Marks of an Unhealthy Church

I’ve got a headache today.  I’m sneezing.  I feel awful.

It’s not a mystery.  These are common symptoms known to anyone with seasonal allergies.  With this early spring, with every green thing God ever created blooming right now in Sioux City, the pollen count is rising like the national debt under President Obama. Symptoms are the outward expression of sickness inside.

Feeling as I do, I have been sitting at my desk, pretending to work (oops, too many of my church members read this blog now – I’ve got to stop saying things like that) and I came upon an article by Joe McKeever called “10 Signs You Are Part of an Unhealthy Church.”  Read his article.  It is excellent. It is a topic I’ve been thinking a lot about recently.  What is it that marks a truly healthy church, and what are the symptoms of a church that is sick.

Let me say three things before I add my opinion to McKeever’s wisdom.

1)  Every church is unhealthy in some way.  My dad use to say, “If you find a perfect church, don’t join it.  You’ll just mess it up.”  We are all dysfunctional to some extent and when dysfunctional people gather in a group that group becomes dysfunctional.  Your church is never going to be perfect, because it is made up of people like you.  You know that.  I know that.  Any church I pastor is going to have a few problems, because a sinner stands in the pulpit week after week.

2) There are different levels of illness.  Remember that cinematic classic, “Kindergarten Cop?”  Ah-nold was frustrated with the kids and got a headache.  One of the children looked at him innocently and said, “Maybe its a tumor.”  As we diagnose dysfunction and illness in our churches we need to realize that there is a difference between a headache and a tumor, between the common cold and advanced heart disease.  I’ve known a few churches I thought had some pretty serious illnesses.  But I know my own tendency is to see brain tumors when a simple migraine is present. If you treat a cold like cancer, you will cause damage.  If you treat cancer with cold meds, the disease will eat away at your body.

3)  Just because your church has some illness is no reason to leave it.  Sometimes, to grow and maintain your spiritual health, you may have to leave a church.  That’s a tough call.  But if you leave a church because you identify some dysfunction, you will end up in another church that has the same kind of dysfunction, or worse.  The sheep trails between churches have deep ruts because sheep keep wandering from pasture to pasture trying to find better grazing.

But pastors, when we identify the unhealthiness in our churches, it is time to act. So, we have to look at the symptoms of unhealthy churches.  Here are some of the signs of illness in a church.

Signs of a Church that Is Sick

1. When the focus of the church is the charisma of the pastor, not the greatness of God.

There is no way around the fact that pastors (especially in today’s culture) have a tremendous place of influence in churches.  But people should come to a church to meet and grow in Jesus, not because of pastoral “wow factor.”

When I resigned my previous ministry, I could not understand why God was moving us.  Cedar Rapids was home and we were happy.  The church was doing well and there was great peace and unity there.  Why would God pull me out of that situation to go to a church that was just coming out of a serious church split?  It all became clear to me in a meeting two days after I announced my resignation, when one of my dear friends said, “Now that you are leaving, Dave, this church is going to go down to nothing.”

I never intended for things to get that way.  I never tried to become the focus of anyone’s faith.  But I came to see that I was receiving too much credit and glory for the work of God there.  He’s a jealous God after all, and he did not like me getting the glory that should go to him.

Churches today are often all about the pastor.  And that is not a good thing.

2.  When the church has too many cheerleaders. 

Christians are meant to be players in the game, not cheerleaders on the sidelines.  One of the weaknesses of modern church structure is that someone who attends church, amens loudly, gives some money, and affirms the pastor can go home feeling like an important part of the church’s work.  I love encouragers, those who cheer my ministry, my messages, my work. But simply cheering for the church is not the same as serving Christ.

3.  When all the ministries are staff-initiated,  staff-led and staff-dominated. 

I believe in pastoral leadership, but my experience in 30 years of full-time ministry is that the best things a church does are usually initiated in the hearts of so-called laypeople who then pour their hearts and souls into ministry.  Too much ministry is the pastor’s vision pushed on the people.  That’s okay in small doses.  But the best ministries (in my humble, but correct, opinion) come when a member gets a fire in their belly about a problem, gets trained, empowered and enabled by the church staff and structure, then goes out and serves in Christ’s name.

