Trust and Religious Institutions

From NPR:

Is it possible to follow Jesus and turn away from the church?

Something is happening when it comes to religion in America.

Though more Americans go to church or believe in God than their counterparts in virtually every other Western country, fewer Americans now trust religious institutions. A recent Gallup pollshowed that just 44 percent of Americans have a great deal of confidence in “the church or organized religion.”

It’s unclear if this is a permanent shift or just a sign of the times, but NPR’s religion correspondent Barbara Bradley Hagerty says it doesn’t mean that America is less religious.

“Although among young people, belief in God is declining,” Hagerty tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz. “But generally polls show that about 90 percent of Americans actually believe in God. So what’s happening here is a decline in the trust of religious organizations.”

People just don’t want to go to church as much as they used to, Hagerty says, and the societal pressures to go aren’t there anymore.

Hagerty says one type of religious institution in America that is growing is the nondenominational Christian churches, whose membership has tripled in the last 20 years. She says marketing, a more relaxed atmosphere and a notion that you can have a “personal relationship with God” all contribute to the growth of these institutions.

“That’s transcendent, that’s transformative,” she says. “Because of that, they seem to give meaning and purpose to people’s lives. It draws people in.”

"Did you find anything about how those who wish to enter the country should go ..."

Romans 13, Pence, Session …
"Presumably therefore you believe the founding fathers were acting sinfully when they rebelled against the ..."

Romans 13, Pence, Session …
"I didn't see anything in this list about teaching (maybe I missed it). It seems ..."

Time For Seminary: 10 Reasons
"you have much in common"

The Demise Of The Soul Of ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Bob

    Yes, it’s not only possible, it HAPPENS. I’ve taken to calling myself a “Jesus-following agnostic” because I can’t buy into ANY of the denominations (or quasi-non-denominations) out there. I neither know nor care about things from the distant past or remote future that so many churches I’ve been in have been so certain about… it’s absurd, because you simply cannot be certain, you can only hope, trust, etc. Proof-texting, in-fighting, and endless scholarly debates have killed religion for me. I think in the end religion is really just scaffolding… and once you’ve gotten far enough with what you’re building, you’re free to tear it down without guilt. The way of Jesus introduces shalom back into our relationships, communities, and world. His way of loving self-sacrifice is the path to peace (as opposed to demanding our rights as citizens of the American Empire). It’s totally possible to follow his way without the training wheels of religion… you just have to first learn balance.

  • Seems to me that the issue that arises out of this is the question “What value is there in demoninations?” For me, I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t tempted to go non-denominational, but I deeply fear the lack of accountability that individual churches have without a larger denominational structure to keep them in check. Certainly there has been abuse in the other direction (too much control), but I fear the lack of accountability even more.

  • RobS

    Well, believe in God (90%) and those that trust in Jesus (lower % I’m sure) are pretty different, so maybe I’ll answer the question all wrong, but…

    But the Church is a big thing. Surely, individual local churches aren’t growing, may be failing, or don’t do a good job to live out the essence of the Gospel message well. But past that, I think Jesus cares about the church (“I will build MY church” in Matt 16:8) and has a lot to say about discipline (Acts has a bunch) and how the church is used (Ephesians has a lot to say here).

    I can imagine if the local church I attended was nothing but fighting over small doctrinal items that I’d probably be burned out and looking for somewhere else to pour my energy though, that’s for sure.

    I think it’s hard to say “I love Jesus but hate the Church.” If Jesus cares about the Church, then I think we should care about the Church (even if it breaks our heart from time to time).

  • Rick

    “…and the societal pressures to go aren’t there anymore.”

    That may be a healthy thing.

    In regards to the question at hand, I go along with the take of RobS. We should care about the church because Jesus cares about the church. As with any body/organism/family, there are problems and imperfections. However, we are still to be a part of it. Perhaps our expectations of “church” are misguided.

  • RJS

    Rick, I agree that we should care about the church because Jesus cares about the church. What does “care about the church” mean though?

    If I were to get cynical reading this piece I would suggest that the segment of the church that is growing (see the penultimate paragraph) is the segment that is most effectively preaching that the central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself and that the central goal of the gospel is to enable this through personal salvation and helps for everyday life followed by life in heaven with God.

    That is something of an oversimplification, I admit – but I wonder how much?

    Perhaps caring deeply about the church means standing as a voice against this message. Or maybe this is the message we should be preaching and caring deeply about the church means helping churches transform and grow through this message.

  • Rick

    RJS #5-

    Total agreement. So they need to be a part of that transformation, not walk away from it. That is caring about the church in the way Jesus cares (imho).

