The Self-Awareness Gap: What Non-Christian People Really Think About the Church

Self-awareness is one of the keys to emotional intelligence. It’s also a key to growth.

With that in mind, some recent research by the Barna Group through their Barna Cities initiative shows the church, in addition to the many well documented challenges it’s facing, might have an emerging self-awareness issue.

The self-awareness gap, as you’ll see below, is a gap between how non-Christian people see the church versus how people who attend church see it. It’s also a generational gap.

Essentially, the gap is this: the younger you are and the more unchurched you are, the less favorably you see the church. The older and more churched you are, the more favorably you see the church.

As the data over the years accumulates, the verdict is in. We know what unchurched people think of the church. It’s not great.

When the people you’re trying to reach struggle with you, it’s harder to reach them.

Which is where self-awareness comes in. It’s hard to improve on a problem you don’t know you have. Once you see it, you can address it.

I say this not to pile on as yet-another critic (I’ve invested much of my life in the local church), but as a way of helping us find a better way into the future.

With that in mind, here is some fresh data showing the extent of the self-awareness gap.

1. Only 21% of Non-Christian People have a Positive Perception of the Local Church

One of the sharpest differences in this round of research is that 80% of practicing Christians have a positive view of the church. Only 21% of non-Christians think of the church in a positive way.

That’s a startling gap.

On the positive front, as the data on the left and in the centre of the chart above shows, generally speaking those who attend church regularly really appreciate what the church does both for them and others. And I would be among those who deeply appreciate the work the church does when we get it right.

The challenge is, though, that only one of five non-Christians see it that way.

That creates an enormous barrier when you’re trying to connect with unchurched people. When you’re connecting with an unchurched person, it’s easy to think, on a scale of 1-10,  you’re starting at a three or a zero. But the research shows that perhaps you’re starting from minus five or minus eight.

You can still bridge that gap. Nothing is impossible.

But when you realize first that there is a perception gap, and second, that it’s a big one, you’ll be better positioned to bridge it. I have a few ideas at the end of this post to help you think through how to do that.

2. Half-of Non-Christian Americans Don’t Trust Local Pastors

The right hand column shows another gap between how deeply Christians trust pastors in their community and how non-Christians do.

85% of Christians trust the Christian pastors in their community. Less than half of non-Christians feel the same way.

In a similar vein, there’s a 30 point gap between how Christians and non-Christians see local pastors providing strong leadership on racial justice and COVID.

Being able to trust church leaders in general and on issues like crisis leadership and racial justice matters because trust, at its heart, is about confidence.

Without trust, everything breaks down.

People generally don’t follow leaders they don’t like or trust.

3. Millennials Think The Local Church is Detached From The Real Issues People Are Facing

Another trend that surfaced in the research is that, in several areas, church going Millennials had a more negative view of the church than their older church-attending counterparts.

While Millennials were slightly more likely to think of church leaders as hypocritical and judgmental, they are twice as likely as Boomers to think that their church was detached from the real issues facing their community.

In a similar vein, Millennials were more likely to say that Christian pastors are out of touch with the needs of their community, and that pastors seem more focused on growing their church and not on community transformation.

That’s evidence of a growing generational gap about social issues and the expectation of younger generations to see their church addressing the broader social issues of the day.

The challenge here for church leaders is that it’s difficult to reach a community that the next generation doesn’t believe you care about.

Naturally, if you do care about your community (as many church leaders do), it’s probably important to have some evidence that that’s the case beyond virtue signalling or token gestures.

A deep investment in the health and wellbeing of the people who live in the community you’re trying to reach is not only the right thing, it’s a step into ushering them into the hope and love of the Gospel.

About South Florida…It’s a Great Microcosm

Again, while some of the data is particular to South Florida, this has far less to do with Florida than it does with national trends that have been surfacing for years.

If you’re worried that it’s too South Florida, just know that especially in the last year South Florida has become a haven for tech entrepreneurs, founders and venture capitalists.

It’s hardly just a retirement haven any more.  It’s just one drill down on a much wider generational and societal phenomenon. An increasingly mainstream, younger and progressive demographic.

So What Does This Mean? 

The truth is a great place to start.

It would be easy, looking at the data, to see that the church has an image problem. I don’t think that’s the case.

While it’s certainly not the whole story, and while Christians have a positive view of the church, the truth is that the church has been harsh, judgmental, exclusionary and too often, abusive. These aren’t qualities people should expect from Christians, but too often, that’s exactly what Christians have shown them.

So what do you do?

The right response isn’t better “PR”, it’s life-change.  The right response isn’t getting mad at non-Christians who don’t see the better side of the church or the potential of the church.

Instead, repentance, humility, reconciliation, and a new reality moving forward are good places to start. .

