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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  • I am a member of a PCA church. I have been indicted for “sending unsolicited emails about church matters” to church officials. There is no allegation that my requests for budgets, requests for ministry information, etc., were mean-spirited, etc., because they were not. They were a well-intentioned effort to become involved more fully in the life of my church.

    But they were obviously perceived to be threatening to the church’s elite, and now I stand accused of emailing my church! By the way, our denomination, at its highest level, discloses its finances per ECFA. This local church refuses to disgorge a budget!

    The good news is that our Presbytery has recommended to these leaders in this “mean church” that they would do well to mediate this mess. We shall see if they follow through on their promise to do so.

    But folks, this is about as bad as it gets. When people in power perceive that someone might take seriously their obligation to be transparent, then get ready for blowback.

  • Michael Cannon says on

    Wish I had read this just a few years back. Amazing how they are linked together. Pastors, read and research before you accept that next call!

  • Traits of a Mean DENOMINATION:
    1. It KNOWS it has member churches that “treat pastors and staff poorly and that make decisions about them without a fair process” but has no way to discipline those churches because of the doctrine of local church autonomy.

    Wouldn’t a solution to the meanness of churches be the discipline of 1 Cor 6? But when a local church is bully-controlled, then it can’t spiritually judge as is taught in 1 Cor 6. Doesn’t the body of Christ and the denomination have a responsibility to judge situations and help the “poorly treated” pastor.

    Jesus is returning as He said in Rev 2-3 to punish some churches. If a denomination embraces churches that are mean, doesn’t it deserve some of that punishment?

    Every new pastor at a mean church will inevitably have to fight the same bully and struggle with the same mean, unfair system. Pastors born in the WWII generation, like Charles Stanley and Johnny Hunt, were fighters. And they spent time fighting the bullies. They were successful – but how many other pastors lost the battle. How much time was wasted and souls lost?

    Younger pastors are just going say “Good-bye, grumpy old folks … Good-bye mean church … Good-bye mean denomination.” A mean denomination can’t offer any justice for the poorly treated pastors and it has no plan to get better.

    2. A mean denomination KNOWS it has racist member churches that “see those outside of the church as ‘them’ or ‘those people’ instead of embracing the community with the love of Christ.”

    When a town has a 50% African-American population and a church is located in the middle of the African-American side-of-town but has never had any African-Americans, then that church is either incredibly incompetent or guilty of the discrimination and disrespect taught against in James 2. That church is a mean church, at least to those of the wrong skin color and economic status..

    Shouldn’t a denomination have enough integrity to demand that its member churches not be incompetent and mean when it comes to their primary mission, which is reaching the lost?

    What about the lost people outside the doors of those churches? Can you wave the denomination banner alongside mean churches? Would Christ wave that banner?

    Can you tell a lost person to go to the nearest Bible-believing church, when you’re not sure if that church wants them? It’s essential that a church believes the right doctrines — but LOVE is one of those essential doctrines — and without it church people are mean.

  • Thom, great blog. First, churches should conform to common business practices with their handling of the business end of any organization. Although a church is much more than a human organization, that is not an excuse to ignore or circumvent accounting, reporting and general accountability to Biblical and reasonable expectations.
    Secondly as to mean people, there seems to be great difficulty here. Most of those ho get things done at church tend to be task focused people. They gain more control by default. The ones that ar control focus gain more power and lack the people skills but the outbursts only happen when a perceived threat to their control happens. Then because we are to turn the other cheek (along with the realty that 90% plus of people will back away from conflict) the person does not gt addressed. This reaffirms the negative behavior. And then as Solomon says, “the little foxes” ruin the vineyard. It’s the micro incidents that build up, one person leaves at a time. And every now and then enough are upset to raise a ruckus, but they really can’t put their finger on it and the mean person is not co confer biblically or in a meaningful way. So the pattern continues until only tough people remain.
    I don’t have good answer besides revival and or an incredible influx of new people.
    I don’t believe churches or people start out to be mean. Without the constant work of the Holy Spirit the difficulty of running a mostly volunteer org that only intern a with people a few hours a month will move to maintenance and task which is the stomping ground of control people. Just my anecdotal observations. Jim

  • I believe the problem of a “mean church” lies in pride and selfishness. Pride, both of a pastor and people, who think of themselves more highly than they ought to think. The church that is “mean” is no longer God centered. They are not, as A.W. Tozer put it, “preoccupied with God”.

    They have also lost a healthy sense of accountability to God. Paul addressed Timothy in 1 Timothy 1:1,2

    1 I charge you therefore before God and the Lord Jesus Christ, who will judge the living and the dead at His appearing and His kingdom:
    2 Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching.

