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.