Anecdotally, it seems to be the case in this country that missionaries have greater success among the poor. In our ward, all the adult baptisms that I can recall in recent years have involved people living in or near poverty. The charitable would say that this is because the poor are more humble and receptive to the gospel while the cynical would say the poor are more needy and receptive to the promise of welfare. The motivations the poor have for joining the church are not what I’m seeking to explore. What I want to know is why, in South Bend and in wards across the country, can we not seem to retain our poorer brothers and sisters?
Last month I posted on the Culture of Poverty, a theory that attempts to explain the culture that develops in situations of generational poverty. Please refer back to this post for the basics of Culture of Poverty theory. I’d like to go into the hidden rules of class I previously mentioned and look at how they correspond to the modern church.
In one of the wards my husband served in on his mission (in the U.S.), the missionaries were told by the exasperated bishop not to teach anyone who made less than $30,000 because they wouldn’t stick around. A commenter on the last post mentioned that his mission president issued a similar injunction. He quoted the mission president as explaining that “poor people have poor ways.”
Are poor people’s “poor ways” the reason why they don’t stick around? According to COP theory, the hidden rules of class are unspoken and sometimes unconscious cues, behaviors, and understandings within a socioeconomic class. Here is a comparison of different class-based approaches to a number of issues and values, as outlined in a standard guide used by many non-profits, Bridges Out of Poverty by Ruby K. Payne:
|Money||To be used||To be managed||To be invested|
|Personality||For entertainment||For aquisition, stability||For connections|
|Social Emphasis||Social inclusion||Self-governance, self-sufficiency||Emphasis on social exclusion|
|Time||Focused on present, decisions are emotional and survival based||Focused on future, investment, weighing of consequences||Focused on traditions, history, decorum|
|Destiny||Fate, can’t do much to change things||Choice, can change things with good choices||“Noblesse oblige”|
|Language||Casual register, language of friends||Formal register, language of business||Formal register, language of networking|
|Family Structure||Matriarchal||Patriarchal||Depends on who has money|
|Driving Force||Survival||Work, achievement||Financial, political, social connections|
For better or worse, the modern American LDS church is a middle-class institution, operating by middle class rules. Looking at the table above, one can easily imagine “church culture” in the place of “middle class culture.” The church operates by middle class rules. Our system is patriarchal and our leaders dress in middle-class clothing (business suits & ties) and use middle-class language. We’re driven by ideas of choice, self-sufficiency, planning. Our voice register is formal, soft, and steady. We store food, say “thee,” “thy,” and “thou,” and go to regular meetings which we arrive at (relatively) on time which is enough to throw off any new member, regardless of class. The culture of the church, in essence, clashes with the culture of generational poverty.
Does this culture clash explain the issue of retention of poorer members? And if so, where does the burden of change fall? It seems to fall on the investigators/converts while absolving the generally middle-class members of the church. And there are certainly moral questions that come with requiring that converts move from one class to another- who’s to say that the middle-class culture is a superior one?
While COP theory asserts that it is extremely difficult to move from one class to another because of the profound cultural differences, it is possible. The key elements to helping a person move from poverty to the middle class are: 1) long- term role models who are willing to provide guidance and support, and 2) the availability of emotional support resources.
While the culture of the church seems to clash with the culture of poverty, the institutional structure of the church may provide some of the systems necessary to bring people out of poverty. A bishop’s counsel, home and visiting teaching, the availability of enrichment activities, the feeling of belonging to a society or quorum–are these structures, at least in their ideal and often exhausting forms– ready to support members coming from poverty, and are the members?
From my experience, too many members become unkind and uncharitable when they hear that a new investigator is requesting groceries…again. If we can work to understand and appreciate where a person is coming from, perhaps we can focus more on working with them to get where they–and we–are ultimately going.
*Note: Again, let me remind readers that this theory is meant to apply to generational poverty in the United States and not to situational or global poverty.
*Update: Note #2: I just want to make it clear that COP theory is just one of many theories related to poverty. The reason I’m focusing on it is because it is one of the main frameworks used in social work in America and like anything else has many arguments for and against its use. It’s certainly problematic in many ways but I still believe its a good way to start thinking about how one class relates to another within the church.