  • CGC

    Hi Everyone,
    If the church would really die to self, priviledge, comfort, power, personal prosperity and it’s “rights” (whatever those are?), then I wonder if the death of the church might birth resurrection?

  • RJS


    I am not quite sure what you are agreeing with. We should help churches transform into places where the primary message is personal happiness? (Attached of course to salvation.)

  • Rick

    RJS #8-

    Sorry, I was unclear about that. No, we need to “transform” away from that perspective. Healthier equipping, discipleship (including the “cost of”), etc.. is needed.

  • Jesse

    In short, no, it is not possible to follow Jesus and turn away from the Church. The fundamental premise that drives that mentality is that salvation is private (as opposed to personal which the Gospel definitely is). Of course, this doesn’t mean that the church is perfect. It needs prophetic correction…from within. Those who leave the church in order to call out its sins lack credibility. Can we trust, after all, the prophet’s call to reform if it is not backed up by the patient and enduring love which compels them to stay?

  • Andrew

    Following Jesus will always (eventually) lead you into a community of fellow followers.

    I like CS Lewis writes in the preface of Mere Christianity (as he describes what he means by “mere” Christianity):

    “It is more like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms … it is in the rooms, not in the hall, there are fires and chairs and meals. The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try to various doors, not a place to live in. For that purpose the worst of rooms (whichever that may be) is, I think, perferable … But you must regard it as waiting, not as camping. You must keep on praying for light: and, of course, even in the hall, you must begin trying to obey the rules which are common to the whole house. And above all you must be asking which door is the true one; not which pleases you best … When you have reached your own room, be kind to those who have chosen different doors and to who who are still in the hall.”

  • Hello Dr. McKnight! I just finished reading The King Jesus Gospel today. Thank you! This is a great contribution to the Evangelical world! I have a question to ask regarding a significant point in the book. Is there a more appropriate forum from which to ask the question? Thanks again!

  • Rick

    But what exactly is church? Reading through the posts, it sounds like most of you believe in church that meets in the building every Sunday. I am not so convinced of that anymore though I do continue to attend. I look at my children, and they are completely tired of church. They have no desire to go at all. That doesn’t mean that they don’t get together with believers and talk about God or pray for each other which to me would be church. I think that the institution of church is going to undergoing some change because it has pretty much lost it’s ability to connect with the younger generation.

  • DRT

    I had yet another failed attempt this week. I was talking to a local SBC pastor and was asking if it would be OK to attend their church. Based on my beliefs he said that it would “take a miracle”.

    I promise I would have been good!

  • DRT

    I have decided that I should try and meet with Christians in my community, and that I should try and not get discouraged by the lack of a warm reception I get. They all want to either just do some charity and have a country club experience or pretty much tout sin and hell. Neither of those wants me there.

    The more I study and learn the more I feel an obligation to make attempts to try and persuade others of a different perspective. Here is a small excerpt from an email:

    I used to engage in some of these “arguments” in the past and do so to this day only to defend Truth. Yes, I said “truth” with a capital “T” and yes, you guessed it, I’m “one of them” who believes in absolute truth (I noticed your article didn’t address God’s perception of truth – which by your argument, you should agree that His perceptions are unbiased and untainted. Nor did you mention the havoc your view produces in the realm of morality

    It makes me sad.

  • Joey Elliott


    I believe you! And would love for you to join me at my church if you are ever in my area.

    Though was your interest in just attending, or in becoming a member (or equivalent). Clearly attending should have little to no restriction, but would you agree that committing to regular fellowship would not be in the best interest of either of you?

    I recently received very profound advice as I was considering a church change: you can serve a church by leaving. That didn’t mean they didn’t want me, or that in general I didn’t want to be there. Just that our differences (and my sin!) could create division that would hinder unity and effective ministry for both of us. That’s the positive side of denominations, I would say.

    And, wholeheartedly, I don’t believe it is possible to truly follow Jesus and resist fellowship with other believers in the form of “church”, even if church is very loosely defined (local, mega, denominational, house, etc.)

  • Greg Gamble

    Which one of the several dozens of church knock offs are we discussing?
    Do they include the ones that contain fewer and fewer born again, obedient and faithful Christians or maybe only Evangelical, or possibly Seventh Day, Salvation Army and other outliers?
    And is the implication that leaving these constructs is synonymous with denying Christ or possibly discouragement, apostasy, backsliding, being seduced by false doctrine, never saved?
    I think the question can be rephrased to : How can we know if we are a church to begin with if we barely look like, or sound, or walk or talk or have the impact that the one in scripture did?
    It seems naive to assume that any group that calls themselves church automatically has Jesus in its midst.
    Leaving some ‘churches’ might actually be a good move, if it’s members won’t to do what’s necessary to meet Jesus standard of a lampstand church, as He revealed to John in the Revelation. Jesus didn’t proscribe in detail what a church looked like, but he did diagnose what a failing or false church looks like, and to varying degrees from where I sit, all churches today share some or more of those chronic illnesses.
    Id be more concerned that Jesus keeps his threat to leave us, because our long history doesn’t include many of us that were aware when we left Him, either individually or corporately.

