Nine Traits of Mean Churches

“My church is a mean church!”

I received two emails this week from church members who made that very statement. The members are from two different churches in two different states. One of the churches belongs to a denomination; the other is non-denominational. In both cases the church members made the decision to drop out of local church life altogether.

Yes, I tried to reason with the two members. I told them that no church is perfect. If they had any doubt, I wrote, look at the two letters the Apostle Paul wrote to the church at Corinth. I failed in convincing them to stay in their churches. I pray they will become active in other churches later.

I love local churches. But I have to admit, I am hearing more from long-term members who are quitting church life completely. One member wrote me, “The non-Christians I associate with are much nicer people than the members of my church.”

Ouch. That really hurt.

So, after receiving the second email, I began to assimilate all the information I could find where church members had written me about their “mean” churches. They may not have used the word “mean” specifically, but the intent was the same. I then collected characteristics of these churches, and I found nine that were common. I call these the “nine traits of mean churches.”

  1. Too many decisions are made in the cloak of darkness. Only a select few members really know what’s going on. The attitude of those elitists is that the typical member doesn’t really need to know.
  2. The pastor and/or staff are treated poorly. Decisions are made about them without a fair process. Complaints are often numerous and veiled. Many of these churches are known for firing pastors and/or staff with little apparent cause.
  3. Power groups tenaciously hold on to their power. The power group may be a formal group such as a committee, elders, or deacons. But the group can also be informal—no official role but great informal authority. Power groups avoid and detest accountability, which leads to the next point.
  4. There is lack of clear accountability for major decisions and/or expenditures. The church has no clear system in place to make certain that a few outlier members cannot accumulate great power and authority.
  5. Leaders of the power groups have an acrimonious spirit. Though they may make first impressions of kindness and gentleness, the mean streak emerges if you try to cross them.
  6. A number of the members see those outside of the church as “them” or “those people.” Thus the church is at odds with many in the community instead of embracing them with the love of Christ.
  7. Many members have an inward focus; they view the church as a place to get their own preferences and wants fulfilled. They are the opposite of the description of church members in 1 Corinthians 12, where Paul describes them as functioning members for the greater good of the body of Christ.
  8. Many people in the community view these churches negatively. Those on the outside often refer to these churches as “fighting and firing churches.” The community members detect no love for them from these churches.
  9. Most of the members are silent when power plays and bad decisions take place. They don’t want to stand up to the power group. They are afraid to ask questions. Their silence allows the power abuses to continue.

Are mean churches really increasing in number? My anecdotal information would indicate they are.

What can we do to become a more unified body? How can churches demonstrate more positive impressions to the community? What can we do to hold on to good members who are giving up on local churches altogether? What is your input on these issues? Let me hear from you.

Posted on March 23, 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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  • Bart Barber says on

    There are things I’ve written in the past that weren’t all that great. There are things I’ve written in the past that I wish I could make vanish from the Internet forever. But this is one that I truly believe I got right, and it pertains to so much of what you’ve written here.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Thanks for the link, Bart. You are certainly one of the more articulate writers in the blogosphere.

    • Excellent work Bart. I remember reading that back a couple of years ago. I might just print that out and post it to remind me of how true Congregationalism works.


  • Allen C. says on

    Sadly I have served a church that fit 7 out of 9 of those traits. Also the majority of the community saw people who moved in as outsiders and would often refer to them as folks who were from ‘off’ meaning they weren’t one of “us”. What made matters even worse was a former pastor who fed the power struggle with apathy and then continued to cause problems by continuing to work against pastor while trying to ‘act’ as if he were their friend.

  • Artie Hudson says on

    I agree that many of our local churches in America are mean in nature or unhealthy. I am convinced that in the midst of these mean churches that good people dwell. Additionally, I know that God gives us direction in His Word to redeem these churches. Churches become healthier when its members grow to be more like Christ. These quote mean churches need a pastor that recognizes the good in the congregation, that will love people who are hard to love. If God can raise the dead, He can surely continue to redeem and grow people within the church. I encourage pastors to love their churches.

  • C.A. Gibson says on

    From what I’ve seen this trend seems to be a result of the demographic shift in churches; the churches are hemorrhaging younger parishioners and the “old guard” is almost all that’s left. The thought becomes “wasn’t it better when we did ‘x'” and they begin to take over to fix the perceived problems. That breeds unfriendliness to anyone who might introduce new ideas or ways of doing things, which in turn will lead to the loss of members and a lack of active new members. I would suggest that what is needed is for pastors to take note of this trend (not embrace it, but accept that it is happening) and be proactive. If they would make sure that younger/newer members, so long as they are qualified, can find leadership positions where they can have some effect in steering the church, that should help. From what I’ve seen (I haven’t visited hundreds or thousands of churches, but I’ve been in my fair share having lived in 8 states) this kind of behavior usually emerges from committees or deacons, the chosen few. Having a shake-up, where new people/ideas are introduced, can have a neutralizing effect.

    Just my 2 cents worth.