When overcoming perception gaps as large as this data reveals, one of the most important things church leaders and individual Christians can do is to be the opposite of what non-Christian people would expect you to be. Fortunately for Christians, the opposite of what most people expect is pretty much what Jesus embodied.

The cure for the problem is to embrace more of what we are supposed to authentically be.

Be loving. Compassionate. Kind. Gracious. Curious. Embracing. Genuine.

Living out an ethic of love is a great place to start.

The mystery of why people are walking away from the church is less of a mystery all the time.

If Christians become more like the authentic church, the more people will want to be part of it. The less we do, the more they don’t.

What Are You Sensing?

There’s no doubt things are changing. What are you sensing, and what are you doing about it?

Scroll down and leave a comment!

The Self-Awareness Gap: What Non-Christian People Really Think About the Church


  1. DavidA on August 10, 2021 at 5:36 pm

    This article is built on a very serious and somewhat collectively-egotistical error. The main issue is not WHAT people think of the church, but IF they think of it. I’m sure many people’s latest coherent thought about church, the one they’d had before they began answering these questions, was several years ago. Pastors would really rather not contemplate the idea that their entire ministry – and indeed the entire idea of church – might not matter anymore. (Note I didn’t say “not matter to non-Christians”, but just simply not matter, other than as a personal vanity-project.)

    • Ray on August 11, 2021 at 1:55 pm

      Choose wisely, because God is watching YOU!

    • Lego Bugati on September 4, 2021 at 7:09 am

      The church is seen by outsiders as angry, vulgar proudboys, gun nuts(hold on I own guns but am no gun nut) confederate flags, q anon, back the badge and then assault police officers Jesus saves signs held alongside nooses. The church is us, that’s how we are seen. Why would anyone be attracted to this? We need to insist on better statesmen to represent our values, toactually uphold our values.

      • Lego Bugati on September 4, 2021 at 7:15 am

        And those of us who try be Christlike, meek and humble, are called weak and ridiculed by our own statesmen.

      • Ann Wingert on September 4, 2021 at 7:23 am

        AMEN BROTHER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

        Why I fled the Catholic Church in terror!

        You forgot the continual death threats against women, especially the pro-death movement.

      • Christopher Pineau on September 4, 2021 at 8:43 am

        Sadly, that stereotype is still being milked really hard by the enemies of the church, isn’t it? Good points made by you, sir.

        • Lego Bugati on September 4, 2021 at 11:48 am

          Not a stereotype everyday reality right now if we are going to change we must be self aware

          • Ann Wingert on September 5, 2021 at 5:00 am

            AMEN Brother!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  2. Ray on July 30, 2021 at 10:03 am

    ALL should be altruistic in Christ!

  3. Elvis on July 21, 2021 at 10:59 am

    Great and lovely! This is what I’ve been looking for, for years !

  4. Gregg Doyle on July 2, 2021 at 10:00 am

    Carey, thanks for all you do. Keep up the good fight. Personally, I believe that sinners welcomed Jesus, his healing, and his encouraging words. The religious leaders conspired with the secular government to kill God’s son, not the sinners. Our king’s orders are to “Go and make disciples”. This involves going and building relationships. Unfortunately, based on the churches I have experienced, Preachers are more resistant to change than any other profession. The lesson of the desert is that sometimes God has to let those who refuse to change, die. Carey, I sincerely hope that your work will inspire change that leads to the kingdom growing in glory and power. Keep pointing the way. Keep pointing to Jesus. Blessings and peace to you and your family.

    • Christopher Pineau on July 2, 2021 at 9:22 pm

      Yes! It never fails to irritate me (if not anger me) when people start hating on the Jews because “THEY KILLED CHRIST,” among other unsavory accusations. When you try to remind them that the Sanehedrin and the Romans were the ones who orchestrated and carried out His execution as opposed to the rank and file Jews who loved Him as their Savior, it never goes over well. Sad, isn’t it? Us sinner types appreciate Him far more than those who claim most vocally to do so, IMO. But then again? It’s always the loudest who have the most to hide, isn’t it?

      • Gregg Doyle on July 4, 2021 at 1:57 pm

        It is human nature to need an enemy or someone to hate. In these situations, I look to Luke 23:34, where Jesus asks God for the forgiveness of those responsible for his crucifixion. However, the best direction from Jesus is Matthew 7:6, (my paraphrase), don’t waste your time.

        • Christopher Pineau on July 4, 2021 at 8:56 pm

          Sage words, and honestly, that’s what I do most of the time on the Internet when people do that, or if SJW types start in on whatever foolishness they’re on about at the moment. Better things to do than to try and change the minds of those sorts. I let them go about their business and I go about mine and I’m better off that way.

