3 Labels Unchurched People Place on Church Leaders

Carey Nieuwhof

When it comes to church leaders, I can think of at least three frustrating labels every one of us has to overcome to gain people’s trust.

These labels aren’t pulled from Gallup or any science, but they are the ones I sense as I interact with people who aren’t attending church.


People who aren’t in church often don’t have a seething hatred against the church. Some do for sure. But most don’t.

They just rarely think about church.

It’s not like they wake up every Sunday and decide not to go. They just wake up every Sunday and think what you and I think every Saturday morning: Day off! What am I going to do today? 

We’re perceived as irrelevant.

So how do we demonstrate relevance?

Well, you could try wearing a worship-leader-scarf and skinny jeans, but that tends to look really awkward on a 45-year- old lead pastor. Far too many church leaders think that cool equals relevance when really it just makes us look like you think way too much about your hair and your clothes. I’m all for dressing in a way that recognizes it’s 2014, not 1994, but let’s leave it at that.

I think the best way you can demonstrate relevance as a leader is to show people how the Christian faith and the scriptures are applicable to their daily lives. Not as information-to-be-learned but as knowledge-to-be-applied and as a relationship to be lived.

If you want to see how surprisingly relevant we are to the culture as Christians, I wrote about 8 ways the Christian faith can speak into current culture here.


This one stings a little more.

Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve always suspected that more than a few people think church leaders got into work because they couldn’t find a “real job” doing anything else.

Sadly, I think once in a while that’s probably true.

Church should not be a shelter for people who don’t want to work or don’t have much to contribute. It should pull from the best and brightest talent around and demand our best efforts. If this mission really is as important as Scripture says it is, we should apply our best academic, organizational and relational skills and thinking to the mission at hand. The church should be seen as a community leader when it comes to organizations poised to make a difference and transform cities.

So what do we do to respond to an incompetence label? Quite simply: Develop every gift God has given you to its fullest potential and put it to work in the kingdom.


This is probably the least surprising, but it’s a label I run into all the time. It’s also a conversation I have with many, many unchurched people (and some church people).

The headlines fill up regularly with new scandals of high-profile church leaders who have compromised their integrity.

How do you counter this label?

Here’s what has helped me as I’ve tries to offset it:

1. Acknowledge moral failure happens. Everyone knows it does, why pretend it doesn’t?

2. Empathize with their frustration. I get frustrated, too, when leaders lead people astray and compromise the reputation of the church.

3. Acknowledge that you or your church might also let them down. I often tell people our church isn’t perfect, and we will probably let them down. However, what distinguishes the Christian church from others is not that we make mistakes. Everyone does. What should distinguish us is how we handle those mistakes. Openly. Honestly. Directly. With sorrow and with a desire to right what we have made wrong. I tell them to judge us not by whether we make mistakes, but by how we handle them.

4. Establish very tight personal and organizational standards. Recently, I wrote a post outlining 10 habits of leaders who effectively guard their hearts. When you have high personal standards you try to live by, the likelihood of you falling into the pitfalls that claim so many leaders drops.

When it comes to hypocrisy, leaders who develop strong personal integrity survive longer and make a deeper impact than leaders who don’t. Here, by the way, are 5 signs your personal integrity might need a check up.

So what do you see? Any other labels you’ve sensed or confronted? And how have you handled them?