Lipscomb on the Demise of Church Attendance in the Cities (1878)

In the late 1870s several noticed a decline in church attendance among the urban poor. David Lipscomb offers his own opinion as to why there is such a decline which, he thinks, is primarily a northern phenomenon (though he does think New Orleans may fit).

The urban poor do not participate in urban church life because most urban churches cater to the wealthy and rich. They build “fine houses” whose surroundings are unsuited to the working class, employ articulate, educated ministers whom the poor do not understand, and they seek monied classes because money is the life-blood of their grand buildings and educated ministry.

While the poor received Jesus gladly, they do not flock to the urban churches whose edifices are geared toward the cultured, educated and wealthy. The reason why this is the case is obvious to Lipscomb. They do not reject the “religion of Christ,” but they reject the power, wealth and pride of Christianity’s teachers. Even when these churches set up parachurch organizations that reach out to the poor the distance between rich and poor is maintained as the church folk are not in the homes of the poor sharing their meals and trials.

When Christianity assumes power and sides with the wealthy, the poor are oppressed. They are driven away by the wealth. Jesus, according to Lipscomb, walked with the poor, became poor for their sakes and ministered to the poor. Churches ought, to follow the model of Jesus, situate themselves so that the poor feel at home in their communities. Churches should function incarnatinally, that is, become poor so that the poor might hear the good news.

This is a recurrent theme in the history of the church. We see it prominently when the church became a state power as monastics sought a simpler live in the fourth century. We see it in the early thirteenth century with the rise of the poverty-oriented Franciscans. We see it in the sixteenth century with some of the early Anabaptists. Lipscomb is part of this tradition as he advocates for the poor and calls the church to modesty and simplicity for the sake of the poor.


David Lipscomb, “Church Pews,” Gospel Advocate 20 (5 December 1878) 762.

We print in another column an article on the decrease in attendance at religious services and contributions in the cities. It is from the Cincinnati Commercial. We take it from the Christian Standard, which republishes it, and while recognizing its truthfulness, endeavors to explain why it is so in Cincinnati especially. We suppose there is less of this tendency to neglect religious services in our Southern cities than in those further North, new Orleans perhaps, excepted. We have not the least doubt but that the public school system there has done much to spread infidelity int he land. Wit it comes an indifference to religious services, and the spending of the Lord’s day in frolic and pleasure-seeking. But the influence is spreading in all our cities. The writer in the Commercial gives some of the reasons that are doubtless correct. The effort to adopt everything to the desires and tastes of the rich and cultured has its influence to impress upon the people the idea that none save the rich and cultured are desired in the church. The surroundings plainly say that the ignorant, the poor, the rude, the unrefined are not needed here. But we are persuaded that there is still more than this. The preaching is of a character that suits the wealthy, the educated, the cultured. It is illy adapted to the understanding of the poor, the ignorant, the uncultured. He feels that the preaching is no more adapted to his  needs than the surroundings to his condition.

The poor and the rich themselves see the utter failure to reproduce the religion of Christ in the church work and life. Christ came to the poor and adapted himself to the surroundings and wants of the poor. All the surroundings of his religion were simple, plain and unostentatious. They were such as did not require large amounts of money to maintain them. The teachers of that religion were men of simplicity and self-sacrifice. They lived in a style that they were at home with the humble, the plain, the unlettered, the poor.

All this is greatly changed. The places of worship now are costly, showy, extravagantly built and furnished. The teachers in our cities seek to conform to the habits of the wealthy, seek their association and are not at home or in sympathy with the poor. Their style and habits of life require large sums of money, so that they are dependent upon and court the favor of the rich. The feeling of dependence upon the rich makes them wink at the sins, wrongs and crimes of the rich, until it has come to be recognized as true that a rich many will never be disciplined in a church. House are built, furnished, and religious worship so conducted that none can fail to see that the spirit of gospel is lost in these churches in the anxiety to attract the rich and cultured. They for whose favor these principles are forsaken, despise the treason to principles and to Christ that is made, and the poor known that it is not the church of Christ as he formed it.

When church privileges are provided for the poor as in the Bethel Mission spoken of, it is in a different association or home from the rich who provide. The distinctions of wealth are still kept up. The poor man is told to set ye there in that lowly seat, and the is made to feel that he is not the brother of the rich.

The effort to adapt religious worship and church surroundings to the taste of the wealthy, the refined, and cultured, creates the demand for immense sums of money to sustain the church services. They court the rich, they wink at the sins of those who are able to pay, but it is a source of demoralization to the teacher. He dare not teach the whole will of God to man. What preacher ever teaches the necessity of honesty, uprightness and integrity in business? What religious paper enforces these virtues so essential to the Christian character?

The teacher is tempted to seek more to please the people than to please God. The church in turn looks over all immoralities, if he can only draw the people. Men of bad morals frequently are sustained as teachers, if they have the art of drawing the people. We know of a number of popular preachers whose reputations for common honesty in their dealings is not above reproach. Bro. Franklin told me a few years ago a very popular and respected preaching consulting him about ‘putting away his wife,’ because she had not grown as he had after marriage, and could not make the appearance in society that was expected of his wife. A man who is thus striving to please the rich and cultured cannot please God. Cannot make a Christian impression upon a community. He cannot teach a church morality. Men of the world see this catering to the world and become disgusted, not at the Christian religion, but at the pretense of it given in the life of the preacher and of the church.