          • Daniel Garland on July 13, 2021 at 8:05 am

            In addition to being an assistant pastor I also serve with a disaster relief service that assists those who experience damage to their home but do not have any help with repairs or rebuilding. Where I live there are many people who, for one reason or another, cannot get insurance.
            In a nearby community a family had a sewage backup in their basement. Being on income assistance they had no insurance, and the town council declined any assistance as well. Therefore the homeowner reached out to the organization that I serve with. We agreed to help the family clean up and repair their home at no charge to them. Please understand that the organization that I serve with is covering all of the expenses.
            But we have an obstacle, Covid19. Because this organization is new here on the east coast of Canada, where I live, we still don’t have a lot of volunteers in the Atlantic provinces. Whenever we have a project we are depending on volunteers who have to travel from outside of our area. Unfortunately covid19 restrictions makes this impossible.
            Because of the restrictions I had to put more effort into getting volunteers to complete the work for the family with the sewage backup. In doing so I reached out to the churches closest to the family that had the backup, for volunteers. Now remember that the expenses for this project are already covered. I’m only looking for volunteers to help with the work. I’m not looking for money. First it took many repeated attempts just to get in contact with anyone from either of the two churches that are in the area whether by phone, email or Facebook Messenger. Finally one of the churches did respond to me by Messenger and and said that they would mention our project in their announcements during Sunday’s service. I never received any other response from them.
            The other church I did finally get in contact with by phone. The only thing that the pastor of this church wanted to know was what denomination was the homeowner that I was trying to help. When I told the pastor that I didn’t know what denomination he was the pastor said that he would only mention the project to a few people in the church.
            The only help we received were two people who lived an hours drive from the community of the homeowner, one was my brother in law, the other a fellow assistant pastor from my own church. The only other people were the co-member of the organization and his wife, who had to travel 3 hours to and from the project. No one from the nearby churches thought that this family was worth the effort.
            I try to remain optimistic, believing that this is just an anomaly. But in my attempts to promote this relief organization to the local churches in my area I’m not so sure. I’ve had pastors, who know me, agree to have me come in and speak to their congregation about the organization, only to have their provincial head office tell them to cancel. One of the pastors suggested that I contact their head office to have the organization recognized. I made several attempts but never received a response.
            The organization originates from a well known group of Christian, Bible believing, Jesus following, evangelical denominations and seeks to be the hands and feet of Jesus reaching out to people in need. It is not by any means a secular organization.
            When it is this difficult to get the church to do anything to help someone in need is it any wonder that the world thinks that the church is nothing but a bunch of hypocrites? We need to do better.

  5. Christopher Pineau on June 29, 2021 at 7:23 pm

    I can only speak for myself, here, obviously, to begin with. But, based on what I’m still seeing these days? The tendency to condemn as opposed to presenting positive guidance and support based in *loving* judgment is what I think turns non-Christians (AKA the “unchurched” as some of you call them) away and makes them think “Oh, they’re judging us because they think they’re better than us, because they think they can.” That tendency slots in entirely too well with the tendency of the woke Left to do just that, condemn and destroy, and may well explain why the woke virus has found such strong footholds in churches of late. The tendency to forget that Love is the most important part of the equation, and while I do understand the notion of “hate the sin, love the sinner,” I notice that the two tend to be thoroughly intertwined in the minds of those who see fit to be that way to the “unchurched.” AKA their tendency to immediately pass judgment and come down hard on the “sinner” and alienate them more than assist them. I find there’s FAR too much of that going on.

    For example, when I recently commented elsewhere on how foolish it was to hate the Jews, I was told words to the effect of “If your (sic) a Christian, you need to read your Bible, then you’ll understand why!” It came off as mindless hatred–and it was someone who clearly didn’t grok that the Sanhedrin and the rank and file Jews were two totally different groups. One group hated Christ for the threat he represented to their establishment, and the other group loved Him because He was their Savior. That kind of condemnation leads to hatred, and hatred leads to falling from grace, to borrow from George Lucas and Master Yoda. 🙂

    I’d go as far as to say that often times, in church circles, there’s even what I’d call cult mentality, as in “Oh, you need to join OUR church, it’s the bestest church ever!” Kind of like the SCA in that respect (“Oh THAT barony sucks, they’re just a bunch of Authenticity Police! Join ours, we’re better then them! You’ll have fun with us, really!”). Not to mention, the attitudes of small town gossiping about how “Mr. & Mrs. Such and Such aren’t really ‘living the life’ because they don’t come to church every Sunday like we do!” I don’t often get the impression that newcomers are welcome as anything other than warm bodies to fill pews with and potentially malleable minds to reshape at whim and will. Which is what leads to me being wary at best of churches, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere in these forums. Forgive the novel, but I often end up having a lot to say and it just comes on out once I get going.