4. When the balance between growing deep and growing wide is lost. 

Maybe the silly song from my childhood said it all.  “Deep and wide.  Deep and wide. There’s a fountain flowing deep and wide.”  The tendency in the churches I’ve served has been to emphasize depth – gaining a solid understanding of the Word to guide us in life.  That is crucial.  I’ve seen people’s lives changed as they begin to see how the Word applies to them.  I believe that the Spirit of God uses the Word of God to do the work of God in the people of God.  I’ve seen it.

But we must not abandon the width either.  We need to be reaching out, seeking to bring people to Christ.  Yes, we are talking about numbers, folks.  We don’t seek numbers, we don’t compromise to build them, but if year after year you see no growth, no numerical change, you might want to wonder if there is something wrong.

I’ve heard of pastors who came into a church and drove off a bunch of people who didn’t agree with them, and acted like this was a work of God.  Maybe, once in a while it is, but most of the time it is just an arrogant pastor who wants his own way.  Don’t call driving a bunch of people who don’t agree with you, “trimming the deadwood.”  What an extreme spiritual insult that is.

All that to say we’ve got to do both – focus on growing wide and growing deep.  To sacrifice either for the other is to expose your church to illness.

5. When people think that church is something that happens inside the doors of a building.

Yes, we gather to worship.  But too often we “go to church” and then we go home and that is that.  The work of the church is done in a lost and dying world, not in a building.

6. When there is a culture that makes society’s broken feel unwelcome.

Years ago, a pastor friend of mine in Waterloo, IA led a waitress to Christ.  She was a single mother who had not exactly lived the kind of life the Bible holds up as exemplary, but she was saved, growing, and seeking to serve the one who saved her.  One day, one of the key leaders in the church came to my friend and said, “Pastor, this lady is not the kind of person we want to reach in this church.  We need to go after a different sort of people.”

It still makes me mad fifteen years later when I tell that story.  That church no longer exists (is it any wonder?).

If a tattooed and pierced  man or woman walks into your church and is not welcomed, your church has an illness.  If a flaming homosexual walks in and is given the cold shoulder, the problem is not his, it is the churches.  When a church only wants people from the right side of the tracks, it is severely ill. The church is a hospital for sinners not a country club for the self-righteous.

7.  When appearance management prevents us from dealing with real problems.  

A lot of churches are like a lot of people – they just don’t want to go to the doctor.  Instead of facing our problems and dealing with them, we act like everything is okay.  Sometimes, you have to deal with problems, not pretend they do not exist.

In my first church, I was cleaning out the library (actually a storage room) and trying to make it usable.  I came on a box of old church weekly newsletter from the previous senior pastor’s tenure.  The first newsletter of the month contained a glowing report from the pastor about the great things going on at the church.  In the second letter of the month, he was rejoicing because at church that week, heaven had come down and glory had filled all their souls.  The third week was all about more heaven and more glory.  The last week of the month was the pastor’s resignation letter.

I happen to know that in the month leading up to his termination (forced resignation) heaven was not coming down and glory was not filling anyone’s soul!  There was a church with a gaping chest wound that was publicly announcing that everything was okay.

8. When minor issues become major deals. 

Churches today have been masters at building mountains from molehills. Our church has spent several years having our own little worship war – wasting time and energy on something that simply does not matter in the eyes of God.

Think of the church fights you’ve witnessed, or been a part of.  I’ve made a little bit of a non-scientific study of church division.  Seldom have I seen it be over anything that matters.  Power. Personalities.  Style. Preferences.  My way or your way.

When a church is divided over things that don’t have eternal import, it is a sign of illness.

Your Turn

Okay, you tell me.  What do you find to be the markers of an unhealthy church?  Please, let’s leave our little hobby horses (Calvinism, etc) behind and talk about the signs of a healthy or unhealthy church.

