The Crisis of Trust: 6 Steps Your Church Can Take To Reach the Unchurched


Are you struggling to understand why the unchurched have a growing distrust towards the church and its members? Discover the root causes of this crisis and explore six actionable steps your church can take to rebuild trust and make a meaningful impact.

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Thursday, June 20, 2024, at 2:00 PM EST

Have you ever trusted someone you didn’t like?

Perhaps, but it’s doubtful.

Yet, in virtually every church, pastors and church people are trying to reach people who don’t like churches, pastors, or church people.

The metrics paint an unfortunate picture. Unchurched and de-churched people mostly don’t like or trust churches or Christians.

For example:
  • Gallop has tracked U.S. belief in God for some 70 years. When they first asked this question, 98% of respondents said they believed in God. A decade later, it was still close to 98%. The percentage dropped over time, but very slowly! By 2010, 92% of people still stated they believed in God. If you’re tracking the percent change, it took 50 years to drop 6%. What’s happened since? By 2019, the percentage was down to 87%. And in 2021, we were at 81%. It took 50 years to drop 6%, and in the last 10 years, the percentage is down 11% points – or a -14% change.
  • Gallup began researching trust in clergy and pastors in the early 80s. Trust peaked around 1985 at 67%. In 2020, this number was down to 39%. Only 39% of people trust pastors and church leaders. Keep in mind that this metric doesn’t reveal how non-church people feel. This is how all people feel.
  • Gallup also released research that shows only 31% of people have confidence in the church.
  • A recent Barna study recently revealed that only 9% of non-Christians view Christians somewhat positively.

This presents quite a paradox.

The Great Commission Paradox

Our mission is the Great Commission. Personally and collectively as the church. “Going into all the nations” today means facing growing dislike and mistrust of the church, faith, and Christians.

The Reality: Most non-believers don’t like
Christians and don’t trust the church to be helpful or relevant.

Yet we wonder why the church is losing ground. We wonder why people don’t want to attend or accept our invitation. Then, we blame the people without looking in the mirror.

Looking in the Church Mirror

If we take a moment to reflect on our churches and our overall church leadership. we’d quickly realize this problem is our creation. Which means the solution is our opportunity.

Churches can’t force a 
personal faith journey, but they can create conditions conducive to the journey.

That begins by backing up our approach to help reestablish likability and trustworthiness.

Again, we cannot force people to believe, attend, or follow, but we can create conditions conducive for a relationship to form.

And like all relationships, it begins with being liked and trusted. In that order.

Refocusing Our Evangelism Through Likeability and Trustworthiness

There are several steps churches must take to respond to our current, unchurched world.

1. Acknowledge this Reality

Progress has never been made by pretending a problem doesn’t exist. I gave you a few metrics. But do your own research. Christianity, church membership, conversions, and church attendance Is declining rapidly. This is a reality, and we must acknowledge it.

2. Stop Blaming Non-Church People

Yes, people have changed. That’s been the case since the beginning of humanity. People change. Culture changes.

Our response should be to adjust our approach accordingly, not complain about the shifting tides of culture.

Our mission never changes, but our methods must remain flexible.

3. Focus Initial Outreach on Establishing Likability

Once we acknowledge that the “church” isn’t liked by default, we can focus on being publicly and privately likable.

We can do this in both our in-person experiences and outward-facing digital expressions (Instagram Reels and Story, Homepage above the scroll).

Unchurched and dechurched people are asking two questions: “Do I like these people?” And, “Do these people seem to like me?” Those answers must be abundantly clear.

4. Establish Some Initial Trust

Once people feel liked, they ask a second question: “Do these people want something from or for me?”

Trust is best established through meeting needs. At times these can be physical needs, like food or school supplies. But in most cases, needs will be connected to relationships, marriage, parenting, work, etc.

If your church can be a beacon of hope and help for practical, daily struggles, you’ll build trust with non-believers.

5. Build on the Trust

We always trust people who help us without strings attached. As trust grows through meeting practical needs, spiritual needs can be discussed.

Again, we are always moving closer to the Gospel, but in today’s culture of dislike and mistrust, it’s challenging to begin with the Gospel.

We know that all issues are ultimately spiritual issues, but the people struggling don’t yet know or acknowledge this reality. When we can establish likability and trustworthiness, however, we position ourselves for spiritual conversations.

6. Invite Into More Traditional Discipleship

By the way, this entire thing is discipleship! But as we’ve primarily associated “discipleship” with spiritual formation, this is when our more normative offerings can be offered. Things like small groups, mentoring, etc.

Think about it. Nobody is jumping in a small group with people or an organization (like church) they don’t like or trust. We’ve got to establish these emotions first.

This is How Jesus Did It, Too

If you found yourself pushing back or arguing with me, I get it.

But don’t forget, this was how Jesus approached the irreligious, too.

Jesus was unapologetically attractional to the non-believer and religiously marginalized in society. He was constantly playing to their consumer instincts by meeting their needs. People flocked to Jesus because he fed them, healed them, comforted them, and promised them things.

This approach doesn’t water down our theology or ministry. It builds on it.

Think About It

We can’t reach the unreached by doing what we’ve always done.

We must adjust as the world evolves. That’s not spiritually weak. This is the calling of the Great Commission.

Think about your church, ministries, programs, and congregation.

How “likable” are you?

How are you designing programs, events, experiences, or digital expressions expressly to become likable?

Do you assume your community trusts you and your church?

How are you meeting practical needs to grow trust?

These are a few questions to get you started.