  6. Fran Goodrich on June 29, 2021 at 12:46 pm

    Personally, the thing that’s helped me connect with people outside the church the most (with the Holy Spirit empowering me, of course), is practicing the 9 Arts of Spiritual Conversations. These practical 9 “Arts” are the things Jesus did: Noticing, Praying, Listening, Asking Questions, Loving, Welcoming, Facilitating, Serving Together, Sharing the Good News. If Christians practiced these do-able skills with people who believe differently, our image in the world would dramatically change for the better.

  7. Fran Goodrich on June 29, 2021 at 12:43 pm

    Personally, the thing that’s helped me connect with people outside the church the most (with the Holy Spirit empowering me, of course), is practicing the 9 Arts of Spiritual Conversations. These practical 9 “Arts” are the things Jesus did: Noticing, Praying, Listening, Asking Questions, Loving, Welcoming, Facilitating, Serving Together, Sharing the Good News. If Christians practiced these do-able skills with people who believe differently, our image in the world would dramatically change for the better.

  8. Bothwell Phiri on June 28, 2021 at 4:54 pm

    I believe we really need to be careful of these polls and not be hasty to respond to them. I know im hucking the trend here but hear me out;
    @America is jn the midst of a polarising environment in which some sectors of the church lost their identity and became a part of the Republican party instead of the salt we are meant to be but not every church is guilty of that.
    @There is surely a divide in the American church and speaking as a foreigner the level of materialism and compromise in America makes it almost impossible for most charismatically raised Africans to relate to the god of comfort and ease worshipped in most churches in the USA.
    @America has always been an open place and hence has imported lots of strange practuces and religions.
    What do we mean by repentance in terms of turning the tide? The above is part of the reason the church looked to Trump as saviour instead of tuening to Christ however until we are clear about the solutions we espuse we could be digging deeper into the abyss. The church has never operated on the basis of what the world thought of it as long as it walked uprightly. Be careful of wanting the worlds approval when we are meant to be showing the world what the kingdom is.

    • Donna Covello on June 28, 2021 at 5:29 pm

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I may have been harsh in my statement. I just think all religions and churches need to address the real problems that is going on with spiritual. Evangelicals strongly proclaimed God sent us Trump and many churches and religions followed. I am from ELCA church, I have studied the Lutheran Pastor Deitrich Bonhoeffer. A famous quote he made during WWII, Nazis Germany
      “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not holds us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act “

    • Missy on June 28, 2021 at 7:20 pm

      Thank you, Bothwell Phiri. You have captured my thoughts as well.

  9. Shauna Pilgreen on June 28, 2021 at 3:24 pm

    Carey, I just wanted to say thanks. Thank you for the research you share and collaborate on with Barna. Ben and I learn so much from you and as pastors, we are grateful to be reaching this world for Jesus together. I love what you said about repentance and we all need daily reminders to be Christ to everyone around us. They will know us by our love and be drawn to Him – our ultimate mission here.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on June 29, 2021 at 8:56 pm

      Shauna, thanks so much for your kind words. Cheering for you both!

  10. Donna Covello on June 28, 2021 at 12:39 pm

    American politics is a new religion. It has already replaced religion with people who called themselves Christians and with Non-Christians. Christians have become involved in cultural wars, refused to compromise on many issues feelings in which they think they are the expert in what is moral or immoral.
    I do not think where you are getting the statics that you share in this blog. However, the statists and data are pointing towards the decline of any religious denomination or churches.
    What non-Christians are looking for a “beloved community in which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of the practice of love as a bedrock for society.
    Over the past two decades, any religion or church that “hate” individuals based on race, sexual preference, and poor people. Churches that are not open-minded to new ideas or just the concept of evolution (scientific or specific evidence of a creator) are disturbing. Organized religious groups are becoming more divisive, clergy sex abuse, churches foul teachings of homosexuality, and now two Lutheran’s Synods (LCMS, WELS) are associated with beginning a cult.
    With the past emerges of Trump’s theologians (worship) and its displays of signs “Jesus Saves” next to those calling for the hanging of Mike Pence during January 6, 2021 insurrection of domestic terrorists. Cross with the crown of thorns placed around it on this violent day. The pastor attending this insurrection praying on his hands and knees in front of the cross invited his church members to join him on this beautiful journey from Florida to Washington DC.
    Many life-long Christians have turned their backs away from churches, and non-Christians just confined their athletic stance.

    • Morris A. Scott, Esq., M.A. on June 28, 2021 at 2:13 pm

      …and how do you define “love”?

    • Steven M. Benson on June 29, 2021 at 4:31 pm

      What is the cult that LCMS and WELS are starting? I don’t understand what you are referring to.

