Much has been made of the decline of the institutional church in the 21st century. In 1975, for example, 68 percent of Americans said they had a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the church / organized religion. That number has plummeted to 44 percent. Though many Americans still consider themselves “spiritual,” fewer of them are finding meaningful connections with God in the confines of brick-and-mortar churches.
But few markers are as revealing as recent polls about public opinion, toward the leaders of these distrusted institutions. According to a recent Gallup Poll, about half of Americans highly rated the honesty or ethical standards of pastors. Among the more trusted professions were doctors, engineers, teachers, and dentists. The silver lining is that pastors received much higher marks then bankers, lawyers, car salespeople, and members of Congress.
A new Barna poll released this month adds another dimension to the conversation about the declining sway of clergy. It found that Americans believe professional athletes have more influence on society than do faith leaders by a three-to-one margin. The report showed the following professional athletes polled most favorably:
* Tim Tebow, pro football player
83 percent of Americans are aware of Tebow; 73 percent feel favorably about his public discussion of faith
* Kurt Warner, retired pro football player
59 percent awareness; 80 percent favorability
* Jeremy Lin, pro basketball player
40 percent awareness; 76 percent favorability
* Bubba Watson, professional golfer
40 percent awareness; 77 percent favorability
* Albert Pujols, professional baseball player
36 percent awareness; 81 percent favorability
More cynical Christians will undoubtedly see these statistics are further proof that America is in moral decline. Such reductionism allows us to avoid asking whether or not we actually deserve the low marks we’re receiving. Could it be that what non-believers are seeing and hearing from Christian communities and leaders is actually turning them away? And if so, what can we do to turn the tide of public disdain?
I think we’d do well to see this as an opportunity instead of a harbinger of America’s God-forsaken future. We’ve entered a moment where those who claim to be Christians and those who desire to lead them must redouble their efforts to win the trust, respect, and admiration of the general public. The way we speak, the way we love and the way we react to those elements of culture that offend us has perhaps never been more important.