  • Bob

    One can be live in community with other Jesus followers (i.e. the church) while avoiding religion (i.e., Church, Inc.). I still attend a weekly meeting, but I strongly doubt that large gathering is the “church” about which Jesus spoke.

    I think Jesse’s assertion is wrong when he suggests that “personal salvation” is the fundamental premise that drives such thinking. I’m embracing the kingdom of God and what God is up to in the world, and partnering with God and other like-minded Jesus followers to do my part to bring shalom, to see God’s will done on earth (like it is done in heaven). We don’t need non-profit corporate entities with paid staff and multi-million dollar buildings and budgets to be actively engaged in that kind of kingdom-focused activity. It’s not about personal salvation at all; it’s about the salvation (the rescue, deliverance, restoration, etc) of the world.

  • scotmcknight

    Billy, write on the most recent blog post … on king Jesus for kids.

  • DRT

    Joey Elliot,

    Come on, is it really that easy to think someone would disagree with meek little humble old me’s theology? 🙂

    What saddens me about it is that it was not a severely qualified yes, it was a no. They have absolutely no interest in hearing or tolerating any other way other than their own.

    I know that I did not agree with all of their theology, but they have a really great local program giving out food and clothing and a lot of other good local missions. I respect them a great deal. We never even got to the point where I got to say what I was thinking about the degree of my involvement. As soon as they found out what I believed they said no.

    I can understand it and appreciate their frank view. I don’t think it was out of line since they know their church better than anyone else. The problem, as I see it, is they have not built a church that allows people to think. I am not too sad about my attendance, I am more sad that the relatively large church is closed minded.

    Dang, I would love to go to church with you! I would even let you introduce me to others as a very lost soul.

  • DRT

    CGC#7, well done. Good enough is the enemy of great.

  • Joey Elliott


    Haha! I do not believe you are a lost soul. 🙂 At least, no more lost than me! Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord!

    Although I don’t have any means, or desire, to really compare my church with the one you are talking about, I would say that my church certainly allows (encourages!) people to think. We even have a conference called “Think” once a year. However, it is possible that the “theology” that drives our mission is not your cup of tea, similar to this church. So of course you would be welcome to attend, but as I said before, for you to commit to fellowship with sharp disagreement in the church’s theology would not make sense for either party. Does that make sense? Perhaps they were just foreseeing this and saving both of you the trouble?

    I love to hear your respect for this church and what they are doing, but hate to hear about the way they seemed to have treated you.

  • Chris

    As usual, I think Bonhoeffer was way ahead of his time with this one:

    “The Pauline question whether circumcision is a condition of justification seems to me in present-day terms to be whether religion is a condition of salvation”

    As others have said, the role of community is still important but I think we are seeing a lot of people put “religion” into the same category as “circumcision”. Yes, it has meaning but it is not strictly required in the same way it has been in the past.

  • DRT

    I think this may be one of the weaknesses that has come about with the organizational structures of Protestant churches. In the RCC (I cannot speak for Orthodox Church), there are many people who hold views that differ from the church on a great number of issues. They are tolerated and allowed to attend, but if you cross one of the “do not cross this line” issues you can be excommunicated.

    In the Protestant churches that I see in my rural Virginia setting, the congregation tends to be people who build up walls around their beliefs. There are, after all, something like a gazillion protestant denominations. And even within the denomination, the autonomy of the local church is an invitation to ingrouping and power plays.

    My parents go to the Catholic church, and don’t follow everything they say, and many priests and nuns also are dissenters. But it almost takes a whole order of them like we saw with the nuns recently for the church to really stand up and take notice.

    As I said, I am in a rural setting with small churches, and it is quite easy to lose confidence in them….

  • Sean P. Nelson

    I think a key question to ask (and needs to be answered) before we answer the question posed (can one follow Jesus but turn away from the church?) is, what does the author (and answer-ers) mean by “church”? A building? A denomination? Or an organic group of Jesus-loving, gospel-living people? If the former, sure. If the latter, I’m skeptical.

  • Jesse

    Bob #18

    You said, “We don’t need non-profit corporate entities with paid staff and multi-million dollar buildings and budgets to be actively engaged in that kind of kingdom-focused activity.”