  • Do you agree with my points?
  • Are there others you see?





    • cb scott says

      When the “stink” of sin is described as “it used to smell bad,” but we put deodorizers in the rooms so you hardly notice it anymore.

    • cb scott says


      I think one systemic problem in churches that brings about ill health in the body are so many antagonistic personalities one finds these days in local church congregations.

      An antagonist, according to one writer about church conflict issues, is an individual who on the basis of non-substantive evidence, goes out of his/her way to make insatiable demands, usually attacking the person or performance of elected or appointed ministers (pastor, etc.) in a church.

      Antagonistic personalities thrive in local churches. It usually only takes one or two such personalities in a church body to disrupt or destroy a church. Antagonistic personalities in a church often greatly inhibit or choke out the fulfillment of the Great Commission causing the church to be little more than an imitation resembling the real thing.

  1. says

    Clearly, what we need is a commitment to prayer like that made in the days of Carey and others for the spread of the Gospel among the nations. Carey, Fuller, and others were inspired by Jonathan Edwards’ Humble Attempt which the latter wrote to stir up believers in all denominations to unite in prayer for the spread of the Gospel. Edwards provided about a 100 verses from the Old and New Testaments which prophesy or promise a response from God directed at that end. The launching of the Great Century of Missions was the result…along with the Second Great Awakening. Prayer warriors unite!

  2. Bruce H. says

    It is said that churches are made up of about 10% to 15% true believers. How in the world can there ever be a “healthy” church? (Of course, the 10% to 15% are healthy) I see the church as a laboratory for the true believer. They grow under the influence of an unhealthy church. The only reason I have ever left a church is due to its unhealthy leadership. When that part is unhealthy there is nothing to be done but expose or leave.

    • Dave Miller says

      I’ve heard that statistic bandied about, but I do not believe it is true in my church, or any that I’ve served. I’m sure that there are some unsaved folks hiding out among the flock, but I certainly don’t think it is 85%.

      • Bruce H. says

        Would you venture a guess? :-) I was active for many years and thought I was saved. I sure acted like I was saved and many thought I was. Once I was truly born again I have attended some churches that had more than what I considered 50% true believers. I think it is different from church to church but I believe many churches exist with very few true believers.

        The church will never be perfect. I think that is because the true believers have to be exposed to that kind of behavior to grow spiritually. I just don’t think the churches responsibility is to impress or influence the world. I think it is God’s work through men and women who are truly saved. God’s pure work may need a black background to really show His handiwork in the true believer even if it is in His church.

        • cb scott says

          Bruce H.,

          Just curious — Since you have been “saved” how many churches have you belonged to as a member or been somewhat regular in attendance?

          • Bruce H. says


            I have been a member of 7 churches since I was saved in 1979. I attend every service.

          • cb scott says

            Do you live in the same area at the present that you lived when you were saved in ’79?

          • Bruce H. says


            Knowing our relationship, and that amends have not occurred, your interrogating questions are suspect. Here is the answer to your question.

            I relocated from Houston to Louisiana and then to Corpus Christi and back to Cleveland, TX. I now reside in Conroe, TX.

            When your curiosity is satisfied let me know the reason for your questions. The reason I ask is because they don’t seem to relate to the topic. Thank you.

          • cb scott says

            Bruce H.,

            There was a reason I asked you the questions.

            In reading your comments on posts here at Voices, I pick up that you seem to have a distain for the pastors in your past. I was wondering to how many churches you had been associated, how many pastors you have encountered, and if you had been in the same general area. Such information is revealing.

            How many churches have you been related to since you have made your home in Conroe?

          • Bruce H. says

            Only one in Conroe. I have lived here for 1 1/2 years and attended MIMS Baptist for 2 1/2 years.

            BTW, there are bad pastors out there just like there are bad members, too. Members need to know their responsibility to the flock is just as important as the pastor’s responsibility. I love and honor good and great pastors. I also know they are mere men, too. We had best use our time to love one another and if there is ever a need to address a sin issue with a pastor or a member we need to address it and we need to address it in the spirit of reconciliation, not just to get rid of them. That goes for here, too.