      • Donna Covello on June 30, 2021 at 10:07 am

        Based on the 2021 BITE Model.
        The BITE Model of Authoritarian Control: Undue Influence, Thought Reform, Brainwashing, Mind Control, Trafficking, and the Law”

        Steven Hassan developed the BITE Model to describe the specific methods that cults use to recruit and maintain control over people.
        “BITE” stands for
        E-Emotional Control
        Hassan based his research and theory on Robert Jay Lifton, Margaret Singer, Edgar Schein, Louise Jolyon West, and others who studied brainwashing in Maoist China and cognitive dissonance theory by Leon Festinger.

        To see The BITE Model
        To see the full, check out the page above, lists and its links to a PDF.
        The BITE Model scoring is rating each cult characteristic out of two,
        Zero out of 2 = LCMS/WELS does not do this at all
        One out 2 = LCMS/WELS. They sometimes do this but not often, or they do, but it’s not that bad
        Two out of 2 = they are either very guilty of this, they do it constantly, or it has at some point caused a person great personal distress or harm in their personal life.

        LCMS scored 40%/70%
        WELS scored 60%/70%

        Standard Deviations in the average distribution is P(X<x).
        Mean Score 50,
        LCMS Score 40 1 Standard Deviation

        If this was a test of 40%, this group meets a few of the criteria; it can still qualify as a cult. In school, 40% is a failing grade.
        LCMS and WELS are fundamentalist groups of the extreme conservative ring wing.

        This Model is undergoing scientific reviews, which means the scientists need metadata analysis from psychiatry research for its approval. However, many peer-review journals regarding "Cult membership: What factors contribute to joining or leaving"? (Rousselet, M, and Grail-Bronnec, M.) November 2017,

  11. Greg on June 28, 2021 at 12:17 pm

    For me it comes down to the question of why the local church exists. Is the local church the MEANS of evangelism, or the RESULT of evangelism? The Church Growth Movement told us to start new churches in order to reach new people (church as an evangelistic method). A few generations later, this seems to have become accepted as an unassailable principle. But the way I read the Book of Acts, it was taking the Gospel to the unsaved that resulted in local churches forming and growing. Not vice versa. To attempt to make the church attractive to unregenerate people seems to me to be placing the cart before the horse and to not be in sync with a biblical ecclesiology. The church becomes attractive to sinners once they turn from their sins, place faith in Christ and are born again by the power of the Spirit. My experience is that when a real sinner is really born again, they don’t care that much about the color of the sanctuary carpet or how tech-savvy the church is, etc. Maybe in actual fact all we have managed to do by our attractional market-driven church models is to attract nominal, or at best, carnal Christians. In our desire to fill seats, have we employed methods that in some cases have succeeded in growing our individual churches (migrating people from Church A to Church B), but without growing the Kingdom (unsaved coming to faith in Christ)? One related observation: Could the pattern of irregular church attendance many churches have been seeing for years just be the chickens coming home to roost with regard to the attractional model? Have our marketing approaches created Christian consumers who ultimately have come to view church as just another product or service that they use when and if they need it?

    • Chris C on June 28, 2021 at 12:24 pm

      Greg, this is the crux of the issue and where we’ve missed the boat…

      You asked, “Is the local church the MEANS of evangelism, or the RESULT of evangelism?”

      Spot on! It’s the RESULT, not the MEANS. Time to understand that we gather to share, encourage and EQUIP the Body to do the work of advancing the Kingdom out in the world around us. We make a serious mistake when we (inadvertently or otherwise) assume that the ‘gathering’ is where we are to reach the lost.

      • Wayne Keller on June 28, 2021 at 4:10 pm

        Exactly, we are startled that the culture, clamoring for inclusivity in every conceivable endeavor or genre is ignoring the church because it is exclusive. It exists to teach biblical morality after all and little else. Most people likely know exactly what the church stands for and they see those outmoded moral ideals as irrelevant and in some cases dangerous to the free spirit of self expression that has pervaded since the loss of the church in community/culture.

  12. Steve on June 28, 2021 at 10:15 am

    Respectfully, Nothing new here, just repackaged. Normally I get excited by your posts. Not this time, tell me something new, we don’t already know.

    • Ken on June 28, 2021 at 10:51 am

      Sorry, I have to agree with Steve here …. “One of the sharpest differences in this round of research is that 80% of practicing Christians have a positive view of the church. Only 21% of non-Christians think of the church in a positive way. That’s a startling gap.”

      This is actually not “startling” at all but exactly what you would expect.
      No much useful information here.

      • Jill Johnson on June 28, 2021 at 11:45 am

        Only 21% think of the church in positive way? That’s not good. That’s startling. How are people supposed to know Christ when they can’t get along with his people. I feel like this comment directly shows the problem. We don’t care enough as the church to change from judging others to accepting others. We’re stuck in our own ways. It’s heartbreaking.

