How to Spot a Sick Church

The late great evangelist Vance Havner, who never weighed more than 120 pounds in his life would be my guess, used to quip, “I’m the healthiest sick-looking person you’ve ever seen in your life!”

It’s not easy to tell the state of a person’s health by looking. That’s why doctors put us through a whole battery of tests. Some abnormal conditions are harder to diagnose than others.

Some churches are so clearly sick that a visitor does not even have to get out of his car to tell. The run-down condition of the facilities, the two-month-old message on the outside sign, and the sparcity of vehicles in the parking lot tell you all you want to know about that church. Unless you are the invited speaker for the day, you drive on down the highway to another more inviting looking church.

Other churches give signs of being healthy but have fault lines running through the interior of their relationships and operations.

A friend who read our earlier posting on “building a healthy church,” and who himself has been wounded by an unhealthy congregation or two in his 20 years in the ministry, suggested we try our hand at identifying characteristics of unhealthy churches.

Nothing that follows is the result of any scientific polling or in-depth studies. As with almost everything on this blog, this is my observation from nearly a half century in the ministry.

What does a sick church look like? How can we recognize one when we spot one?

We want to be cautious in treading here. The last thing we hope to do is discourage our brethren.

Our only reason for compiling a list of symptoms of congregational illness is to spur members and leaders to act to rescue their church while there is time.

Any doctor will tell you that in diagnosis there are non-symptoms which the medical profession is trained to find, then bypass.

Just because one church has a well-thought-out constitution and by-laws and another doesn’t see the need for one has nothing to do with congregational health. The kind of organization, whether they are more conservative or less so, the educational level of their ministers–none are barometers of health.

Size is irrelevant. So is income, architecture (some won’t even have a building!), and location.

That said, here are my submissions for the “top ten ways to spot an unwell church when you see one.”

Understand that no congregation will display all ten symptoms. It isn’t necessary to have strep throat, a brain tumor, and gallstones before one can be considered sick. Any one is enough to qualify for admission into the hospital’s emergency ward.

10. A church that cannot solve a problem harmoniously is sick. Instead, the members bicker and stall and blame. The leaders ignore and worry, they discuss and argue. Nothing is done because they cannot agree on what to do. The problem festers and grows. People leave the church, and the remaining members conclude that since the conflict has disappeared, it was resolved. The church is dying.

9. A church that resists all change is sick. If it was good enough for grandpa, it’s fine with them. Failing to see the difference in what is unbiblical and what is uncomfortable, they opt for comfort every time. You could uproot today’s worship service and insert it in 1948 and it would fit perfectly. That church is dying.

8. An unbalanced church is sick. It’s either too ultra-conservative or too liberal, too close-minded or too open-minded, too welcoming to newness or too wedded to the past. Such a church may not be dying in the sense of declining numbers (members can always be found who like their religion that way), but as far as effectiveness for the Kingdom is concerned, it might as well be dead.

7. A church without a healthy view of Scripture is sick. It either ignores the Bible, makes an idol of the Bible, or more likely, preaches a few passages to death and ignores the remaining portions. Stick a fork in it; it’s done.

6. A church that undercuts its leadership at every opportunity is sick. Call Dr. Kevorkian and get the obituary ready; won’t be long now.

5. A church controlled by unhealthy leaders is sick. It may have a good history and a solid reputation from years past, but at the moment be under the domination of leaders who are mentally unstable and spiritually unqualified. Clearly, a healthy church would deal with such, but if the problem persists unaddressed and the misfits remain in place, the church becomes sicker and weaker, taking on all the characteristics of its leadership. It’s a goner.

4. A church that exists only for itself is sick. It does not see beyond the city limits. The budget, if it has one, will show that almost all its income goes to sustain itself. Call the funeral home.

3. A joyless church is sick. When laughter interrupts the leaden somberness, it is quickly quietened. The singing, praying, and offering are tasks to be done and gotten over. Such a church tends to be negative, the members and leaders alike to have forgotten why the word “gospel” was intended to convey “good news.” The sooner gone, the better.

2. A lazy church is sick. Oh, it knows it ought to get out of bed this morning and go to work, but just doesn’t feel like it. Whatever ministries the church does will be rare and puny and involve only a few individuals. That small effort, however, will satisfy the congregation that they are making a difference. Call the real estate agent; this property will soon be for sale.

1. An unreproducing church is sick. Its total evangelism program is summed up by one item: the annual revival meeting (if even that). However, there will be no effort by the members to share their faith in the community, no evangelism through Sunday School classes, no training in soulwinning, and no sense of the need to have such. When the guest preacher shows up for revival, any unchurched person in the building is there strictly by accident. This church is self-destructing by default.

Nothing about any of this is humorous. Unhealthy churches exist in large numbers today. We have an epidemic.

Before leaving the subject, we suggest readers turn around each of the ten characteristics to form ten qualities of healthy congregations: problem-solving, adapting as necessary to conditions, balanced, Scriptural, supportive of leaders, healthy leaders, mission-minded, joyful, productive, and evangelistic.

In some cases, denominational leaders are taking the approach of letting sick churches die off and devoting all their resources to new church starts. I understand that.

The sickness is part of a deeper problem: a sick patient cannot treat himself.

Intervention is required. It will be painful. Surgery always is. But the alternative is to die.

In denominations like ours (the Southern Baptist Convention) where each church is autonomous and self-governing, outside “physicians” can help a church by the invitation of the leadership.

In most cases, the church that is sick got that way for a reason: its people did not want help. And so now, they choose to die rather than to undergo radical surgery.