  • Phil Rountree says on

    I was pastor of a church like this for many years. All six of the previous pastors had been attacked and fired. My strategy was to get enough new people in to start to counterbalance the power of the old guard, and using board-issued policy statements to clarify the structure and accountability of the church. There were some people who resisted the changes by acting out and spreading false rumors. I confronted them individually and told them to shape up or leave the church. Some shaped up, some left. After my first seven years, it was like the clouds parted and the sun came out. The great majority of the congregation radiated a positive attitude, and the grumps eventually gave up or died. I wound up staying there another 20 years just to enjoy being in a loving positive environment!

  • Thank you for writing this. I’ve been part of a few churches that are like this, and it took me moving away from the area to realize what I was in. A lot of the people that are in authoritarian, top-down churches, assume that leadership like this is normal. It preys on the weak-minded.

    To be honest, I don’t think there is much that can be done about this. 1. We are all a bunch of sinners. 2. Just about anyone can start a church and get a 501c3. 3. “There is a sucker born every minute.”

    Sadly, in my years of church I don’t think I’ve seen an accountability system that works. What we might need is for pastors and leadership to realize that they are just plagued by original sin as their congregants, operate in grace and the priesthood of all believers, do simple church, and preach Christ…nothing else but Christ.

  • After lifelong church membership/involvement, we have been recently church-free. We finally died of exhaustion from the petty politics, “meanness,” and self-absorbed attitudes of so many church members and leaders. And how often have we heard, in response to our concerns, “there is no perfect church.” What a lame response. What a stupid, lame excuse for a body that is supposed to be the Bride of Christ, the representative of the One True God, who conquered hell itself. The world and culture are literally burning down around us, and yet so many genuine, believing, good Christian people are absorbed with sorting through and battling church politics and selfish adults, who behave worse than pre-teens. We continue to watch and consider the churches nearby, thinking that we should somehow go back, but frankly, at this point, are afraid to try again.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      I understand your sentiments, Louise. I still pray you will find a church home that is not so dysfunctional. They are out there.

  • In regards to 9, good people think it is sin to question the pastor as he is erroneously thought of as untouchable or anointed.

  • Love (70) *(7) works perfectly. Yes, feelings can be hurt. Is it wrong to count that as joy? Rejoice in the peace that can not be understood? Bless & don’t complain? Rejoice in the truth? Always be hopeful? Remember to wear all of the armor? Again, (70)*(7). We should all be condemned, we are equally inadequate and thanks to Jesus, God sees the cross not our sins.

  • I think this article dovetails quite nicely with other articles about millenials in (or not in) church. First of all, it is rare for anyone to actually acknowledge that church can be an unsafe place. As an evangelist, I have learned to be selective even in visiting churches, rather than risk exposing my family or myself to apathetic comments, or worse, social predation. Too many articles pretend that issues like these are are really the warped perceptions of a few self-centered people. To the contrary: dysfunctional church families are easy to come by, and Christian millenlials are particularly vulnerable and know it. Reality is, the mean church phenomenon is often so subtle that even if you do speak up, you may not be believed by others who haven’t had specific experiences or who are insensitive to problems that have not yet affected them personally. This lack of support is isolating and stressful, and on a bigger level perpetuates the lack of accountability that allows the mean church spirit to reign.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Very perceptive comments. Thank you, Mato.

    • Agreed 100%, Mato. I’ve experienced what I believe to be emotional manipulation and others have as well. Call it bullying or spiritual abuse, it’s probably the same. But, those of us who experience it are quiet about it or move on to other churches because those in the “in crowd” don’t see it or it hasn’t come to there front door yet. It’s very sad.

  • Gwen Ogburn says on

    I feel most churches act like social clubs where if you pay your dues then you are accepted. I love my Lord but I am disable and can not attend regular. I find it is easier not to attend so people will not comment when you miss and they do not see you tithe. I have always been a warrior for Christ before my disability but none of the churches in my community have reached out to me. I do not support any of the local churches but I send my tithes where they will be used on the mission fields. I know the Bible tells us not to forsake the gathering together, but when that gathering does not want you , you stay away.
    I have my membership at my husband’s church ( Southern Baptist) but was told not to call the pastor as he supported my husband . I live 130 miles from my husband. My husband is a silent saintly psychopath who tried to kill me and probably did kill my son. It just the same as what happened to my LORD JESUS where his people chose a murderer and thief over HIM. No one else wants to hear it either. I have the greatest pastor ever in JESUS CHRIST. I do not know why I am still here because I should of died. I will be here until HE calls me home. My son is in paradise and I miss him. He died because it was his time and the Father allowed it.
    I feel pastors do more of what is socially accepted than what Christ would have them do and the same with the members. It has change so much in my 61 years. I am glad that I asked JESUS to let me see people through his eyes instead of my eyes as I worked in nursing and the ministry. It made a big difference.

  • A significant number of congregations (and their leaders) tolerate bad behavior of the kind you describe, and in nearly equal numbers reward the bad behavior of members by failing to hold them accountable and setting clear behavioral boundaries. This is a common failure of leadership due in part to the high level of pushback and vitriol that is aimed at the pastor and/or leadership team that sets clear boundaries and steadfastly refuses to tolerate bad behavior. But the culture of the church can be changed over time, with God’s grace and strong leadership that knows clear boundaries. In some instances that required “behavioral covenants” with members of the congregation. Pastors have to find the skill and creativity to preach about these matters in a way that strengthens the membership to practice good boundaries and truth telling in the encounters with bullies and mean people.

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