, his sovereignty, prayer and faith than other economic groups.

    I would hope more of us would take a leap and truly take the Gospel to those who are completely different than us.

    Thank you,


  • Maria

    Thanks for your post.

    When I read David Brooks’ column the other day, my immediate thought was that churches can (and should already) be the places where the upper and lower tribes are in relationship.

    (Brooks ends his column with this proposal: “We need a program that would force members of the upper tribe and the lower tribe to live together, if only for a few years. We need a program in which people from both tribes work together to spread out the values, practices and institutions that lead to achievement. If we could jam the tribes together, we’d have a better elite and a better mass.”)

    The point is not to plant churches for the rural poor, but to have churches where the members of the various tribes are shoulder to shoulder in the pews and doing life together. One of my favorite things about my own church in small-town central Florida is the great mix of young and old, haves and have-nots, side by side on our journey to the celestial city. I love how Phillip in the preceding comment suggests that we take the Gospel to someone completely different from us. The wonderful thing about being together in the body of Christ is that we find out we’re not so different after all.

  • Wes Wetherell


    Very helpful and challenging. Much to consider here.