Anatomy of a Sick Church – 10 Symptoms to Watch


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)

Posted on June 22, 2015

With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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  • My church has 7 out of 10. Including the pastor We are a small congregation of about 18 member on a good Sunday. There are no young families or young children. Our congregation is average age 60 and up who has been there for 25years or longer. My husband and I are the youngest 54 & 58. I have prayed for spiritual guidance to stay or leave. I love the members but I dislike the pastor, who is rude, hurtful, and has no filter, loves to spend 30% of worship time talking about themselves and things in their personal life that don’t concern the church. No one has joined our church in 3 years, and no one invites friends or family, yet everyone is pretending things are fine just the way they are. We haven’t had a church meeting in over 3 years. Before. After the passing of our pastor 15 years ago, our church chose the wrong pastor who ended up resigning. Then they voted for this pastor, and it’s been all down hill. The church turned into a dead church, with no motivation, no inspiration, and no vision. If I bring my concerns to the pastor or the church I will be ostracized, and publicly ridiculed. My husband will not leave.

  • I would add: Having a church who tries to save them with the message of Hell, rather than the uplifting promises God gave us. Someone being “saved” to avoid hell is not in it for the right reasons and isn’t being educated correctly. Also, if a youth movement occurs in the church, the rest of the congregation must embrace them and nurture them rather than marvel at the spectacle of all these new young believers. They won’t stay if they feel like a freak show.

  • Typical and not very insightful…

    How about “rise in divorce rates where those that stay are the men (good ol’ boy’s club) and the women are left out in the cold because the only leadership in the church is male and the male elders aren’t allowed to meet with the females who are the victims of mistreatment”… yeeeaaahhhhh…

  • Ed Thompson says on

    Another sign of a sick church
    1. Ministers having affairs with other ministers wives
    We recently lost the High Powered young guitar playing Worship Leader because he and the wife of an associate pastor had an affair while they were on a retreat. The spouses were also on the retreat. The worship leader’s wife was 8 months pregnant. Then the associate pastor was forced to leave though he was not involved. He is now selling cars. His wife had the affair not him. I knew the worship leader was a problem.

  • Ed Thompson says on

    Some additional examples:
    1. Removing Hymnals from the Sanctuary, using mega sized TV’s instead
    2. Removing the pews and installing theater seats with numbers
    3. Redesignating the Sanctuary as the Worship Center
    4. Amping up the noise level
    5. Adding drum set behind a plexiglass enclosure by the pulpit
    6. Renting musicians when the choir cannot attract volunteers
    7. Replacing hymns with 7-11 music

  • A church that views “traditions” as being equal to or surpassing biblical doctrine is a very sick church.
    Churches that view “having” a church but are not interested in “being” a church are sick churches.
    Methodology of worship and ministry may vary from church to church. It isn’t the methodology that weakens, it the fruits produced in that church that indicate the health of the church.

  • I saw these things that the last church I was at. but not
    This church am at these people are loving. I see two or
    There symptoms I would say it’s healthy I’m 17 and my is the pastor. the last church I was at will die.

  • Kathleen Carlson says on

    Please have a non-member take these 10 symptoms rather than a jaded member. Things stand out for a non-member that never occur to a member.

  • As a congregation are you going to pursue the uneducated ( or actually allow non-believers a place in your pews? Many of my generation (I am now 45) were very active in church and still hold strong christian values but have decided to pass on believing in a god. Is it better to fill your pews with those who would live in a manner that you see as “christian” or do you hold that litmus test that they must believe in god and Jesus Christ? If the latter then you have to look to the uneducated in your community since the educated are leaving. If the former then you have to open up to the idea that we are not searching for salvation but instead how to be a good community member. It isn’t easy (and many will say it isn’t right), but simply regurgitating bible verses at us are the surest way to get us to leave. Instead you have to be challenged to find the deeper meaning in those words and espouse that meaning from the pulpit without simply citing verse. Maybe church isn’t for us… but I do miss that loving community and wish I didn’t feel abandoned because I didn’t pass the test…

    • I suppose there is a third option – hope that the light will come to the educated, but I fear too many churches have relied on this option for far too long…

    • David Troublefield, DMin says on

      It is possible to develop a core of solid Christians after starting with a community of unbelievers. Compare strong evangelical Southern Baptist churches like Saddleback Church that began with 2 families (start: community > crowd > congregation > committed > core). One important thing: the members of the church as it currently exists being insulated (from worldliness, via close walks with God) and not isolated (cloistered within the building, sheltered in place).

