A survey conducted by the Gallup organization between June 1-20, 2022 revealed that America’s confidence in the church, or organized religion, hit an all-time low of 31 percent.
Since 1973 Gallup has measured the confidence that Americans place in 16 different institutions. The 2022 survey revealed that overall confidence in institutions has reached an all-time low. Interestingly, “small business” scored the highest level of confidence at 68 percent, while the U.S. Congress is lowest at just 7 percent. For a more complete report go to https://news.gallup.com/poll/394283/confidence-institutions-down-average-new-low.aspx
Gallup’s findings on the church are consistent with those of Lifeway Research and Barna Research, each of which have found that confidence in the church, and trust in pastors, has plummeted to new lows. In 2021, Lifeway found that 51 percent of those over age 55 considered clergy to be honest, while only 24 percent of 18-34 year-olds trust pastors to be honest. That’s hugely significant and every pastor needs to find ways to grow the trust level of young people and young adults.
The reasons for declining trust and confidence are many, but rather than explore reasons, I’d like to suggest how churches and church leaders can build trust. Whatever the general views of the public are toward churches, pastors and churches can develop higher levels of trust in their own local community. One way to do this is to seek answers to a few keys questions. These questions are intended to help a pastor discover reality, which is not always easy, especially if reality is painful. But once we know where we really stand with our church and community, we can take the necessary steps to build trust.
Question 1 – Do church attenders bring guests to church, confident that God will speak to them, that they’ll be warmly received and have a genuine spiritual experience as God’s people worship Him? Or, do church attenders feel they need to “hold their breath,” hoping that things will go well on this particular Sunday, knowing that things don’t always go well? We once had a fellow pastor join our church who told me, “We want to join a church where we can bring guests, confident that God’s Word will be faithfully taught, they’ll be welcomed warmly, and we don’t have to fear something crazy will happen that makes us want to crawl under the pew.”
Question 2 – Are we a people to whom God can entrust new believers? A popular “strategy” of associations and state conventions has sometimes focused on helping every church baptize at least one person. Many churches don’t baptize anyone for one, two or more years in a row. While we can have sympathy for an effort to help them baptize at least one person, a key question is, “Do you want that one person to be your child?” If a church is not reaching anyone, could it be that God is not entrusting new believers to that church because the church isn’t doing much to disciple them and “grow them up” in the faith. Follow-up questions include: “Are we teaching our people to obey God’s Word and apply it to their lives? Are we providing opportunities for our people to serve in disciple-making and missionary activities? Are we helping them know how to stand against the enemy?”
Question 3 – Do community leaders view our church as contributing to community life? Is our church seen as servants of God who loves its neighbors?
In addition to these questions, there are some other questions that every church leader should consider because people ask these questions of us either explicitly or implicitly. Here are three questions people are asking pastors and church leaders:
Question 4 – Do I trust this pastor/church to shepherd my children? Do they teach God’s Word and do it in love? Do they model the kind of life I respect and I want my children to emulate? Another version of this question is: Do the kids who grow up in our church see the pastor’s life as one they would like to have for themselves? This is not to say that every child is called to vocational ministry. It is to say that our attitudes and behaviors should not discourage them from answering God’s call to ministry or serving God through the church. Our people should respect us at least as much as they do the medical doctor or other community leaders. Actually, nurses are the most highly respected by the American people!
Question 5 – Do I want this pastor to preach my funeral? This question was inspired by Buna Guthrie, who at the age of 86 told me she asks this when seeking a new pastor. Before you dismiss this question as only the concern of an elderly woman, consider what it reveals. The kind of pastor I want to preach my funeral is one who will preach the gospel and encourage my family and friends to join me heaven. He’s the kind of pastor I can trust to minister to my wife and kids during a time of great sadness. He’ll care for them with integrity, humility and compassion. The guy I want to preach my funeral is a pastor who truly loves Jesus and has a caring heart for people.
Question 6 – Are these church people those I want to spend time with? Before a person says “yes” to Jesus, they most often say “yes” to a pastor and church body. If they don’t want to spend a portion of their lives with us, they might still come to Jesus, but it will likely be through a different church.
One final question that I believe must be answered as we bear witness to Christ and disciple new believers:
Question 7 – Is Jesus worth it? Is Jesus worth losing friends and jobs and careers? Is Jesus worth suffering persecution and rejection? The children in our churches are entering a world in which they will suffer for their faith. Will they stand for Christ when they are rejected by others? Pastors and churches must help our kids and all believers know that Jesus is worth everything and more. The psalmist said, “My lips will glorify you because your faithful love is better than life” (Psalm 63:3). Believers have long given their lives for the love of Christ. We must prepare this present generation of Christians to answer anew the age-old question, “Is Jesus worth suffering for?” Failure to do so will make for a feckless and weak church, producing weak and cowardly “disciples.”
Answering these questions well will help pastors and churches build trust in their community regardless of what people think of the church “in general.” Francis Fukuyama has shown that high trust societies are more prosperous. High trust churches flourish as well, even as they are opposed by the enemy and his children.
The reality is that the American church is in crisis. But that doesn’t mean your church and ministry must flounder. Individual churches can produce disciples who stand in the presence of the enemy. Many churches are doing just that.