More than 100 students walked out of a West Virginia public high school on Wednesday [February 2, 2022], saying school officials infringed on their rights by requiring some to attend an evangelical Christian revival performance held on campus.
The Trust That Isn’t There
The Washington Post story goes on to detail how the students were asked to raise their arms in prayer and give their lives to Jesus so they can find salvation. The speakers said those who did not follow the Bible would go to hell when they died, as reported by the Associated Press. Cameron Mays, a junior at the school, texted his father, “Is this legal?”
There was a time when events like this would work. Bring in kids. Bring in pizza. Play some loud music and tell them about Jesus. If I’m honest, though, I’ve seen this dwindle away during my ministry career. The Church, and in this situation even para-church organizations, are losing trust. Mind you the sermon probably wasn’t wrong. I’m not questioning the theology of this situation. I’m wondering (in 2022) if this is the wisest way to reach students. But let’s not just make this about Gen Z, or even millennials. Adults are behaving the same way.
Barna reported this week that 57% of US Churchgoers Strongly Trust Their Church Leadership. If this is true, then obviously the reciprocal is true as well: 43% of US Churchgoers Do Not Strongly Trust Their Church Leadership. The takeaway here? Our institutions do not have the trust that we once did. This is a big reason why we’re seeing a 25% decrease in church involvement over the past 20 years.
My place is not to debate how this happened, or where responsibilities lie. Race, political agenda, moral failures… there are plenty to discuss. When I meet de-churched people (those that have walked away from the church) I very rarely find that they are burned by God. More likely, they’re angry/disenfranchised by people in the buildings… within the organization. But it is obvious to me at this point: to rebuild that trust is no short order.
When our own people don’t implicitly trust our motives, what does invite culture look like in the church? These 43% of churchgoers that do not strongly trust leadership, are they going to invite friends to church to come learn about Jesus from someone they don’t intricately trust? For that matter, how many more Sundays are they going to wake up before 9:00 a.m. to come be part of an event led by people they don’t trust.
Who Is Trustworthy?
Getting to the point: who are churchgoers going to trust? Who is the world going to trust? A nameless, disconnected preacher who only connects in lives 40min a week in a large gathering? Most likely not. Sermons will not rebuild trust. Relationships build trust. Face to face. Asking questions and listening for answers.
Barna’s Digital Evangelism report, December 2020, reported that 79% of people, cold to Christ, are not going to your building when they have spiritual questions. Many of them are going to Google/YouTube to search for answers, and many of them are going to their friends who possibly could have answers to the spiritual questions. Sorry to say this, Pastor, but a search engine and your attender are more trustworthy than your seminary degree. Welcome to 2022!
In 2022, evangelism as an event is losing effectiveness. Individuals having conversations about Jesus with their friends is working.
Will our buildings continue to serve a purpose? Sure.
Is it for evangelism? Doubtful.
Are you seeing this trend? I’m hearing stories from churches that people are attending physical small groups, but they’re not attending physical services; instead, they are attending online (or just outright skipping the physical expression of church on the weekend). I’ve also seen these churches struggle with the reason why people are more interested in physical groups than the weekend… several factors I’m sure, but I can guarantee that relationship is part of it. Confession from my own life: there have been many times that my small group, or my discipleship group, was more spiritually impacting than the weekend was. So, Pastor, what are you to do with this information?
Fact is that we are seeing, and will continue to see different modes of church here in America. This is incredibly healthy. With the return of microchurch, the increase in workplace ministries, a better understanding of digital churches, a newfound opportunity in metaverse churches… you will continue to see relationship-centric modes of church work be much more effective than the programmatic modes that have been so popular recently. Pastor, your church’s best asset in reaching people outside of the building is currently sitting inside your building. To take advantage of this, you must shift.
The goal is not to preach at them.
They don’t need more teaching.
They need training.
We’ve talked about this idea of church as platform before. What if the church wasn’t a place to consume a religious event, but a location to train, equip, and release people with the gospel?
How Does Your Church Score on These Mindset Shifts?
This may be uncomfortable for some of you, but the reality is our culture is moving away from trusting… well, trusting anyone in authority. It’s not just churches and pastors. Metaverse technologies are bringing in an era of decentralization, where words like permissionless and trustless are taking shape. People don’t want to deal with experts that are stockpiling information. Corporations like Meta and Google have targets on them. Nor do people want to be treated like a nameless asset. Culture is changing. The way the United States Church has operated in recent years, organizational hierarchies and event-based programs will continue to lose effectiveness. Simply: it’s not about controlling, its empowering.
Shifts like these may seem daunting in themselves, but remember that, to rebuild trusts within our churches we need to first show that we are human. As pastors we can no longer live beyond reproach, instead we need to show our flaws. They humanize us. And in our weakness, the strength of Jesus comes across even stronger.
We’re going to be digging into this much more in the weeks to come, but to start the conversation, here’s a list of some things your church can do to start to rebuild that trust. You can commit to moving:
- From profit to purpose – To my knowledge Jesus never said “Blessed are the spreadsheets.” Our churches need to be more than nickels and noses. How are you helping your people find their spiritual purpose? (Note: “serving coffee on Sunday morning” may not be the best example of spiritual purpose.)
- From hierarchies to networks – Note who’s on top in the network diagram… no one. Pastor, it may be hard for you to lead your organization this way, but maybe that means your leadership style needs to change? How did Jesus lead? What is more likely to restore trust: hierarchies or networks?
- From controlling to empowering – This may be the hardest, especially with churches that are used to controlling. The difference here is are we doing ministry, or are we empowering others to do ministry? Are we teaching people what to do, or training them on how to do it? Are we collecting people as assets, or releasing them on mission? Which is likely to restore trust: controlling or empowering?
- From planning to experimentation – This may not be as obvious on the trust side. But with experimentation comes fact finding and iteration. Both position the leader in a position of weakness. Experimentation puts the leader, and the organization, in a position where they don’t know the answer, which is a perceived weakness. But they’re humble enough to do the experiment and find out the answer (which is a massive step in regaining trust).
- From privacy to transparency – Thank you very much Web 2.0 culture, but in today’s world, private people are not trusted. What are you hiding? Take organizational steps to be transparent. Invite people in. Show how the proverbial sausage is made. A transparent individual builds trust. They have nothing to hide. If you or your church has lost trust due to being private, what steps can you do to restore through transparency?
Jeff is the founder of the thechurch.digital and serves as the content director of Leadership Network’s Metaverse Church NEXT. With about 20 years experience serving the church in the digital/technological realm, Jeff loves working with churches. As passionate about discipleship as he is technology, Jeff uses his passion to help churches develop technology systems to bring people far from God closer to him.