Faith in ‘Back Row America’

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Being “spiritual but not religious” has become an American cliche. Growing evidence suggests, however, that being “spiritual” (having individualistic piety) without being “religious” (connected to a congregation) is not just unbiblical, but it has bad social outcomes too.

I was reminded of this fact while reading Chris Arnade’s remarkable new book, Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America. I highly recommend this book, especially to pastors. In it, Arnade meets and interviews dozens of people in the most impoverished and drug-ridden parts of America. Arnade is admittedly not a believer, and he has his own demons of addiction. But he stumbles into a highly Augustinian analysis of life in “back row America,” of people who are broken by sin, but who maintain the dignity of the imago Dei. Flickers of life, hope, and community spring up in the most marginalized and neglected corners of American society. It is the most sympathetic treatment of poor, broken Americans that I can recall ever reading.

In one of the chapters, Arnade examines the role that faith plays in these communities. He finds that churches—usually small and under-resourced—are everywhere in back row America. He senses that these churches thrive because they are honest and welcoming. They give a voice to the voiceless. They give community in places where just about the only other source of community is the local McDonald’s.

At the same time I was reading Dignity, I read Tim Carney’s excellent Alienated America. Carney covers much the same territory as Arnade, but from more of a sociological vantage point. The books seemingly contradict one another on the role of faith among the American poor. For Carney, the collapse of American communities (places that were the core of Donald Trump’s primary success in 2016) has everything to do with the collapse of churches. Carney also points out the fact, well-established in scholarly literature, that poor and uneducated Americans are much less likely than the affluent and educated to go to church. Attending church is often part of the matrix of social success, stable families, and steady income that marks upper-middle-class America.

How do we reconcile these two accounts, one of the impoverished being religious, and the other of a post-Christian, secular impoverished class? The answer has to do with widespread confusion regarding spirituality and religion in America.

In spite of media fascination with atheism and the rise of the “nones,” there is little evidence to suggest that many more Americans have become atheists or fundamentally irreligious in recent decades. The number of atheists has held steady at about 3 percent to 4 percent of Americans since World War II. Sometimes you will see journalists equate the “nones” with “atheists,” but doing so is wildly inaccurate.

It is more accurate to say that growing numbers of Americans, whatever their personal beliefs about God, have stopped attending church. Some infrequent attenders have become never-attenders, and there is less social stigma, even in the Bible Belt, associated with not attending church. Poor people are over-represented among the people whose parents might have attended church, but they don’t.

Arnade’s account of back row America is almost entirely anecdotal. As powerful as it is, we don’t get to see any national statistics in his story, as we do in Carney. Matching the two up, we see that spiritual beliefs remain almost ubiquitous among the poorest Americans, but those beliefs often are typically not matched with regular church attendance. For those who do regularly attend church, it often leads to better community, family support, and (where relevant) victory over addiction. Believers would also suggest that church attendance correlates with the work of God in one’s life, which has good results in both the temporal and eternal senses.

There is also evidence to suggest (in work done by my Baylor colleague Gordon Melton) that demographers routinely under-report the congregations that cater to poor Americans and people of color. This is because they are likely to meet in storefronts or houses, to be independent churches, and to be part of immigrant denominations or other associations that are not on church statisticians’ radar screens. Thus, it is likely that Arnade’s churches are not showing up in standard surveys of American church life, either. Maybe the poor in America are not quite as unchurched as Carney’s statistics might suggest.

In any case, there seems no doubt that being “spiritual” but not religious does not serve the poor well. It doesn’t do much good, especially in a temporal sense, to just believe in God and to sometimes read your Bible, while neglecting church and its spiritual and community resources. As sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox and his colleagues reported in the wonderfully titled “No Money, No Honey, No Church,” “religious attendance among moderately educated whites has declined relative to attendance among college-educated whites. Economic characteristics, current and past family characteristics, and attitudes toward premarital sex each explain part of this decline.”

What believers long for is to see people who have experienced the saving power of Christ, who reflect that experience by deep commitment to the church. How do we reach that goal, especially among people in our city who have become disaffected from church? Arnade and Carney have little to say on this subject, but Arnade in particular suggests at least some reasons why the churchgoing poor do attend church. They have a personal connection to the church, they see it as welcoming and accessible, and they often participate in the life of the church. They’re not just observers.

Most churches in America are in close proximity to “back row” neighborhoods. My church may not be typical, but we’re in a situation where people come from all over the county to attend, but our zip code includes some of the poorest neighborhoods in Waco. Reaching the post-Christian poor in our cities is clearly one of the great challenges of our time. Here are a few thoughts on how to do this:

  1. Evangelism and invitations. If it is true that the post-Christian poor are “spiritual but not religious,” then all it may take for some of your neighbors (of any demographic) to attend church is an invitation. If it’s coming from a friend or family member, so much the better. Leaders can profile specific stories of people who got saved and/or came back to church because a church member shared the gospel with them and/or invited them to church.
  2. Intersections at areas of need. You do not want to fall into the “seeker-sensitive” mistake of changing the church’s message. Indeed, lots of the disaffected would just want rigorous, biblical honesty from the church, not three tips on keeping your finances in order. But in a post-Christian culture, many people simply are not going to come to a worship service. They might enter the church, however, if it has compelling programming for their kids, ESL classes, or other needed services.
  3. Projecting an accessible, “real” environment. If no one up front looks like the people you’re trying to reach, good luck! Find ways to platform testimonies of people who have come out of broken families, drug addiction, and other struggling situations. One simple way to do this is to share (anonymous, when appropriate) prayer requests in your services from people in the congregation dealing with divorce, addiction, and other problems that are rampant in our cities.

Ultimately, we don’t want to reach the folks in Arnade’s book so that the spiritual will become religious, or so the dysfunctional become functional. We want all in our city to experience the transforming power of God’s grace, which will deliver them into the loving community of the church.

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