        • Wayne Keller on June 28, 2021 at 11:59 am

          Jill, good comment. Can you elaborate on what “getting along” would be? Seems like The Church is an exclusive group (marked by habitus, liturgies, creeds and daily if not weekly observances with their own language) while the gospel message is meant to be inclusive. How do we navigate this external issue with “outsiders/pre-Christians/the world”? Interested

        • Ken on June 28, 2021 at 2:55 pm

          And of course you completely hijacked my comment for your own purposes which amounts to little more than some pretty simplistic virtue signaling. I never said/implied/intimated in any way whatsoever that I thought the fact that 21% of unbelievers think of the church in a negative way was “good” or something we should not not “care about”. I simply said it was not “startling” but pretty much what you would expect from a survey constructed the way this one was. May I gently urge you to be more careful in your reading before “judging”, as you did my comment [and as you suggest we not do]. Or said another way, there is a some plank removal required here before going after specks.

    • Joseph Lalonde on June 28, 2021 at 12:34 pm

      While I agree that you’re right that the information is nothing new, seeing it presented in this way may snap some in the church out of the bubble they’re in. I know many churchgoers who think the community sees them in a positive light. The reality is, the community doesn’t see much benefit from the church. It’s just another drain on finances because the church is so insular. Reports like this help those in the church who are willing to see that there are major issues.

  13. Walter Swaim on June 28, 2021 at 8:49 am

    My nature is to eat up data like this – take in loads of it, analyze it and make action plans based on it. For some time in the past I lived and died by the psychoanalytic research, especially as regards the church and its perception in the world. I’ve served as a foreign missionary in a 3rd world country, a bilingual church planter in my native South Florida, and now pastoring in TX. As I am approaching the 40 years-in-ministry mark I’ve lived long enough to step way back from the exhaustive data hunger and hyper-analysis of what is actually a social and metaphysical (spiritual) struggle. I wore myself out trying to follow the strategies due to reactions to each data cycle over the years about what the church is not doing right (spoiler alert: it’s always the church’s fault, not the world’ being in sin). I finally realized the Gospels and Acts (and history) reveal that on one side the church had favor from the people and yet at the same time lived through hideous persecution from the hands of many of the same. I also realized how Jesus and the apostles pounded on the fact that the world is full of itself and in sin and what else should we expect when we get studies and surveys like this – even in the church’s best times of favor with the public. In the end I have discovered to please just don’t be a jerk with the unsaved, to love, follow and obey Jesus, and make disciples who make disciples of Jesus and let the world thinks what it thinks. Don’t try to win them over in a public relations effort, but love them over to Jesus while preaching & teaching the unadulterated truth of God. It is good to not stay in a silo either and know, read and think through these types of studies to be informed about your blind spots and make needed adjustments, but don’t live and die by them – just stick to the knitting. Paul said it best ” Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables. But you be watchful in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.” 2 Tim. 4:2-5

    • Paul on June 28, 2021 at 9:17 am

      So good! Thank you!

    • Richard on June 28, 2021 at 9:34 am

      Great response.

      • David Gruber on June 28, 2021 at 1:59 pm

        Great wisdom and experience in your response! Thank you!

    • JOHN BURWELL STONE on June 28, 2021 at 9:58 am

      Amen 100X!

    • Michael Washburn on June 28, 2021 at 10:30 am

      Thanks Walter, I have been in ministry about 37 years and can concur with everything you said! Balance is the key. Being informed is essential, but no one can come to the Father unless the Spirit draws them. Scripture is pretty clear that things will get worse before Jesus returns, not better. That doesn’t relieve us of the responsibility to do everything we can to be Kingdom builders and disciplemakers…but if we think that we will somehow magically we are going to change the perception of the church in a fallen world just be responding to their opinion of us I think we are only fooling ourselves.

    • Caleb on June 28, 2021 at 1:56 pm

      WISDOM! Priceless feedback right here.

    • Kingsley on June 28, 2021 at 5:04 pm

      Brilliant Walter!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on June 29, 2021 at 9:00 pm

      Love this. Grateful for you, Walter!

  14. Chris C on June 28, 2021 at 8:37 am

    I was pondering much of this a while ago as I drove by an Elks lodge. (And so many other lodges, fraternities, similar clubs, grange halls etc). Never having been a part of any of these beyond one or two forays into one as a rented wedding facility, I only thought of them as old, smoking or drinking establishments populated by folks with no other life.

    I had no, none, zero interest in checking them out. They just had no role in my life. Even if they had had a banner about a membership drive or whatever, they had no bearing on my life, my relationships, or free time. I think that to the younger generations, church is just an irrelevant, anomaly that really doesn’t elicit any curiosity. There limited awareness of judge mental people, usually slightly weird and mostly ‘against’ something correlates to my own impression of an old, smoke-filled, drinking establishment on the ragged edges of existence. Neither I, nor the culture today, may have accurate impressions, but neither do we care or give any attention to them.

