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FIRST-PERSON: Reaching the working class with the Gospel

ALEXANDRIA, La. (BP)–The mission church sprang into existence. Every month dozens of young adult couples that either just received Christ or recently experienced a renewal of faith were joining the church. Most were working people at a local factory or service industry. Only a handful had attended more than a semester or two at the local university. Fewer still possessed an undergraduate or graduate degree. The young pastor was a seminary student.

Such was the first mission plant I experienced. I was one of the little rascals running loose at the church site and tripping over the extension cords strung out from a temporary utility pole. The structure where we worshipped wasn’t a building yet. It was a dream that became a reality when these working 20- to 30-somethings cooperated with others to plant a Southern Baptist church to reach their neighbors, friends and work associates.

These memories framed an indelible print on my life: an altar stained by the tears of men weeping over their sin; handkerchiefs wadded on the wooden folding chairs; the sawdust floor that smelled like fresh sawn wood; matching salad bowls for the offering plates. The only time the ushers wore their suits was to church or to a funeral. And by the look of their white socks and black steel-toed shoes, a suit wasn’t as comfortable as a pair of overalls.

The idea that by cooperation with other Southern Baptist churches these common people could be part of the most extraordinary mission endeavor in human history was compelling and deserved the investment of their lives. They caught the vision that their children could become the next generation of Southern Baptist missionaries.

Fast forward a few too many decades. Has something changed in many Southern Baptist churches with the Gospel outreach to working people? It seems the people group called the working class has not changed as much as the Southern Baptist’s attitude may have changed toward this significant demographic.

These people are not the upwardly mobile desiring to be managers someday. They are the people who work for the manager. Or they work in the construction trades or drive a forklift at the local home improvement store. Or they wait tables or work as a short order cook.

Some of them made career choices that placed them in the workforce too early. They may believe that because of life circumstances they were forced to give up on their educational or occupational dreams.

According to a recent Wall Street Journal article by Andrew J. Cherlin and W. Bradford Wilcox (Sept. 3, 2010), half of all Americans between the ages of 25 and 44 do not possess an undergraduate degree, and their resume is sufficiently deficient to restrict them from most work that pays enough to be called middle class or managerial. In days of recession, these are the people whose families are most vulnerable — the working poor.

Adding to the mix is the growing number of children born to non- married, co-habitating couples. According to Cherlin and Wilcox, these couples still want a wedding someday but they “don’t think they have what it takes to make a marriage work.” They fail to make long-term personal commitments and they choose co-habitation. So when the hard work of making a marriage work becomes too much hassle, they can bail. The research is clear — cohabitating relationships, while celebrated by the entertainment culture, do not go the distance.

One of the sticky problems is the kids. The children born to a cohabitating couple are twice as likely to see their parents split by age five. Then, because the young parents are looking for their needs to be met by other people, too often they put their kids through a relational amusement park — partners and/or stepparents revolving through their lives. And we blame our educational system for failing kids instead of facing the music of choosing a 20-minute endorphin rush over long-term relationship values.

Church attendance? Cherlin and Wilcox reference a biennial General Social Survey by the National Opinion Research Center finding that in the 1970s 35 percent of working class Anglos aged 25-45 attended church each week, which was the same percentage of the college educated. But by 2006, only the college-educated statistic remained the static and the working class had made a major retreat from participation.

There are some serious questions to study relating to these trends and their impact on the American culture as a whole. Cherlin and Wilcox ask the sociological questions like: What are the consequences the culture faces when a high school diploma is insufficient for today’s workforce? Will the under-employed young adults continue to drop out of the institutions of marriage and faith?

Southern Baptists have other questions to ask like: What is the potential of local churches reaching the working class? Will local churches reach across the other demographic lines such as race and gender stereotypes, to share the Gospel with people who aren’t like us? Has a practical Universalist view of faith, void of eternal consequences, permeated our churches to the extent that the passionate fire of Gospel outreach has been snuffed out? Are we simply recruiting for our social gospel clubs instead of leading people toward transformation by the power of the Gospel revealed through Scriptures?

The historical roots of Southern Baptists are with the working class “Bubbas” who have made a sack full of choices that no matter how hard they work they aren’t going to see management or business ownership. Yet, every working person is a valuable person looking for eternal answers. We won’t find most of them in the manicured neighborhoods of suburbia. They are in the mobile home parks and the apartment dwellings, behind the counters of the local convenience stores or — these days — standing in the unemployment line.

Can Southern Baptist churches afford to retreat from reaching these precious souls in North America? With baptism trends in decline, there is an opportunity to reach a segment of North American society that Southern Baptists historically related to very well.

The hope is that the fire of our devotion will be rekindled to reach every person, every people group and every family with the transformational message of the Gospel.
John L. Yeats is director of communications for the Louisiana Baptist Convention and recording secretary of the Southern Baptist Convention.

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  • John L. Yeats