      David Troublefield, DMin

    • David Troublefield, DMin says on

      I am afraid that people by the billions (with a ‘b”)–educated, not so educated, and completely illiterate alike–will spend eternity in Hell for no other reason but they remained unchallenged by Christians to consider seriously the Holy Bible’s claims for Christ as Savior and Lord. The gospel of the New Testament is objectively the truth–it essentially is what happened on Calvary and why for the six hours Jesus hung on the cross; nothing is able to change that story, and no one who examines the evidence of it honestly can come back as an unbeliever in his mind–intellectually–though he may continue not to trust in Christ with his heart (volitionally an unbeliever).

      Open the doors, let everybody in, keeping showing all the truth of the Scriptures and challenging them with it. God is not afraid of that, and we should not be either (when people choose to become Christians biblically, they then are added to the church/faith community).

      David Troublefield, DMin

    • A church is a loving community of believers in Christ that welcomes outsiders to God’s joyous good news. I think you were attracted to this loving community and unfortunately without Christ at the core it slowly seizes to exhibit these characteristics. Believers come in all types, regardless of gender, age, education, money etc. When the fire dies that you warmed yourself by it brings sadness, you need to be apart of that fire.

  • Hello! As I was reading your list of symptoms of a sick church, I began to ponder a recent situation in the church I attend. Our church has gone through some extremely painful times over the past three or four years. Our pastor of more than 15 years, who was well respected and loved, struggled with some major financial issues that ultimately lead to his resignation. Then, a new pastor came on board only to have many families continue to leave because of past hurt as well as not being in agreement with the vision of the new pastor. The split was gut-wrenching and painful. After a few years of conflict and turmoil, there appears to be more unity among the congregation recently. There appears to be healing taking place, and health being restored.

    However, I often wonder if any of this could have been avoided if we would have recognized some of the symptoms you mentioned above. Could it have been avoided if the problem was addressed before the situation went too far; or was it God’s way of moving people because they might not otherwise move on their own? Sometimes, God allows us to go through challenges to bring us out stronger on the other side.

  • I know a church where the worship is vibrant and the giving is good. It has made an impact in the community and many are being added to their number constantly. It is a thriving church and it is by no means sick.

    Oh, did I mention that the pastor has impregnated a woman who was not his wife and he plagiarizes his sermons, that he helped himself immensely with church funds and constantly asks the congregants for vacations and gadgets? Did I also mention that he decreed that his actions cannot be questioned?

    • David Troublefield, DMin says on

      A congregation is not responsible for its employees’ behaviors, but it is responsible for what it does about its employees’ behaviors. If a church does not correct/dismiss misbehaving employees when it should, then it deserves the consequences resulting from its inaction.

      • They will not do anything because you know what, the pastor is the Lord’s ‘annointed.’ But my point is this: based on the list of the article, this is not a sick church.

  • Gary Smith says on

    I visit a good number of churches who are very ill. It is sad and frustrating.

    • David Troublefield, DMin says on

      . . . Sad–and unnecessary. No Christian congregation MUST be unhealthy/dysfunctional organizationally; and, unless a mass exodus from its zip code is happening, each congregation in the U.S. can experience numerical growth today (U.S. population larger by 50 million more people during the past 20 years). NOT easy, but simple . . .

      • David Troublefield, DMin says on

        6 characteristics of high performance teams achieving exceptional results (note: people going to Heaven instead of Hell counts as “exceptional” results; how many does your ministry team/congregation have now–and to what degree?):

        1. Common purpose
        2. Clear roles
        3. Accepted leadership
        4. Effective processes
        5. Solid relationships
        6. Excellent communications

        Implementing the 5 sequential steps of Flake’s Formula consistently addresses each of these characteristics and leads to growth…

    • I have heard Pastor’s say that it is wrong to go from one church to another (church hopping). If there is something wrong there, then why keep going to it?