Thanks to Mark Dever, many of us have become well acquainted with the 9 Marks of a Healthy Church. While these were never meant to be the last word on everything a church should be or do, the nine marks have been helpful in reminding Christians (and pastors especially) of the necessary substance we often forget in an age fixated on style.
In one sense, the nine marks of an unhealthy church could simply be the opposite of all that makes for a healthy church, so that unhealthy churches ignore membership and discipline and expository preaching and all the rest. But the signs of church sickness are not always so obvious. It’s possible for your church to teach and understand all the right things and still be a terribly unhealthy place. No doubt, there are dozens of indicators that a church has become dysfunctional and diseased. But let’s limit ourselves to nine.
Here are nine marks that your church—even one that believes the Bible, preaches the gospel and embraces good ecclesiology—may be unhealthy.
1. The more peripheral the sermon topic, the more excited the people become. One of the things I’ve always loved about University Reformed Church is that the sermons they love most are the ones that deal with the most central themes of the Bible. They love to hear about sin and salvation, about the glory of God, about providence, about Christ and the cross. It’s not that they never hear (or dislike) sermons on the end times or social issues or financial stewardship or marriage or parenting, but they seem most passionate about the messages that major on guilt, grace and gratitude. I’m concerned when a congregation gets tired of hearing about the Trinity, the atonement, the new birth or the resurrection and wants to hear another long series on handling stress or the 70 weeks in Daniel.
2. The church staff does not enjoy coming to work. Every job has its ups and downs. Every office will have tension from time to time. But lay leaders should take note when staff members seem sullen, unhappy and have to drag themselves to church every day. Do the members of your church staff like to be around each other? Do they ever talk to each other as friends in the fellowship hall? Do you ever see them laughing together? If no, there may be burn out afoot, or conflict, or something worse.
3. The pastor and his wife do not get along. I’m not talking about the regular tiffs and periodic tough times every couple endures. I’m talking about a marriage that has grown cold and loveless, a relationship that is perfunctory and lacking in passion. Every church should have some mechanism in place to ask the pastor and his wife how their marriage is going (or not). Churches can survive a lot of conflict, but rarely will they be healthy, happy places if the pastor and his wife are quietly (or loudly) unhealthy and unhappy.
4. Almost no one knows where the money goes. Churches handle their finances in different ways. As churches get bigger it can be harder, or even unwise, for everyone in the church to have a say in the allocation of every dollar. And yet, when it comes to finances, erring on the side of transparency is rarely a bad idea. At the very least, there must be more than a small group of people who know (and have a say) in where the money goes. Don’t make the pastor’s salary a matter of national security.