Anatomy of a Sick Church – 10 Symptoms to Watch

June 22, 2015

There are certain metrics and issues physicians check when we go to the doctor. They want to check our blood pressure and temperature. They do blood tests to see if there are any warning signs. They are looking for symptoms that might indicate real problems exist.

After working with churches for thirty years, I too look for symptoms that might point to greater concerns. The symptoms are not necessarily the problem; they simply provide warnings or cautions of potential issues.

While there are many potential symptoms of a sick church, I have found ten to be consistently common. These ten are not listed in any particular order:

  1. Declining worship attendance. Surprisingly, the majority of church leaders do not monitor worship attendance. I advise leaders to compare each month’s average worship attendance to the same month of previous years.
  2. Decline in frequency of attendance of church members. This symptom is the number one explanation for attendance decline in most churches. Members are not as committed as they once were. Their waning love for their church is reflected in their declining frequency in worship attendance.
  3. Lack of joy and vibrancy in the worship service. Obviously, this symptom is subjective. It is still, however, very important. Most people can sense when a worship service is vibrant, lukewarm, or dead.
  4. Little evangelistic fruit. As a general rule, a healthy church will reach at least one non-Christian for every 20 in worship attendance. A church with a worship attendance of 200, for example, should see at least ten new Christians a year.
  5. Low community impact. In my consultations, I attempt to find clear indicators that a church is making a difference in its respective community. I ask both church leaders and community members for clear examples and indicators.
  6. More meetings than ministry. A sick church will meet about what they should do rather than do it. Some churches have more committees than conversions.
  7. Acrimonious business meetings. Christians can and do disagree. Sick churches have meetings where the disagreements reflect obvious bitterness and anger.
  8. Very few guests in worship services. A vibrant church will attract guests. A sick church will not.
  9. Worship wars. Yes, they still exist in many churches. Those wars are indicators of an inward focus by the members.
  10. Unrealistic expectations of pastoral care. Sick churches view pastors and other staff as hired hands to do all of the work of ministry. Healthy churches view pastors as equippers for the members to do most of the ministry.

None of these symptoms are good, but churches do go through periods where they demonstrate a few of them. The key is to recognize the symptoms and respond early and quickly.

Here is my own subjective health analysis according to the number of symptoms:

1 to 2 symptoms. Normal for most churches for a short period of time. Not an indicator of poor health, but the symptoms should be addressed promptly.

3 to 4 symptoms. The church is sick and needs immediate attention.

5 to 6 symptoms. The church is very sick. If significant changes are not made, the congregation is in danger of moving into the phase of terminal illness.

7 to 10 symptoms. The church is in danger of dying in the next five to ten years. While it is possible for a church to recover from this level of sickness, it is rare. Intervention must be quick, intense, and dramatic. The amount of change necessary is often more than most leaders and members are willing to bear.

Give an honest assessment of your own church by these symptom indicators. What do you see? What should you do if there are a number of symptoms? Let me hear from you.

photo credit: Come in and take a pew via photopin (license)

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74 Comments

  • All those things you mentioned, hymnals, pews, the word “sanctuary” were probably hi tech at one stage or another.

  • Hi, I know this is an old post, but I would be grateful of a reply.

    I’m not in the US, my church has 14 people, over half from the same family. And half of them are kids. Most others are over 50. No decernable leadership, just the oldest person there doing all the teaching. Women not allowed to speak, must cover heads. No fellowship meeting that are not church services, no socialising encouraged after meetings, people leave right away. One section of the main family wants to leave and is haphazard in attendance, putting sporting events before attendance. As only men speak, it can come down to one man doing every prayer, every hymn choice. Women are allowed to do nothing but sit in silent prayer.

  • Akhigbe Praise says on

    It’s scary, my church is going through all. My Pastor spend all the time telling same stories. It’s so bad we can’t invite any one from the community to church…..I don’t know what to do to help my church.

  • Brian Reade says on

    I was interim pastor of a Baptist church for 3 months. The church had 9 of these symptoms and the previous pastor never addressed it. In a short time 2/3 of the members left, most without telling anyone. They just stopped showing up and the church never received letters from their new churches. Many did not return the pastor’s phone calls but the few who did would not disclose what their new church was. The deacons are in control of the church. They do not meet the scriptural qualifications and I am sure they are not saved. They are actually opposed to having any kind of outreach; instead they want to rule the church and monitor everyone’s behavior. By the time I stepped in to pastor (for free), the church had a deficit of hundreds of dollars each month with about 20 attending on Sunday. And my own tithe was about 40% of the total receipts. The people came only to the main Sunday morning service. The only people who would come to Sunday school and the evening services were myself and 2 deacons. I started going to door door to try to get more people in but the deacons said I should not do that “without church approval”. I did teach them from the Bible that the very purpose of the church is to produce disciples. They did not know that. When I showed the church from the scriptures that deacons are servants, not a ruling body, the deacons went behind my back and had my name taken off the legal corporation (I was also treasurer, song leader and pianist) and they had the locks changed on the building so that I could not get in. How sad for this church. It is on its way to going bankrupt. But it has been spiritually bankrupt for quite some time.

  • Nice explanation

  • Terri Walden says on

    There are churches that people feel that they are not being fed the Word of God enough.

  • My church has the following characteristics :
    1) respect and favouritism is based position , influence, background , and value of contribution
    2) church staff who resigned , moved to other churches instead of staying back in the church.
    3) People are used as tools for the purpose instead as part of the purpose.
    4) People talk about people rather than talk to them.
    5) There are 2 groupings in the church, those favoured and those not favoured
    6) People are passive , sometimes respond and sometimes not. They rarely talk to people they dont know well. Cold in some way.
    7) Conflict is solved not very professionally as they try to avoid conflicts at all cost and
    would view people as troublemakers when conflict arises.
    8) Respect needs to be earned and not given.
    9) Greetings rarely given.
    10) Obedience and follow the flow is expected.

  • My church has 10 out 10! We share a pastor with another church that is mainly age 60 & up. Unfortunately, our pastor spends the majority of his time there as they have more monetary benefits. We are on a timed basis to accodomate both churches, which means no interaction with the pastor after service. His wife & another child are never at our church but always at the 2nd church. Our pastors sermon does not come from God or the heart but from a newsletter published by the Methodist council. How do you revive a church that used to be splitting at the seams and now will have to close because our congregation can not afford to keep it open? How do you demolish the cliques that run the church & only allow what they want? I love my church & I have prayed, but I need help!

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