          • cb scott says

            Some of us pastoral types do address sinful issues, but of course, you already know that. 😉

          • cb scott says

            BTW Bruce H.,

            The relevance of my questions to you related to this post would be that one mark of unhealthy churches has to do with antagonistic personalities in the church.

  3. says

    I think on this a lot Dave. I agree with your thoughts, and more. I have read from the puritan era enough now to no longer be surprised how unhealthy the Lord’s church can become, and I’ve read enough church history to know that a healthiness can exist. But that takes discipline.

    I first read this 1903, Missionary Review of the World report a few years ago and have been gripped by its truth as Robert F. Horton describes what happens when the church forgets her function and plants the banners (the Gospel, doctrine, etc…)
    “…whenever, or if ever, or even so far as, the (church) forgets its functions, plants the banners, and settles down, it falls into disarray; it becomes disorganized, it is found to be ineffectual for the camp, as it is unequal to the march. When Christianity ceases to be a message, a world wide message, and becomes a system, a polity, it rapidly declines, it loses its tone; the shout of the king is no longer in the midst. The memorization of the arrested banners in the van rapidly spread to the rearguard.
    The first work of the church, the indispensable preliminary to all efficiency, is to resume the march, to advance the banners, to get the host in motion, to recover the watchword. If we would have the church effective for her simplest work, she must be true to the foremost work. She must inscribe on her ensigns and write in her heart the old word of God. ‘Speak unto her that she may go forward.’ (Is. 40:1-31)”

    There’s more, but this is a good snapshot.

    The Gospel, not the gospel that’s not a Gospel, but what we have done with the Gospel shows an area of unhealthiness among us.

    The Sufficiency of Scripture is another significant vital sign that must be examined among us.

    Those two are of consequence for me in relationship to your post and question. Thanks!

  4. BaptistJim47 says

    When a church is marketed, somewhat like a retail business. The church tends to focus on activities, events, “ministries”, etc. that attract people and the people who come then tend to be spiritual consumers. They want a great sermon, exciting music, active youth program, or whatever. They have no attachment other than the ministry/activity they find most meaningful/helpful/inspirational/spiritual. These churches grow, ebb, and perhaps grow again but there is nothing at their core. To me the church, above all, is a community and family of those united in Christ, providing love and accountability to each other and offering the gospel (through love in action and words) to a world that desperately needs it.

    • Bruce H. says

      Good point. Your comment made me think back to the youth group I grew up with. It was back in the 1970’s. The thing to do was to have “rap sessions” and lots of activities. You think our “marketing” grew out of the results from that? Most of those kids never returned to church after college and the one’s that did seemed to keep the pace of creating “image-based” bible studies and self-help programs that focused on the person and not the person of Christ.

    • Frank L. says

      BaptistJim, I’ve come to believe that all the “polling (aka Barna) and marketing of the church is doomed to inevitable failure. Just witness what happened to the Crystal Cathedral that basically invented the market-driven church.

      There are some things that “marketing” can inform the church about, but it should never be accepted wholesale.

      Marketing is based upon “cultural compromise,” whereas the church should always be “counter-cultural”–unless and until the kingdoms of this world fall under God’s absolute control.

      At that time, “marketing and everything else will be a mute point.”

    • says

      the Sufficiency of Scripture is silent among us (general term) too often. It seems more ‘relevant’ to site a research firm than to hold fast to and seek the face of God.

  5. Louis says

    Great post!

    Here are some things that I see as problems.

