Five Deadly Signs of an Unhealthy Church

Unhealthy churches are in pain. God cares about sick dying churches so we ought to care for them too as the church is the bride of Christ.

Yes, it is messy. Hurting churches hurt people, including pastors who try to help them. Therefore, we often try to avoid it as it’s a touchy subject. But when we look to Christ interaction with messy sinners, he is absolutely counter-cultural in his approach.

“Jesus don’t avoid those who mess up. Jesus runs to those who mess up.” – Matt Chandler

The question perhaps is, how do you know if your church is unhealthy?

The signs of church sickness are not always so obvious. There’s not a measurement, a stick, or a test you can take as it’s somewhat objective and it’s subjective at the same time. For even the church may openly say they believe in the Scriptures, preaches Jesus on a regular basis, teach all the right things, have all the right stuff, and may be a bigger church yet still be a terribly unhealthy church.

As Charles. H. Spurgeon said it well, “Just because a church is large doesn’t mean it’s healthy. It could be swollen.”

Unhealthy churches need divine healing, but first, the root problems must be identified. Here are five signs that your church may be unhealthy.


1. The pastoral staff does not look forward to coming or dreads going back to church.

The congregation should take note when staff members seem heavy-burden, unhappy, and have to drag themselves to church every day, that is a warning sign of an unhealthy church.

A healthy church is seen where the leadership has modeled grace. They model for a love for one another that is characterized by authenticity and mutual accountability. If you’re in an unhealthy church, the leadership most likely don’t like to be around one another and don’t like the idea of accountability and tend to push back relationships.

Do the members of your church staff like to be around each other? Do they talk to each other as friends throughout the week? Do they even work together as a team or as individual silos to avoid each other? Do you ever see them laughing together?

If no, there may be a burn out, or conflict, or something worse.


2. The leadership team never changes or always changing.

Both are warning signs.

On the one hand, churches become ingrown when there is never any new blood among the leaders. If your elder board, leadership team, or Sunday school teachers are the same now as they were for the past decades or so, you have a problem. It is an indication there is no multiplication and reproduction from within and the church is cruising through a maintenance mode. The reason may be that the leaders fear of job-security, may be that the leadership is lazy and doesn’t disciple others, or it may be that the church is not reaching out to the community.

On the other hand, if the chair of the trustees is not interested in serving another term and staff members don’t stick around more than a couple of years, the culture of your church may be too confining, too full of conflict, or too unforgiving of honest mistakes.

Both are big problems and are extremely unhealthy.


3. There’s a Toxic Leadership Culture in decision-making bottlenecks.

If your church runs like a business and have to play politics to get anything done, it’s a sign your organization is unhealthy.

This may not necessarily be a leadership issue, but a congregational problem. Some people have exclusive bigger say over the church’s direction than others from staff hiring to the approval of the church software system, you’re in an unhealthy church.

These unsaid expectations of the people in the church that are not biblical and not scriptural, not even just preference but expectation they force upon others that binds their conscience can drain the life out of a church.

The bottleneck can also be the pastor’s fault. In some churches, nothing happens without the pastor’s personal approval. This stunts the growth of the church and can be the driving force of pushing away some gifted leaders elsewhere.


4. When there is a problem that everyone knows yet no one can openly discuss as the leadership cannot be challenged.

If you find yourself part of a church where leadership can never be questioned or challenged, run!

Unhealthy churches often have one unwritten rule: the person who mentions the problems such at a church business meetings are the one with the problem. Often those who bring up the problem becomes the escape goat and often ends up very poorly and the problem within the church remains the same.

This could be for the lead pastor who dislikes conflict and avoids confronting problems, a secretary who doesn’t do the job as asked, an executive pastor who is lazy and cheats the system, a youth director who doesn’t know how to organize well, a music minister who can’t get along with anyone, the staff member who gossips like a storm, a Sunday school teacher who leads by fear and intimidation.

Now, all these matters must be dealt privately and quietly, however it is no excuse for turning a blind eye and expect the issue will go away magically that everyone can plainly see.


5. When conflict arises, leaders either ignore it or pushes the panic button.

An unhealthy church will go to one extreme to the other.

One, it will panic at any conflict, thinking this will be the final death-stroke, or it will be constantly beset by conflict, like a sickly body experiencing one illness after another.

Where leaders lack transparency in talking with people, doesn’t communicate with the people, they don’t share with the people, not disclosing what the leadership is thinking, and when congregation is completely uninvolved that is a dangerous sign. When the leadership is addressed, corrected, rebuked or questioned unhealthy churches often push back and become offensive.

Authoritarian, non-listening and none-accountable leadership is a real issue. This could not only be in big churches but also in small churches.

 George Bullard has written a book and leads conferences, both with the intriguing title, “Every church needs a little conflict.”

So, conflict is not the problem, avoiding conflict resolution is the problem.


Don’t Abandon Your Church, but Invest in Your Church

A healthy church will often have growing pains, will regularly be attacked by the enemy. Churches go through different seasons of life cycle. Every church has its ups and downs. Every church will have tension from time to time.

There is no such thing as a “perfect” church. Honestly, there will never be a perfect church because the people who occupy the church are imperfect. If you do find a perfect church, then don’t join it as you will ruin it! Churches are filled with sinners, and sinners tend to hurt people and people make mistakes.

We are not speaking of church size, we are not looking at the building, we are not even talking about the production or preaching that is good, but we are speaking the most important thing which is the health of the leadership and culture within the pews of the church.

So, healthy church doesn’t mean perfection and agreement on all things. You are able to have disagreement on whether Calvinism vs. Arminian theology yet can have gospel unity without division.

Be an agent of change. Stick through it and don’t leave so hastily. Don’t abandon your church, but invest in your church.

7 thoughts on “Five Deadly Signs of an Unhealthy Church”

  1. Good article. You gave some good insight to help people. However, are you suggesting people remain in an unhealthy church? Unhealthy churches produce sick Christians. there is a definite difference between a church that has problems from time to time and a church that is toxic and should be avoided at all costs.

    • @clarencedalrymple,

      Great question; I do think there’s an exception, but I would say people are too quick to jump to another church. Unless it is 1st degree Doctrinal Foundation issue or threat to your marriage and family, I will say invest in your church rather than abandoning your church.


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