    = strawman. I mean, so strawman that it’s really a super-strawman.

    I guess it is inevitable that we reach a point in the conversation where we need to define what it means to “leave the church.” Here’s a humble attempt at a definition: the gathering together of believers in a local area on a regular basis for the purposes of corporate worship, teaching from Scripture, fellowship, and the administering of sacraments.

    Pretty basic.

    With that definition in mind, I reiterate my earlier opinion that it is not possible to be a follower of Christ and avoid this. I’ll even go as far as saying that the notion that one does not require a local community of believers is to spurn the very fruits of the Spirit, which are virtues that can only be developed with the help of others practicing the same.

  • CGC (#7)

    Couldn’t agree with your words here more. The more the church clings to its rights and sets itself up as an enemy of everyone who attacks it the more irrelevant it will be.

    We must remain silent when accused and let our love for the world speak for itself. In becoming all things to all people it very well might be time to let denominations, religion, “church” as we know it, and even our concepts of “God” be crucified so that love might rise from the ashes. To those who are “spiritual, but not religious,” maybe those who follow Jesus need to be the same.

    Really important questions. Personally, Im not sure what the application here is. Do I leave my large non-denominational church to perhaps start a small gathering of those who have doubts and questions? Or do I remain inside the structure but not “of” the structure so that in doing so I might win some for whom the structure serves only as a whitewash for their doubts?

  • Chip

    Community, as necessary and valuable as it is, should never be seen as virtually a synonym for the Church. The view that the Church is a local gathering of believers likewise falls far too short of the mark. The Church really is an institution, and that’s not bad; it’s through the Church that we receive the sacraments and here the Scriptures expounded. And it’s through that sense of the Church that I rub shoulders with Christians of all ages and cannot just self-select my own small group of likeminded Christian believers.

    We’ve had decades now of anti-institutional thinking concerning the Church (e.g., to cite just two still-popular catchphrases, “Christianity is a relationship, not a religion” — well, no, it’s both; “I believe in Christianity, not Churchianity” — but there is no faith apart from the Church), and I think we’re reaping what we’ve sown as a result. And this trend converges with a larger anti-institutional backlash throughout all segments of the culture at large.

  • Maybe the question (problem) is people go to church
    rather than worship the One desrving our praise.

  • Chip

    Lawrence, in the middle part of the last century, yes, church attendance was high as much or more for societal and cultural reasons as religious ones. But it seems to me that these days, and even over the last few decades to a lesser extent, worship is “in” and going to church is “out.”

  • Bob

    re#26 – Jesse, I’m all for living communally with other followers of Jesus; but the traditional man-made definition you provided for what constitutes a “church” is what I object to. Those who are called out from the world (the ekklesia) and into the kingdom and society of God indeed practice the “one anothers” as part of daily life. They study, share, pray, eat, and do all kinds of things together. But I’m talking about an organic lifestyle, not an organization. I could be wrong, but I get the feel from your wording that the organization is important to you. It’s just not important to me anymore. I happen to attend one weekly…but I don’t consider it to be “the church” and leaving it wouldn’t mean leaving the faith and the community of those I follow Jesus with. I hope that clarifies at least, whether or not you agree.

  • RJS


    Here I can get cynical again, a little. In my experience the local church (building, pastor, the whole works) was a gathering that intentionally practiced the “one anothers” as a part of daily life. The local church was the body of Christ to each other and to the world. This is the kind of church I find essential to my spiritual growth and the kind of community I want to belong to. It cannot be entirely “organic” because then it will be too small, too fragile, and too homogeneous. (My opinion, others may disagree.) This “institution” is a core part of the lifestyle.

    But there seems to be a trend today where the institutional church is no longer family, it is an evangelistic mission and a consumer good we use as it serves our needs. A little like your favorite restaurant or department store. If it no longer serves your needs you move on. It is designed to attract customers. In many corners great care is taken to ensure that it is not “family” – as this is too insider focused and discourages seekers (so common wisdom goes). Celebrities among those in the church may be spotlighted, but everyone else must remain anonymous. So we have church as a one hour show with great care not to get deep, some cocktail party like mingling, child care, and no real call for commitment, depth, or sacrifice (except perhaps providing funds to keep the institution afloat).

    But … and this is the part that concerns me… these are the churches that are growing, that are touted as the great successes. So perhaps they are right, and the whole vision of church as a family-like community of believers is a bygone failure.

  • Mark

    Which God? Moralistic therapeutic desists, I would guess. Jesus follower, I would doubt. I know, which Jesus? This is fun, huh?

