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.
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?