Oddly enough, dying is not nearly as painful–I think; I haven’t actually done it–as surgery. After all, in congregational surgery, there is no anesthesia.

That’s why some church leaders would rather die than take the kind of drastic action required to rescue their church, get it on life support, and restore it to vibrancy and vitality.

The best thing that can happen to an unwell church would be for a layman or two to decide that “enough is enough,” and to take the lead in awakening the church.

8 thoughts on “How to Spot a Sick Church

  1. thanks for the face slap or should I say, “Thanks, I needed that.”

    Perhaps one of my greatest fears is that I stand as a hinderence in Cammack United Methodist Church not being all that God wants it to be. It has faithfully stood guard on the same corner for 155 years and now I think we are getting complacent about our existence. It’s time we look at where we are and plan where we are going. Thanks for the reminder. God bless.

    • Hi my name is Monique Connor and I’m my the niece of Ex pastor Ray Connor who now ministers at Greater New Hope. I came to California under the impression I was going to receive help with finding a place being that I moved from las Vegas. We my 3 boys (12/7/& 4) and I were taken by my uncle in last Friday.. At 1:20am today…instead of us staying at either of our family homes in Perri’s or redlands we were kicked out and dropped off at a dirty motel in the middle of no where. I’m not on drugs, I have a good criminal background and very well educated. But from birth Francis Connor my dad and uncles brother, didn’t want me due to his affair with his now wife and my mom. 27 months ago my dads daughter Chantell my sister passed 4 days before I found my mother’s body. I never seen death nor been to a funeral,survived a 2yr abusive relationship, and i was consistently raped as a child at 5-up to 13years old by my own family members… so I deal with servere depression anxiety and PTSD but I still manage to hold on be a mom newly reading my Bible and I pray every day ..almost I must admitt. My family doesn’t love nor want us..instead Kristy Connor pastor Ray Connor daughter told me my father was a sperm donor reminded me of my lack of church upbringing and how I have too many issues and was sick of me being around already. I am worn out with grief. They have my grandmother Rose Ann Connor living with them whom has dementia and Alzheimer’s in a living room barely alive. She doesn’t get daily baths, her teeth aren’t brush daily, hair not combed daily, clothing not changed regularly in a small cluttered hazardous 3 bedroom trailer home with 9 other people living there. I don’t believe they love my grandmother Rose I am certain she’s being kept alive for a check monthly. The pastor has alcohol in his home, multiple wedlock children staying there, a mistress in the community he lives in, lectures the unfortunate but doesn’t make his household follow God’s Oder. I am frustrated on how I came and lost so much to be broken and humbled with nothing but life and my sons as my virtue…but yet the wicked gets to say a few smooth biblical texts and live so abundantly upon the expense of a dying woman and all of her finances. Her home isn’t being taken care of properly and a major deceit is going on. My family has a lot of incest that no one cares to mention and I’m sick of the I spoke on it last night. U didn’t curse nor call anyone out of character. I even begged for forgiveness for talking back just so my boys can lay their head..they just left us for dirt! I don’t know what you are capable of..but stop my family from making a mockery of the church, the welfare system, ssi and of our name. My grandfather Pastor Charles Connor was a real pastor with real values. He and my grandmother always took care of the family now..the family is full of greed and lies. Both my brother and cousin slept with other relatives and I am trying to save the younger ones in our family who I witnessed already fondling around. God will give you the decernment to know that this is all true. Please help put an end to this all. I tried to tell my uncle the flaws aren’t everyone else its in his home and was put out no money a box of cereal and bread with lunch meat. I’m am not complaining about that part but I came with good intention and was thrown away like trash. I was placed at the Stardust motel in red lands all the way from Perri’s. My father is unaware his name is Francis Jay Connor. He lives in Victor ville married to Patricia Connor. We have no working phone and I just signed my benefit card to my uncles wife before all of this. So now I fear for the worst my grandmother can’t talk so I am her voice. Please tell someone. And please keep us in prayer. Our room barely got paid for one day. I don’t receive cash until next week Thursday. I don’t want cash I just need assistance getting back home to las Vegas.. I have no home no family here anymore.. Please. check out is this Saturday. Thank you!
      With Sincere regard,
      Monique M. Connor

  2. thanks bro.joe for sharing your good evaluation regarding symptoms of an unhealthy church it serve as a reminder and eye opener to have a good order in functioning as localchurch. God bless you.

  3. Good article! I would love to look more into the state of the Church and find ways to help it, perhaps from an academic standpoint as I ponder a future graduate degree — do you have any additional resources you could recommend? I think so many members of their church feel “they do it right and well” otherwise they would leave. My wife and I left a church for unhealthy reasons within it, and instead of blasting it and piling on in this forum, I believe that some churches are merely unhealthy while others have an anointing. Perhaps the unhealthy ones have lost God’s favor?…I don’t know.

    I have sensed God’s word on me and it sounds like a need to “un-church the churched”…if that makes any sense? Often church leaders will say things like “our mission is to reach the un-churched” or “we’re a church for the un-churched,” and I think that many of today’s ‘churched’ can be traced back to many of the problems…in some ways you have pointed them out in this article. I don’t know if that makes sense, but I’d love to continue the discussion.

    • Our church small rural. We are not able to rebuild last 3 years. Many are elderly. The preacher part time another city. He comes on Sunday for sermon and leaves. Elders un church elderly and controlling. How can we rebuild all members of church few and are in board of directors. Preacher is paid well even though we do not bring in enough for his salary and bills. Board will not speak up at board meetings. Preacher always quotes scriptures not about money. God will take care of our church.

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