    The Church will only grow and be relevant to the extent that individuals build loving relationships with those around them. Folks aren’t looking for another ‘club’ or organization to join these days. It’s all the same with golf course country clubs, yacht clubs…. and churches. The model is becoming less and less relevant or needed. That folks need Jesus is without argument, that another local organization can provide Him is sort of silly. Folks need to see Him in us, not our club.

    • Wayne Keller on June 28, 2021 at 11:50 am

      Good reflection and personal illustration Chris. Do you think that the “time honored” social clubs (Elks, VFW etc) include the church as it was an accepted part of culture? There has been a marked decrease in attendance to all of these institutions/organizations perhaps because individual autonomy has increased exponentially while herd mentality and moral homeostasis have diminished. The “I don’t need to go to church to have a relationship with God” response seems indicative of the autonomy that marks our post enlightenment liberty for better or worse. Tribal (want to gather) impulses are forming neo “communities”. “The Road Trip That Changed the World” (Sayers) gives insight to a significant part of the liberty consciousness expansion. Unfortunately, “loving relationships” today equate to humanist and hedonist liberty relationships. The Church is pressed into service without a message or half the message of the gospel of the Kingdom and the accompanying demonstration of power that Jesus and disciples wielded vis a vis authority is not present? Great dialogue nonetheless

      • Chris C on June 28, 2021 at 12:34 pm

        The current ‘form’ of church is a remnant of a way of gathering that really had value 50-150 years ago. Less so in todays’ culture.

        I don’t think it’s so much the individualism aspect that is guiding the culture’s antipathy to church as it is the fact that the ‘local church’ has not delivered on it’s purported value. It does not really provide ‘community’ (come on, 5 minutes before and after a monologue and staring at the back of someone’s head while ‘listening’ to a couple songs = community?) It is a ‘school’ from which there is no graduation and no serious expectation of ‘its’ students really implementing any of the ‘course’. (yes, they’d be happy if you do but there’s no points off if you don’t)

        I also attribute the rise of the Done’s to this reality as well.

        Oh, don’t get me started. Sorry… I’m really trying to be good here. See Greg’s comments above for the real issue.

  15. Dan Donaldson on June 28, 2021 at 8:34 am

    Meaningful content! If we are missionally focused on reaching “the one” (in unity with the heart of God according to Luke 15), then we must be aware of these perceptions. Reality and perception both matter. Thanks, Carey.

    • Jason on June 28, 2021 at 9:43 am

      I know when you talk about the social issues the millennials think we are out of touch with, the biggest one would most likely be LGBTQ+ from my conversations. I know you’ve touched a bit on this topic before Carey, but I would love for you to do another post on that social issue in particular, as it seems to be a very difficult one for the church to navigate walking in truth while having compassion and understanding at the same time. Thanks for your blog. It’s very thought provoking at times. Blessings.

  16. Jordan on June 28, 2021 at 8:19 am

    They aren’t crucifying us or lighting us on fire at the moment, so I’d say we’re doing pretty good.

    The closer the church gets to authenticity, the more we will disturb the darkness… The more hated we will be by an unbelieving world.

    The fact that we are tolerated as we are is not a credit to us. Jesus was never tolerated. He was either loved or hated. And it’s no different for us.

    “To one we are the smell of death. To the other the fragrance of life.”

    “Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for that is how their fathers treated the false prophets.”

    If you’re goal is to be well recieved by society at large, start a social club, not a church.

    The church is here to destroy the devil’s work, not make friends with it.

    He who desires to be a friend of the world is an enemy of God.

    Pretty straight forward if you ask me.

    “You will be hated by all men because of me, but he who endures to the end will be saved”.

    • Morris A. Scott, Esq., M.A. on June 28, 2021 at 8:34 am

      How are we going to win a lost world, when we see them only as an enemy. Did Christ not sit with sinners, albeit from a position of power and influence. Did not Christ characterize the world as “sick” in need of a physician. The only people that arguably could be said to be characterized as enemies was the “religious leaders”. I get your point on not cozying up with the world; but we cannot go to the other extreme of hating them. We show love, which, as every parent knows, has a soft side and a sharp disciplinary side. Blessings.

    • Indar on June 28, 2021 at 8:55 am

      Interesting I was thinking some of the same things. Yet some of the points made about our self awareness is also good. I see harmonizing the two. Balance is still the key.

  17. Jeff Julien on June 28, 2021 at 8:18 am

    The perception of church for those not connected to the church is formed by the media. The media is motivated by profits. If it bleeds, is sensational or controversial, it leads.