  • Bob

    RJS, if you’re over at OGCC, then I think you and I may experience something similar. I’m at OPC in Novi. Great 75 minute show – smoke, lights, music, video – the whole shebang. But it isn’t 24/7 community. However, there are certain families with whom we are intertwined in various ways, but it doesn’t take that organization to cause our shared lives to thrive. If OPC exploded tomorrow, the kingdom of God would go on within our circle and others like it.

  • DRT

    RJS#32, your comment is sober. Perhaps there is something about “9:12 When Jesus heard this he said, “Those who are healthy don’t need a physician, but those who are sick do.” going on here. I think we find a lot of the healthy in the church and they have different needs.

  • RJS


    I visited OGCC once, but live in another part of the metro area and attend a different church. I don’t know much about OGCC. I am struggling with these issues in part because the leadership of the church I’ve attended for the last 20 years has transformed “our” church into this kind of model over the last 4 years. The “our” is intentionally in quotes because the most important lesson I’ve learned in the process is that a church is no more “ours” than the local department store or a favorite restaurant is “ours.” As a result a church must be approached with the same level of detachment one takes for all the local businesses one uses in life. I admit, I am quite cynical about it these days.

    But as you say, there are people with whom our life is intertwined – and these do provide church as the body of Christ. And the kingdom of God will go on.

  • RJS

    (No smoke and lights though … so not quite the whole shebang, so far anyway.)

  • Terry

    RJS, I do not think it requires cynicism to make the observations that you are making. I am the primary leader of the church that gathers in our neighborhood. Especially over the last 7-8 years we have expended particular effort to remove ourselves from the “vying for customers” competition, deliberately nestling further into the understanding of the church as family that you are describing and long for. I long for that as well. Sadly, we continue to watch the customers leave our family relationships and gatherings, quite often with views and words that hurt the family that is left behind, for the grat show they’ve heard reviews on or that their friends are currently experiencing. Your analogy is apt, especially the restaurant one; as a restaurant owner I see far more similarities than differences between the restaurant and the church in tone, timbre, loyalty and relationships, in the over-value of self, comforts and preferences and the devaluing of the greatest commandment. The church has embraced their Yelp. It shouldn’t be. I wish we were in the same time zone, but will gladly pray for your ongoing journey even if worshipping and serving together isn’t possible.

  • RJS

    Thanks Terry,

    No church I’ve ever known has been perfect. There are always pros and cons. And the church I attend has many definite “pros” even in the new format. And the leadership has some very good goals. But the church has definitely changed focus and looked toward a different audience. This is the reason I used some of the examples I did. As a restaurant owner you could decide that your best business decision is to attract vegetarian pizza lovers and thus remove meat from the menu. This could be a very good thing and serve a large number of people very well. As a meat lover I’d look for another store to get my canadian bacon with feta cheese pizza. There is no real expectation of loyalty. I’m not expected to become a vegetarian, and you have no obligation to continue to serve me meat.

    A post a few years ago on this blog was eye-opening for me. Scot posed some kind of question about church hopping (I forget the exact context) and a fair number of commenters, especially younger commenters, responded that of course you move churches when one no longer meets your needs, when you outgrow it or it changes focus. This is not my vision of church, but it does seem to be a growing view.

  • Terry

    Nor is that my vision of the church. There is nothing that leads me to believe it is Jesus’ vision of the church He said he was building, nor the witness of the church we find in the Scriptures. In my experience we’ll continue to train people to expect and demand exactly what they shouldn’t, if it means our version of success. I have been guilty of that at times.

    As for pizza, I’d likely try to entice you to also enjoy other experiences in addition to your tried and true Canadian bacon and Feta — after all, we’re all about the pizza adventure, we have 57-of them on the menu, and a couple of great Feta pies (though, not with Canadian bacon so, you’ve piqued my interest.) And then, of course, I’d gladly make you what you wanted to the best of my ability whether it was on the menu or not. It’s not that we’re not committed to our brand, we’re just more committed to our guests, and will do what we can (though we cannot do everything) to serve well. Actually, for the church, maybe that aspect of a restaurant could be better applied.

  • Ben Thorp

    It’s very hard to remain friendly with someone when you don’t like his wife….

    If we ignore the arguments of the current state of church institutions and denominations, it’s very difficult to read the New Testament and see any possible separation between Christian and church – a severed toe may retain some “life”, but if it doesn’t get reattached soon it’s going to die – and Hebrews even directly tells us not to neglect meeting together.

    Personally I think we should take that as our starting point, and then work out how we’re going to manage that. We need to meet together. Yes, there are debates on ecclesiology and all that, but surely we should start at the recommendations of the Bible, and then try to understand how we personally can do that within what is currently available to us.