9 Ways to Bridge the Trust Gap Facing Today’s Church Leaders


Feeling the divide between leading a church and the community you serve? Discover how we can bridge this growing trust gap.

How Trusted Are Pastors? 

I’ve attended church for most of my life. I grew up in a Christian family that attended church nearly every Sunday morning, many Sunday nights, and even some Wednesday nights.

Through the 80s and 90s, it seems church leaders were relatively well respected. Like doctors, lawyers, and emergency responders. There was honor and reverence for the role.

As we all know, it’s not the 1900s any longer.

Trust in Church Leadership By The Numbers

Intuitively, it’s obvious our respect for positions like pastors has devolved. The metrics prove this true.

Gallup has measured public trust of clergy since 1977. From the inception of this research until 2002, church leaders were rated as one of the most trusted professions. Trust dropped quickly in 2002 amid sexual abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church.

While the clergy’s high/very high ethics ratings recovered to some degree in subsequent years, they fell to 50% in 2009 and have been declining since 2012 as Americans’ religious identification and church attendance have also fallen. The latest reading of 34% for clergy members is the lowest by two points.

If you’re a Christian not leading a church, you’ve not escaped this horrific trend, either. A Barna research study in 2022 found that only 8% of non-Christians have a “somewhat positive” or better view of Christians.

The Eternal Implications of Declining Trust

If you’re a Christian, do you remember how you came to faith in Jesus?

I was a child, so my path was simpler (without all the adult baggage). Regardless of how your story became your story, we all share some similar paths.

The first step in nearly every faith story begins with a non-believer liking a Christian. Over time, this non-believer starts to trust this Christian. Eventually, trusting a Christian migrates to asking questions and trusting Jesus.

This is how evangelism works best. It’s not about “outreach” and events. It’s about individual Christians being liked and trusted by the non-believing community.

We will struggle to overpopulate heaven if the Gallup and Barna data is valid. Only 8% of people currently have a somewhat favorable view of Christians. We’ve dug God a deep hole.

Fixing Our (Un)Likability

This seems like an impossible task, but we’ve got to try. If left unaddressed, the trend of the data continues, and Christianity continues to decline at alarming rates.

We’ve got to try something.

As I’ve worked with churches and pastors around the country, here are some potential suggestions I’ve discovered:

1. Stop Ignoring the Problem

We cannot pretend all is well. Ignoring the problem doesn’t negate the issue.

While your church may be full and well-funded, the overall church is declining, and our unchurched population continues to grow.

If you take eternity seriously, we must recognize this trend and begin working to fix it.

2. Start LOVING Confronting the Christians in Your Church

Truth in love (Ephesians 4:15)

We’ve been called inside the Body of Christ to address and confront each other to mature in our followership of Jesus. We’ve not been called to be unlikeable and untrustworthy to outsiders. We’ve also not been called to create an insider-focused gathering to the neglect of the lost.

After we fully recognize the extent of the issue, we must begin addressing it directly with our fellow believers. We are not the Holy Spirit. However, our job is to communicate in love and allow the spirit to convict.

3. Lead The Way

We can’t lead without moral authority. This means we must begin living a likable, trustworthy, and loving lifestyle for everyone in our path. Digital paths included!

I’m as digitally guilty as anyone here. I love a good social media punch, and I’m certainly opinionated. But I’m working to ensure the Kingdom is the most important kingdom in my life. That means putting politics behind the church. It means leading with grace, empathy, and concern for others over myself. It means making my agenda God’s agenda.

We, as church leaders, must be the model of Jesus in this culture of hate and rage. We cannot expect anyone to do what we’re unwilling to do.

While we’re on the topic, we must de-politicize the local church. The marriage between Christianity and the political right is a primary cause of the great dechurching over the past 25 years. You can read more about this in the book The Great Dechurching.

4. Actively Engage with Non-Believers

When you work at a church, meeting and engaging with non-Christians is challenging. The church can be an isolation chamber where we see and interact with Christians daily.

To understand how non-believers view the church and you, you must meet and engage them. Warning: If the data is correct, 92% of them may not have positive feelings about your faith. To combat this cultural reality, keep that little nugget in your pocket for a bit. Like it or not, people have opinions, and first impressions matter. Make a bad first impression and you’ve only solidified their perception.

I get how this sounds. I also believe Paul meant it when he suggested we “become all things to all people in order to win some.” Allow your life and behavior to do your speaking.

5. Teach Believers How To Engage with Non-Believers

We’ve allowed an “us versus them” reality to consume Christianity. This vantage point has created a war-like mentality against outsiders.

We should never forget that we were once “those” people to God, too. Yet he never wanted to fight with us. “While we were still sinners, Jesus died for us” was Paul’s way of reminding us that God was not against us even when we were living against him.

To reverse this trend, we need to retrain believers to engage appropriately with the world and people around them. This might require a combination of topical preaching, classes, training, and sharing stories. I’m not suggesting we reincorporate Evangelism Explosion (was that the term?). I am suggesting we not assume believers will figure this out. Allowing Christians to behave as they see fit is how we arrived at this place.

6. Avoid Hypocrisy at All Costs

As the Gallup research indicated, the sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic Church severely eroded public trust in clergy and the church. The seemingly never-ending moral and ethical failures of church leadership continue to add to the problem.

We, as church leaders, need to get our act together. If you can’t, leave the role.

I understand that we are all human and prone to broken behavior—me included. Yet Jesus reserved his greatest criticism for the hypocrites. Why? Hypocrisy is a death knell for our witness. We are and should be held to a higher standard. We need to live up to the calling we’ve received. If we cannot, we shouldn’t wait to be caught to come clean.

7. Never Compete with Other Churches or Pastors

The enemy is clear, and it’s not the church down the street.

Perhaps one of Satan’s most significant victories in our current church culture is the creation of church competition. We have enough to fight against without fighting with each other.

The one prayer Jesus offered for us was for unity. When we eat each other alive, we cannot be unified.

8. Be FOR Things, not Against Things

My friend Jeff Henderson wrote an excellent book on this. His thesis is that, for too long, the church has been known for what we are against. It’s time that we’re known for what we are for.

He’s correct.

My childhood church denomination specialized in being against. We were against hundreds of places, groups, people, music styles, etc. I’m not suggesting there aren’t problems in our world, but we can all agree that solutions don’t arise through boycotts. Remember, our mission is to overpopulate heaven, not shut down companies we disagree with.

Similarly, we need to understand that accepting people doesn’t mean condoning behavior. Today’s church seems terrified of guilt by association. Funny enough, Jesus would never have left heaven had he felt the same! Associating with us was a pretty big change.

9. Remove Theological Arrogance

None of us have corned the market on theology and biblical interpretation. I’m not suggesting we avoid developing a theological perspective, but we should acknowledge it’s our informed opinion, not a definitive revelation.

Virtually every topic in Scripture is debatable. We know this because almost every subject is debated. Some elements of theology are core to Christianity, but that bucket is relatively small. Most of what we fight about is secondary or tertiary theology.

Pride is unlikable and untrustworthy. Worse, it’s sinful. We should work toward displaying a more humble perspective on our theological perspective.

Rome Wan’t Built in a Day…

It’s taken years of bad Christian behavior to become disliked and mistrusted. We cannot repair the damage easily or quickly. But we’ve got to start. Without a concerted effort, the trends will only continue their downward trajectory.

So, let’s commit to starting in our own lives first. Expand the work to our church. And maybe eventually, and collectively, we’ll see a change in attitudes towards churches, pastors, and Christians.