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.