    John Calvin said of this, “He makes special mention of the judgment of Christ because He will require of us, who are his representatives, a stricter account of our failures in His ministry.”

    We need to go back to Isaiah 6 and return to a Biblical view of God. When the prophet saw the vision of God in the temple, his response was brokenness and humility, not pride. It was only when Isaiah saw the vision of God’s glory in the temple, and saw himself as he really was in the presence of a holy God, that he was really prepared to say, “Here am I, send me.”

  • I once accepted a church which the district minister wanted me to turn down. He wanted to bring in a hired gun professional trained by the convention to deal with problem churches…to work with them for two years and try to resolve the inner conflicts. He was definitely right on what the church needed. My skill level was not at the level necessary to solve this church’s problems. (The church had one pastor leave on good terms in its first eighty years and it was not me.) Unfortunately, I don’t think the “professional” would have been the solution either. I would be interested in knowing R’s experience with such professionals and what their odds of success are. Sometimes the problem people just need to die…but they’re too stubborn to die. But if they did, their spirit would linger on and on and on because it’s already ingrained in the next generation, too.

  • I have been pondering about replying to this. The article was very good and so true. There are no perfect Churches out there. As long as people attend them they will not be perfect. We are not perfect. Enough about things that you already know. I will start with the my most recent Church. I was a Deacon in the Church and loved the Church and people. Keep in mind we are the Church! The power teams are a reality. When I became Chairman of the Deacons I started to hold people accountable, certain Deacons did not like this. I then discovered our Pastor was using the internet for his sermons, word for word. He did not like that I knew what he was doing. He certainly did not give anyone credit for it as well. The Bible clearly states how to set up a Church, The Deacons are servants and only servants (Benevolence) , not the spiritual leadership of the Church. That is what Elders are for. That is the first problem.. I was more or less forced to step down as Chairman of the Deacons and I quickly informed them that we lost our focus and it was not on God. I left the Church. Too many committees. Take a look at that word Committee, the first part is Commit. We should all be committed to Christ. Which would limit the committees. The other Church I left was because we felt led to leave and a Deacon of the Church did what the Bible states to pray for them and to send them out. My family and I are humble people and lay low and do things in the background, not to draw attention to self. We had nothing to do with this, but it was nice to see that at least one Deacon understood the Bible. After we left My wife was called back to sing with a group, the Pastor called and told us that we are not welcome since the last service we attended,”it was all about us”. We did not go sing that night. Bottom line is, yes this affected us, emotionally and spiritually. I thank God that he has provided me (us) with the Holy Spirit to get us through these tough times. Have we joined a Church since, No. I can not find it in the Bible where it states that we must join a Church. The Bible states to be with like believers, which I am throughout the week and on Sundays at various Churches. Very good comments above and a very good article. I leave you with this thought. If you had a bad meal at a restaurant , would you not come back and try something different the next time?

  • I came to the church I currently serve 12 years ago to what many told me later was considered a “Mean Church!” One of my friends asked what I was thinking. I knew God called us here to teach these folks the basics of Christianity which to me is “Love God and Love Others, whoever the other may be!” With consistent teaching on the subject and taking opportunity to live it out in front of them in our community God has done amazing things and we are now known as a very loving caring church. God can turn the tide.
    And unlike so many of the others, my older folks were all for change because they had lost a whole generation of youth. My oldest member told me after the first day to “Change Everything!” He said and I quote, “I don’t care what anyone else says, what we are doing isn’t working, so change everything, turn up the music, redecorate, but go get my grandkids and their friends.” I took his mandate and we are now a thriving growing church in our community that has relocated our entire facility. Be encouraged with God’s help and enough desperate prayers, anything can happen.
    You have to help them see the greater needs of your community and not always be so inward and selfish in our thinking. However, you cannot abandon the folks in the church and their real felt needs to go get the community. It must be both. Pastoral care should still get done for the church folks. Pastor’s don’t give up on the call God put in you for your church, you will reap a harvest if you do not give up.

  • While I appreciate the list (our church matches 9 of 9). How do we turn this around. The senior pastor and I are trying to lead the church to God’s throne, but the power groups seem to constantly prevail. Yesterday a “power broker” berated the pastoral staff because we used donated funds and donated labor to paint the sanctuary (as the funds were designated to do) instead of repairing the tiles on the floor in her area of influence (which would have cost much more and was not the designation). When another member pointed out that more visitors see the sanctuary than her area, she proclaimed that we should look out for our own facility before caring about a visitor who probably won’t return anyways. I guess she is at least good at making self fulfilling prophecies!

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