  18. Morris A. Scott, Esq., M.A. on June 28, 2021 at 7:57 am

    This is a great article and I will keep it for reference. I do believe that the first priority is to be driven by what God thinks of us. This will lead us to the same place of love and compassion of which you speak. However it will protect us against hyper-sensitivity to the unchurched; something I don’t think they even want. I also believe it is not only the unchurched that doesn’t hold the church in high regard; but the church doesn’t hold the unchurched in high regard either, believing the unbeliever to be often antagonistic toward Biblical principles. The issue for me is: Should the church have a different approach toward those who set out to assail Biblical principles vs those who are legitimate seekers. What percentage of those involved in the survey are the former (assailants) vs the latter (seekers). Ultimately, I believe the important objective is to understand the perspective of the unchurched (whether friend or foe), while never allowing that understanding to move us to compromise our theology.

  19. John Price on June 28, 2021 at 7:51 am

    It’s certainly important to be aware of this gap, but the differences in our world-views necessitates a gap. Spirit-led people have a different, reality-based, Spirit-fueled perspective (though still flawed by our own struggles with sin). The gap is inevitable and helpful (as you mentioned) in offering that something which is different from all isms and options. I’m not supposing that you’re advocating softening our positions on Biblically correct issues of morality. I’m hoping you mean to help us examine our approach to non-believers who are acting out of their natures and will not (and cannot) be bashed into a relationship with Jesus (and to whom we need to apologize for our still-lingering self sometimes). For some reason, the word FRIENDLY hovers in my mind. Imagine if we were friendly in our relationships with pre-Christians (retro word)!

    • Dave Daubert on June 28, 2021 at 8:42 am

      I don’t think the “gap” is mandatory. The early church was actually well thought of by people (see Acts 2) and was also a positive force in the world in ways that were seen as positive. The Emperor Julian bemoaned the fact that Christians were caring and loving in ways that put the Roman pagans to shame and that there was little chance of the renewal of Roman religion that he desired in part because people thought well of Christians. I think taking quotes from Jesus out of context or making them too broadly applied can be an easy way out for not building the kind off relationships that we are called to do and become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

      • John Price on June 28, 2021 at 10:06 am

        The Emperor’s shame is an example of the inherent gap.

  20. Peter Reid on June 28, 2021 at 7:28 am

    Hi Carey
    There’s a lot in these data that gives much food for thought. It clearly is important for our mission to understand how people view the church – and then to reflect on why and ask to what extent any negative views are justified and therefore require change on our part. Some would define external self-awareness as understanding how others see us and the data are very helpful in providing information on how people see the church. However using that definition of external self-awareness I’m not sure the data actually prove that the church lacks it (but it might do!). Just because somebody views you less favourably than you view yourself doesn’t necessarily mean you are unaware of that. You say: ‘The self-awareness gap… is a gap between how non-Christian people see the church versus how people who attend church see it.’ Would an external self-awareness gap not be a gap between how non-Christian people see the church and how church-goers think non-Christians view the church? Do you have data to show that? If it’s a concern that non-Christian people have justified negative perceptions of the church, it’s even more so if the church is oblivious to those perceptions.
    Just one query about the data: the finding that 49% of those aged 22 – 36 reported not knowing any Christian pastors personally, compared with 66% of those aged 56 – 74 is the opposite of what I would have expected. I would have expected the older age group to be more likely to have personal contact with a pastor. Are the figures correct?

  21. Wayne Keller on June 28, 2021 at 5:39 am

    Carey…”Be loving. Compassionate. Kind. Gracious. Curious. Embracing. Genuine.” That’s it? The “authentic” church. Have I missed a piece you’ve done on the authentic church? Sorry I might have, I’ve been doing post grad work on Christian leadership in the global context for two years so I had a bunch to read. As the Church struggles with what authenticity (that pleases the world) looks like, I’d sincerely like to hear your full view on the matter in light of all that Jesus and his disciples did and the great commission. What of the authority piece (in the spirit realm and the social)? Is that what we are repenting of when you add to the prescription or anitdote for the falling away, that the Church needs “repentance, humility, reconciliation, and a new reality moving forward are good places to start.”? A broader discussion perhaps? The Church of Jesus the Christ is to be rooted in sacrificial love. Then her practices are subject to opinions and sentiments of the world she exists to influence (it cost the “authentic” church members of the time their lives including its leader). How much was Jesus concerned with what the fallen world he’d created thought of what he did in his brief time among us? To quote a couple funny and famous guys, He was “on a mission from God”. His priority was to introduce salvation and consecration. Did he secondarily come to reset the “Church” of the Hebrews because they had become unloving in their practices? Sorry, feels like a deep topic with a postmodern rebranding spin offered like she is a franchise to be made more popular. An authentically loving church is hard to define. It has extremes that range from the Crusades (someone’s view of “tough love” on behalf of Jesus in a given era) and mother Theresa. The “average” local church seems to be stuck somewhere in between, leaning more toward the latter extreme example thank God but is she irrelevant and unloving as an institution because she represents Jesus or because she misrepresents Jesus? Thanks for your time man of God.

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