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Trust is Waning in One Key Area

The biggest religion story covered by Christianity Today over the last week was the ongoing meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Meeting. That committee had been tasked with investigating allegations of abuse by pastors in the Convention over the last several decades. The crux of the debate was a resolution passed by the messengers at the 2021 Meeting in Nashville, which directed the Executive Committee to waive attorney-client privilege. The hope in passing that motion was that it would allow a much more transparent investigation by the outside firm hired by the SBC to conduct the inquiry. 


When a majority of the members of the Executive Committee voted to not waive attorney-client privilege, there was a fierce backlash on social media. As a result, the Executive Committee decided to continue meeting to try and satisfy the SBC’s desire to maintain its fiduciary duty, while also allowing these allegations to be investigated as thoroughly as possible. 


Alongside CT’s reporting on the machinations of the Executive Committee, Russell Moore also published an article that focused squarely on the issue of governance entitled, “We Are All Baptists Now—So Let’s Not Fight Like It.” In it, Moore contends that what is happening in the SBC is emblematic of the larger fights in American politics. Moore believes that the degree of disunity in the United States has hit a level that makes compromise nearly impossible. He points to the fact that many Baptist churches are even jettisoning the name in an effort to disassociate themselves with the Convention. 


But in looking at the bigger picture, both articles point to the same underlying issue in the United States: people are losing trust in the major institutions that hold our country together. The General Social Survey has been asking respondents how much confidence they have in many of the most important institutions that influence us on a daily basis. The data tells a clear and depressing story - we are in an age of incredible cynicism and that is especially acute among the younger generations. 

One can quickly ascertain here that the trend lines are consistently pointing downward across the board. The share of Americans with a great deal of confidence in banks, medicine, the media, and the education system are much lower today than they were in the 1970s. There are some cases in which confidence is relatively flat - the presidency, the scientific community, and the Supreme Court are all holding steady. In only one case is there clear evidence that confidence is up: the military. 


Yet even there, it’s not universal. Among Millennials, confidence in the military has not risen over the last decade. In fact, Millennials seem to be much more cynical than any prior generation. It’s no more evident than when they are asked about their trust in organized religion. While about 12% fewer members of Generation X say that they have a great deal of confidence in organized religion today than in the 1990s, the drop for Millenials is sixteen percentage points. In 2018, just 16% of Millennials had a great deal of confidence in religion.


One of the most significant shifts in American Protestant Christianity is a movement from strong, centralized hierarchies which oversee traditional denominations to decentralized, non-denominational churches, where authority is located at the local level. There are ample reasons to believe that people have lower trust in authority when it is more removed from a person (like with national denominational structures), than when it is closer and seemingly more accessible (like with a local church pastor).  Yet, regardless of denomination or size, trust is a universal value that all church leaders care about. 


Thus, leaders are in a difficult position. Most are trying to reach a younger generation amidst a backdrop of deep skepticism of all institutions, especially religion. There is not a simple antidote to this problem. And, Christians do themselves no favors when they engage in behavior that is ethically or morally dubious. Young people are already looking for reasons to doubt religion, and unfortunately, too many faith leaders are giving them more than enough evidence to maintain that posture. 


So where can leaders start?


  1. Communicate with appropriate transparency.  For those leading or communicating with any size congregation, finding increasing ways to be communicative and transparent may be the key to overcoming growing trust issues.  When appropriate, consider mentioning times when you have fallen short, and otherwise making it clear that people should not be surprised when you make a mistake. Don’t be afraid to share failures your ministry team has had, and most importantly the lessons you’re learning from them.
  2. Ask questions. So often as leaders, we assume we know what people want. One of the best ways to build more trust is to know your people better. You can do that by asking for their input on matters close to their hearts as well as those that are important to the ministry. As you learn more about what’s on the minds and hearts of your people, you’ll naturally build trust.  
  3. Be aware of your example. The book of Titus tells us that, “An overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach.” (Titus 1:7).  It’s a given, but worth saying: stay far away from any activities that could provide more fodder to people who are looking for reasons to stay away from church. It’s not always an easy task, especially when opinions seem to come from every direction. But in an age of cynicism, church leaders must be acutely aware of the example they set to give the younger generation a less scandalous and more grace-filled impression of what Christanity is all about. 


It’s not easy being a leader in these controversial times. The good news is, you don’t have to do it all in your own strength.  


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