The whole effort to gratify the culture of the world in artistic speaking, music and surroundings that indicate wealth and luxury, attract the idle and curious, those anxious to be entertained, for a time, but as these efforts clog, as they sooner or later will, they drive these very persons from whom heart melody, heart service, heart worship were sacrificed away from the church. It substitutes a barren, empty formality for loving, hearty, worshipful service to God. The efforts to accommodate the religion of Christ to these luxurious and artistic surroundings destroy spiritual power and spiritual earnestness.

We believe the condition of the masses in the cities in the time of the Savior and the apostles was such that they more readily appreciated the expediencies of the religion of Jesus than those in the country. We believe it would be so today could that religion be brought to them as a practical working power among and in behalf of the poor for their good, as it was in the days of Christ and the apostles.

We believe there is nothing int he people’s forsaking the popular worship of the churches that indicates a rejection of the religion of Christ. The churches, one and all in the cities, have rejected that religion in their practice. We know not a single congregation that can lay the least shadow of a claim to exemplify that religion in the church worship or work, or in the lives of its members. We do not know a church that conducts all its worship according to the teaching of the Bible. The preacher comes to constitute the church. He does the worship; the members are entertained by him and pay on time for the entertainment. When he fails to entertain them they feel there is no reason why they should attend.

We believe many forsake the worship because they are made to feel that they are nonentities in the church. A brother gave as a reasons for ceasing to attend church not long since, that he attended for four years faithfully; he was never asked to pray; he was never spoken to in reference to any church work or worship during the time. He felt the church had no use for him; he ceased to attend. We believe the reason, if justly given, a good one. If a church has nothing for a member to do, he has no business in the church. We have but little faith in reforming old organizations. We would be rejoiced to see one earnest and faithful effort in a city, to establish and operate a church among the common people in fidelity to the principles, and in accordance with practices laid down in the New Testament. We believe the common people would gladly accept this church.

8 Responses to “Lipscomb on the Demise of Church Attendance in the Cities (1878)”

  1.   John Clemmons Says:

    Thanks for the historical insight John Mark. History that is unknown, ignored and/or unheeded is most often repeated.

  2.   stevewolfgang Says:

    Thanks — as you are probably aware, Daniel Sommer is writing often along the same lines, especially after becoming editor of the American Christian Review. Thus we have two different regional perspectives (North/Midwest & Upper South), urban-based (Nashville/Indianapolis) which, despite differences on some other topics, converge on this (and other) issues. The Sommer/Northern/Midwestern axis thus becomes another important configuration in addition to the proposed TN-TX matrix.

    •   John Mark Hicks Says:

      Thanks for your comment here as well as on facebook. I appreciate your work in the Sommer tradition and that overlap between Sommer and Lipscomb needs rehabilitation and renewal today in so many ways.

  3.   Gardner Hall Says:

    The same principles would be true today regarding wealthy suburban churches with their multimillion dollar facilities.

  4.   Matt Says:

    Very interesting I wonder what cultural equivalent would be for the current church? Incarnational ministry is the obvious anwser but I wonder what that looks like when we deal with a post-Christian culture? The poor do not just have bone to pick with affluence, many have rejected the Christian religion. They have done so for theological issues that exceed the hypocrisy in the church. It a challenging task to live incartionally to embrace Jesus’ poverty that we might make others rich in faith. Not just because of the sacrifice involved but also in regards to form one really needs to take.

    •   John Mark Hicks Says:

      You raise an important and good question. The poor have more issues than poverty with Christianity but I wonder if the root problem is Christianity’s historic power and wealth. In other words, if the poor are truly served and valued (living, eating, being with them), would that not engender the kinds of relationships that might overcome other obstacles to Christ.

      “Missional communities” is one form for this in the current context with corresponding house churches or small churches serving…or even larger churches whose mission is focused on service but do not invest in large edifices which suck money out of mission.

      I don’t have the answers, but it is important for history to pry open some of the questions to which many of us are blinded by our own wealth, status and power….including me.

  5.   rich constant Says:

    before running this topic into the dirt, so to speak…
    let’s just remember
    if I made $1000.00 a year, john mark?
    in 1870
    in 2012.
    exactly what would that equate to…?
    should be simple enough to putt a value on that, to get some perspective, of the subjective diversity we seem to be having over this issue, of what is poor,
    and also a compared to what.
    also what is normal transportation radis today,
    i would say maybe 50 miles.
    a lot has changed in 130 to 150 years.
    to say nothing of just having toilet paper.
    i mean i couldn’t even go anywhere.
    i don’t know how to ride a horse anymore than David Lipscomb could navigate a car on a freeway.

    one idea i have taken to hart from your teaching,
    is the relevance of yesterday put into practice to day.
    unfortunately we being raised in the COC Texas Tradition
    lost sight of The Mercy, Kindness along with Patience exhibited by the Father Son and Spirit, and so doing did not reciprocate those intrinsic qualities to our neighbor because we found the error of exclusiveness instead of inclusiveness.
    Lost sight of the Unity of the Spirit in the Bond of Peace, by failing to take on the divine nature,as expressed in the STORY.
    (May the Father continue to SEE our harts and not Our Deeds..)
    we ask a lot of Grace,and continue not to Reciprocate what has been given

    which begs the question…
    is the ISRAELI OF GOD???
    John Mark

    •   rich constant Says:

      by the by John Mark
      a statistic that i am most likely remembering not right.
      around 1995 or so.
      a one dollar bill taken back to 1950.
      would have the exchange rate of $00.03
      so again

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