    1. Excessive focus on the pastor’s performance.
    2. Hiring or retaining staff people based on friendships rather than the needs and vision of the church. The church does not owe anyone a job. Retaining or keeping people on staff who are not effective is a waste of God’s resources, which have been given sacrificially by the people.
    3. Speaking in “Code”, rather than directly, to problems or issues, and the related problem of ignoring items that need to be addressed.
    4. Programming and ministries based on tradition or denominational push rather than a true analysis of whether the program or ministry is effective and should exist.
    5. Cultural distinctives (whether traditional or contemporary), rather than the message of Christ, become the focus of the church and its message.
    6. Not allowing the people of the church to have a say in major decisions, whether by design or by practice.
    7. Organizing church business meetings so they can be taken over by a few loud voices to the detriment of the peace of the congregation.
    8. Keeping any item of the finances or spending secret from the people who give money to the church.
    9. Letting the direction of the church be controled by the largest donors.
    10. Focusing on fads in the evangelical subculture.
    11. Failure to tap into the gifts and talents of the lay people for use in the service of the church.
    12. Failing to perform background checks on staff, children and youth workers.
    13. Obsessing on discipline issues or having weird and abusive discipline procedures.
    14. Having any person in leadership essentially beyond the reach of being questioned or held accountable.
    15. Having a talking head for a pastor, rather than a shepherd.
    16. Failing to disciple the people in the congregation.
    17. Projecting an “image” of the church to reach a demographic or to achieve an impression, rather than being yourselves.
    18. Obsessing about conversion and baptism numbers.
    19. Allowing your pastor to make crazy statements from the pulpit and having to way to address that or lacking the will to address it.
    20. Turning times of meeting into “shows” or “productions” rather than worship meeting.
    21. Failing to maintain the confidentiality of giving records.
    22. Lack of humility in leadership.
    23. Lack of love among the people in the church.


    • cb scott says

      Louis is a churchman. He really is.

      Louis, I think this is excellent. I may have missed this in your list, but I would like to state a number 24. If I did miss it, forgive me for messing with a near perfect document.

      24. A failure to focus all ministries toward the fulfillment of the Great Commission.

      • cb scott says

        I think the #2 comment was also worthy of high praise and maybe lunch on NOLA as an illustration of the signs of an unhealthy church. I think the author of that comment put a lot of labor in it.

  6. cb scott says

    Such a praise worthy illustration deserves dinner at Antoine’s, don’t you think?

  7. says

    Good thoughts, Dave, and a great list by Louis up above.

    Let me add one:

    – No Leadership development within the Body. Leads to outsourcing of ministry to “paid professionals” and often unnecessary staffing pulling church resources away from mission. This is killer. Those whom God develops as leaders in spite of the church will probably leave as any new or open leadership spots are filled from the outside. A church that does reproduce and equip people to do ministry has an expiration date.

    • Dave Miller says

      Yeah, I thought of something like that as I was writing, but decided not to get too verbose – a new thing for me.

      • says

        I lived in New Orleans pre-Katrina while getting my M.Div. I never went to Antoine’s, nor did I want to. There are plenty of better choices for food that won’t break the bank. I for one can’t wait to revisit places like Cafe Maspero, Cheesecake Bistro, Louisiana Pizza Kitchen, Camellia Grill, Deanie’s Seafood, and Ralph & Kacoo’s. Throw in Bubba Gump’s and that’s pretty much my SBC week. You’re welcome to join anytime Dave.

          • cb scott says

            Deanie’s is good.

            As I said, Antonie’s is a great place to eat. D.R Randle can hardly say others are better if he has not eaten there.

            I kinda felt sorry for him when the buckethead was beatin’ on him. Now, not so much.

          • says

            Need to write these down too. The wife and I are going (taking James O. who will be 7mo old then) to New Orleans for a little vacation in early May, stopping in Galveston for a couple days on the way back. Will be the first time we’ve left I-35 since the early Fall.

            As a side note for CB, I briefly tried to convince my wife to make the 60-mile trek to Georgetown in the morning for Easter services where Tim Tebow will be speaking outdoors to some 20-30K. She nixed that idea. Were it any other Sunday…

          • Dave Miller says

            Right is right and wrong is wrong. Tebow is that close? Not going is just wrong!

          • cb scott says

            Big Daddy,

            I know that Dave was just being light hearted with you in his comment and I know he will agree with what I am about to state here.

