Why the Decline of the Middle Class is Tied to the Decline of the Church in America


by Dave Albertson

The church is a bourgeois institution. And not just in our times — it’s always been this way.


From the very beginning, Christian communities were composed of urban dwellers of the middle class. Saint Paul’s travels were focused on cities that had established synagogues and vibrant marketplaces. He engaged the intellectual establishment, praised those who patronized the early movement, and described his work in Rome as a fundraising trip for the poor church in Jerusalem (Romans 15:22-29).

Later, as Peter Brown has shown, Constantine established the clergy in the middle class and gave them the benefits of the elite. Most of the Church Fathers threw in their support. Saint Augustine urged that managing wealth and using it to build and maintain the church was of more spiritual value than vows of poverty.

And while the Protestant Reformation was a critique of ecclesiastical fundraising, it was not a working class movement. Luther’s view of the two kingdoms — church and state being God’s left and right hands — is thoroughly bourgeois. Luther and the peasants had a pretty awful relationship, which ended in a bloody uprising, the victory of the ruling class, and Luther siding firmly with the establishment.

In America, church has always been a free market commodity primarily oriented toward the middle class. In class conflicts, the church has generally sided with management. Church congregants have not been working poor, but rather business owners and managers. Even the noble response of the initial social justice movement of a century ago was bourgeois. Its purpose was not to find solidarity with the poor, but to lend a hand to the poor to hoist them into the middle class.

Today, church planters target bourgeois zip codes and church stewardship and fundraising professionals utilize planned giving and endowments. Modern church facilities mirror other middle class establishments: coffee shops, restaurants, theaters, and college campuses. My favorite example of this is a video called What if Starbucks Marketed like the Church? Its chief complaint is that the church is dated and not bourgeois enough to attract intelligent consumers.

The church is, and always has been, a bourgeois institution.

It is no surprise, then, that the long decay of the church over the past generation coincides perfectly with the long decay of the middle class.

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