Over the past decade, it’s been increasingly more likely that the people who are sliding into pews on the Sabbath are the “well-educated and the well-to-do,” according to data scientist and pastor Ryan Burge.

In an article published recently in The Wall Street Journal, Burge said the trend of economic homogeneity in worship spaces is troubling and could have ramifications like stunting upward mobility and deepening political polarization.

“This development has implications beyond religion itself. One of the strongest predictors of increased economic mobility is whether an individual has access to economically diverse social spaces. People at the lower end of the economic spectrum benefit greatly when they can build personal relationships with those who have higher incomes,” he wrote.

Burge went on to suggest ways that faith communities can become more economically diverse, such as having social gatherings that are open to all.

But one other way that churches can prevent economic homogeneity is by setting geographical boundaries, like some already do.

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Instead of choosing which church they wish to attend, for example, Roman Catholics in the U.S. are assigned to churches by geography. While Catholics can attend Mass at any church, they are encouraged to join their territorial parish

One benefit of territorial parishes is they can encourage cross-class friendships. Looking at the parishes map on the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City website, parishes are situated in areas, encompassing neighborhoods of various economic statuses.

Catholic schools in the Diocese of Salt Lake City have also launched a scholarship program so Utah Catholic families can make affording school with a religious education component more affordable for them. Extending these kinds of scholarship programs actively facilitates cross-class friendships and positively contributes to social mobility.

Latter-day Saints are another example of religions with formal assignments to attend church in a particular area. These geographical boundaries (i.e. ward boundaries) are pragmatic in that members are congregated into wards with others who live nearby.

In the U.S., 300 members are required to establish a ward and geography is a primary factor in determining ward boundaries. But wards are sometimes intentionally gerrymandered in a way that creates economic diversity within the congregation.

One example is in Detroit. The city has an informal boundary known as Eight Mile Road. Made famous in a film of the same name starring the rapper Eminem, Eight Mile Road is both a “physical dividing line, as well as a de-facto psychological and cultural boundary for the region,” according to the Detroit Historical SocietyOne Detroit resident remarked this boundary has historically fostered division. “The history of Detroit for the last 50 years has been one of division: geographical boundaries, social boundaries, educational boundaries, ethnic boundaries, racial boundaries.” 

However, ward boundaries in Detroit have in recent years crossed this divide. Instead of having wards on each side of Eight Mile Road, wards and branches encompass pockets on either side of the line, creating greater socioeconomic diversity. 

My friend in Salt Lake City lives in one of the most affluent neighborhoods in the state. Yet his ward boundaries also include areas of lower economic circumstances, which he said ends up creating relationships across the divide.

Some years ago, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat visited an inner city congregation of the church and noted how “bank vice presidents from the suburbs spend their weekends helping drifters find steady work.”

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There are certainly good reasons for wanting to select the church you attend, such as finding a pastor and community that make you feel at home. But when your church includes people with diverse economic backgrounds, there can be unique opportunities to bridge not only social divides, but also economic ones.

Diverse church communities contribute to poverty reduction through greater “economic connectedness.” By analyzing Facebook connections of 72 million people in a study published in 2022, researchers found that whether or not economically disadvantaged people were connected to rich people was a predictor of their likelihood of escaping poverty. Poor people who were advancing economically had a greater number of rich friends. And one of the places where people of different economic circumstances were able to cultivate friendships was at church.

As fewer people belong to places of worship, it may become harder to bridge the nation’s growing economic divides. 

“People tend to interact almost exclusively with people who share similar educational histories, incomes and occupations,” the study authors said in The New York Times. 

Church should be an exception.

As Burge said in The Wall Street Journal, “If churches, synagogues and mosques were once again full of people from across the economic and political spectrum, it would help build bridges not just in the congregation but in the larger community.”

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In addition to direct financial aid to the poor, which faith-based groups offer plenty of, sociologist Brad Wilcox offers three suggestions for how churches can help bridge the class divide: 1) advocate for economic justice for low-income families, 2) speak precisely about how marriage advances the economic welfare of children, and 3) devote more charitable work to the underemployed and unemployed. 

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Rabbi David Rosen has said, “Our responsibility to care for the poor and eradicate poverty is meant to be the expression of human solidarity, the manner in which we act is of significance as well even when we are not able to provide materially.” In the continued pursuit to alleviate poverty, Burge is right. In addition to promoting stable families and communities and direct aid, houses of worship themselves can be “ideal spaces for social contacts to flourish.”