            Big Daddy, if Christ tarries and Tebow keeps preaching, there will be another time for you to hear him and if not, you both share the same faith in the Risen Lord. You know the one of whom he speaks.

            Now, my younger brother let me say to you; You do not know how many Easters you will have to share with your wife and little girl together in worship of our Christ in celebration of His defeat of death, hell, and the grave.

            Therefore, spend this Easter Day with them in peace, joy, and worship of our Lord. For the day may come when your wife may not be able to go with you to a corporate worship of the King. And be assured, your little girl will grow up so, so very soon.

            So take this day and let this day become that of which joyous memories are made.

            May He who is risen from the dead give you joy in this Easter Day.

          • cb scott says

            Big Daddy,

            I just realized I called James O. a little girl. Forgive me. I was actually thinking of my own growing up so soon. I trust you take no offense in my error.

          • says

            No offense taken, CB.

            Now that Tebow is in New York, I think I’ll jump on the bandwagon and try to forget his glory days as a Gator. The Jets need a few more nice guys at least for the sake of balance.

            We worshipped at our church this morning here in Waco, a very nice and special service. I did get the chuckles half-way thru the sermon when I looked over to see my father-in-law – who decided to visit our church this Sunday – in a rather deep sleep and appearing to be on the verge of tipping over. He never did though, thankfully.

          • Eric says

            My favorite is the BBQ Shrimp at Pasquale Menale’s. I believe they invented the dish. They are out in the Garden District

  8. TCov says

    Prayerlessness. Both individually and corporately. No matter what form it takes, the church MUST come together and pray.

    (and just for a bit of humor as to Louis post #12: “12. Failing to perform background checks on staff, children and youth workers.” I am the children’s pastor at our church and we do full background checks on ALL children.)

  9. adam says

    when more money is spent on staff and programs focused on “reached” areas than on “least-reached and unreached” combined.

    • cb scott says

      There are no “reached” areas. That is a myth. There are areas where Christians are less willing to be obedient to the mandate of the Great Commission due to the absence of urgency. “Institutionalized” Christianity is the bane of church health in America, but there are no “reached” areas.

      • Christiane says

        Planting ‘seeds’ is an urgent task, but it requires a humility and a patience in waiting upon the Lord.

      • Adam says

        I think some areas can be considered more reached and others least or unreached. For instance in my region of the world there is 1 known believer out of every 10,000 people. I’m not sure what your point was, but I hope this clarified mine.

        • cb scott says


          I am in the Southland. There are many churches. Yet it is still a pagan land. It is still a mission field. The concept of the “Bible Belt” is a myth. There are no “reached” places on the planet. The fields are white unto harvest. The workers are few.

          The Great Commission does not teach that we are to leave the one and go to another. The Great Commission teaches to preach the gospel to all places. We must do whatever it takes wherever we are. The cost of reaching people is more in some places, yet we cannot abandon those places. Lost is lost in Atlanta, Birmingham, and New Orleans as certainly as it is in Brussels, Davao City, and Lagos. The trip to hell is the same distance from any place on earth.

          Adam, I am not trying to give you a hard time. But there are so called leaders today who are saying that we need to lessen our emphasis on the “reached” areas and focus on the “unreached” areas. In my opinion, they are just trying to sell their own brand of soap rather than to embrace the totality of the Great Commission. There are no “reached” areas on the planet.

  10. says

    I’m not sure how I missed this great post previously. Anyway, the biggest problem in the church is doing things in the power of the flesh and not by the power of the Holy Spirit. We have a whole lot of manmade ideas and programs and plan, and little leading by the Spirit. Ultimately that is at the root of many problems from both directions –

    1) Congregants making non-Spirit led demands or judgments
    2) Leaders making non-Spirit led plans or demands

    The best book I’ve read on this lately is “Forgotten God” by Francis Chan. We desperately need the power of the Holy Spirit in our churches today. Just read through the book of Acts and see how present His power is throughout.


    • Dave Miller says

      Missing a “great post” – that approaches the unpardonable sin, doesn’t it?

      Good insights, Randy.