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 signs 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 an unhealthy church 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.
Signs of an Unhealthy Church
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, this is one of the signs of an unhealthy church. There may be burnout 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.
5. The leadership team never changes or always changes. Both are warning signs. On the one hand, churches become ingrown when there is never any new blood among the leaders. If your elders, deacons, trustees, small group leaders, Sunday school teachers, VBS coordinators and worship team members are the same now as they were during the Reagan administration, you have a problem. Maybe the old leaders are power hungry, maybe no one is being trained up, maybe no one new has come to your church in 20 years. All are big problems. On the other hand, if the elders are never interested in serving another term, and the staff members never stick around more than a couple years, and the volunteers only volunteer once, the culture of your church may be too confining, too full of conflict or too unforgiving of honest mistakes.
6. No one is ever raised up from the church for pastoral ministry or sent from the church into missionary service. Good preaching inspires young men to preach. Clarity about the gospel stirs up men and women to share the gospel with those who have not heard. Smaller churches may not send out workers every year, but the congregation that almost never produces pastors and missionaries is almost always showing clear signs of an unhealthy church.
7. There is a bottle neck in decision making. This may be the congregation’s fault. Some church members insist on approving every decision, from staff hiring to the time of the worship service to the proverbial color of the carpet. If everyone has to vote on every decision, your church will never be bigger than the number of people who can knowledgeably vote on every decision (which is pretty small). The bottle neck can all be the pastor’s fault. In some churches nothing happens without the pastor’s personal approval and direct oversight—a sure-fire recipe for turf wars, stunted growth and the driving away of gifted leaders.
8. The preaching has become erratic. This eighth of our signs of an unhealthy church may take on many forms. Maybe the pastor no longer shares the pulpit with other staff members and the occasional outside guest. Maybe the opposite is taking place and the pastor seems to be calling in the reserves more often than not. Maybe the preaching has become more vitriolic, or always hammers away at the same theme, or shows signs of little preparation. Maybe you’ve noticed that the preacher is relying more on video clips or prepackaged sermon outlines, or constantly reuses sermon material from a few years ago. No one wants the preaching to be dull. Some variation is to be expected and welcomed. But take a closer look if the preacher seems doctrinally unstable, irritable or exhausted.
9. There are issues everyone knows about but no one talks about openly. Unhealthy churches often have one major unwritten rule: The person who mentions our problems is the one with the problem. This could be a pastor who can’t preach, an organist who never sticks around for the sermon, an elder who is rumored to be in a compromised relationship, a youth director who doesn’t know how to talk to kids, a staff member who can’t get along with anyone, a leader who leads by fiat and intimidation. To be sure, many matters should be dealt with privately and quietly, but this is no excuse for turning a blind eye to what everyone can plainly see. Naming what everyone knows is often the first step in robbing the problem of its crippling power.