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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  • What was the thing that Christians were repeatedly told to do in the New Testament, more than other commands that are talked about today? “Love one another”. There is even a letter largely devoted to it: I John. If that was an issue then…
    It is something that can be a big issue today. What is a way of dealing with it? Well… what does I Corinthians 5:11 say about what to do with a “railer” (who calls himself a Christian)? It is the same thing that professionals today teach in how to deal with an abusive person. What is given in that passage is an answer.
    Extra statement–Do not give people power by acquiescing to their statements and communication. Recognize it for what it is and remove yourself from it by removing yourself from them, like Proverbs 14:7 says about staying away from a certain type of individual.

  • I wholeheartedly concur with your assessment! My husband died as a result of severe depression and betrayal at the hand of the church members!

    Never underestimate what these kinds of behaviors and actions can have on new souls. It can turn them away from the kingdom forever!

    How can I help with intervention?

  • Michele says on

    If you have any advice I would much appreciate it. I read your article after searching for sentences online that might coincide with my current situation. We recently stopped attending a local church. Now, I wouldn’t consider the church “mean” as a whole but there are older members or families of generations that separate themselves and particularly the younger (7-16 year old kids) seem to not only not mix with newer children who attend but in my case (others too) several have been cruel.for a while. We prayed and talked with our son and he has other friends..but I think he has wondered for a while what that means when kids and adults who are Christian are cruel. Not only does my son wonder but I do too. We love to learn Gods word we feel so fortunate to be arouse believers but a subset has made me fear what my children will think…down the line…bc this behavior goes unnoticed. I’ve invited coworkers and since they have chidren I think they would enjoy awana and other ministries…n 3 recent cases they told me stories about how the old guard grndkids kicked them and told them they smelled like garbage, made fun of and mocked an autistic boy and continued after being told to stop…and more. When talking to the pastor he confirmed some aspects of concern but that was it- no counsel of us regarding our dissolusionment,no discussion of where he will focus with this small group and their chidren -almost nothing. My husband Thinkthe is afraid of them- or just doesn’t get how very sick and sinful this group of children are…I am worried frankly. I don’t think I can go back if nothing is addressed and if this isn’t a number 1 concern – I think my kids are at risk and me too. I don’t want to be a church hopper but I wonder if you have input..why would a pastor not be so worried about his young flock and show an effort to soften their hearts? Fear? Thinking it isn’t a big deal to abuse others npn the community’s long as they smile at church. I must tell you- we will continue to minister to chidren and the lost as a family bc they deserve it..but also- they tend to be nicer. Help please:)

  • I just read this again. I had shared it on my Facebook page a year ago and it popped up in my memories today. It is so sad that these are true and I’m not sure I would believe that churches like this could really existe if my husband and I had not served in one. I have no doubt we were called by God to be there and we served for 3 years. The very first thing we experienced on your list of nine was number 8. As we would go out into our new community (a very small one) people would recognize that we were new in town and ask, my husband would say, “I’m the pastor at Hopewell First Baptist.” To which they would respond with one of the following, “Oh, you mean Hopeless Hopewell.” or “Oh, the pastor-eating church.” Well that wasn’t very encouraging. We shook it off and went on our way. Then we had an incident were church dicipline was needed and we were told by the formal power group, the deacons, (#3), that pastors come and go but she has been here (at the church) her whole life and basically we are not going to make her do anything she doesn’t want to do. From that point on my husband was constantly reminded by deacons that his job was at steak and they can always find another pastor, threats. We were accused of stealing money, and trying to change things in the church. One Sunday morning after about 2 years of service and the week of my husband’s birthday, a deacon stood up after the church service and called for a vote of confidence on the pastor, whether he should stay or leave. The vote was to take place the following Sunday after the service. It was the longest week of my life, even though we knew God would take care of us and I did feel a peace that passes understanding. We tried to celebrate my husbands birthday that week, it was difficult. Many “church members” (and I put that in quotes because they were people that are technically members but did not come to church and didn’t know us well at all) were called in to vote on our future at Hopewell (#4). I don’t know how they were asked to vote, all I know is that there were a whole lot of people at church that following Sunday. After the service the deacon who called the vote of confidence withdrew his motion and no vote was cast. There was a standing ovation. After that there was a short calm period but soon the threats on his job picked up again. There were meetings among the deacons that my husband was not aware of or invited to and eventually we were given an ultimatum. (#1) About a year after the vote was called he attended a deacons meeting one Sunday evening and wanted to talk about a new way to go about taking care of the people of the church. He had everything laid out in diagrams and written form and the deacons were completely unreceptive. The conversation once again turned to him needing to leave the church and became very heated. He was told, “If you can’t see the writing on the wall, Preacher, the. You are blind!” There were several meetings after that and the asked for a resignation. He requested time to put his resume out and they laughed in his face, “If you are going to leave then you just need to do it!” He asked for a severance package to help get us through while we look for another job, (we had 2 children, 4 years old and 2 years old and we lived in their parsonage) they laughed at him again and said, “you will be paid for the 30 days you have after you give your resignation to move your things out.” This whole time the people of the church didn’t know what was happening and when they did find out most did nothing to fight against the power group because pastors come and go and they have been here forever and no one wants to anger them(#9). The sadest part to me was that those who were the strongest against us had been our friends, or pretended to…(#5). They were the ones that had gotten the closest and then turned against us like we were Satan in the flesh. When my husband issued his resignation on a Sunday morning after he preached a full sermon, he told the congregation what had happened and what the results were. He did not name names but he did not sugar coat it. I suppose the deacons wanted it to look like it was our decision to leave when they had done the decision making. After it was all over my husband walked down to his office to get his things. A group of deacons met him and started yelling at him, telling him he couldn’t say those things and a few of them started rolling up their sleeves like they were ready to fight. There was no fight but it was a pretty scary time. Were we treated poorly? (#2) Yes, I believe no pastor and his family should have to go through what we went through, but I would go through it all again for the sake of Christ, after all, he willingly died a criminals death for me. God did take care of us and He still is. We moved in with my mom and dad for 6 months and his mom and dad helped us financially. He found a job in a warehouse as a supervisor and we eventually bought a house of our own. We have been sending out resumes to churches left and right and God has not provided a church for us yet. We have taken this time to heal and be loved on by the people who have always loved us. We long to be back in a church ministering to families. One day we will, this is not the end of ministry for us. Our trust is in God, not man.

  • Many of the Nine are happening at our church, but one of our problems is some of the staff are very rude in how they treat the congregation members, talking down to them and treating them like, because they are staff its their church and they will make all the rules and no one else can question things and if you do you are treated very poorly for it so much so that many families have left our church. I have been on the receiving end of this many times. We have someone that is supposed to oversee the staff but does not like confrontation and usually just sweeps the problem under the rug, staff just gets away with anything they want with zero accountability at all.

  • Mr. Rainer,
    I would not have considered my church a mean church, but I have to admit that your 9 traits are currently happening within the walls of my church. In the last couple of months we have tried to do things that involved the church to look outside its 4 walls into our community and look for ways to be a loving, servents of God to our neighborhood. We have a lot of long standing members that have started a firestorm because they arent willing to change. I have ready your book Autopsy of a Deceased Church and loved it and have shared it with someof the congregation, and our leadership team. We have lost lots of people as of late due to the negativity and it is really disheartening. Do you have any other suggestions as to how to turn this around. The last church I was so involved in with, some of the same traits were going on and the pastor was let go and as of today that church no longer exists. Im afraid that this is going to be the outcome of this church as well. The leadership team is a group of strong believer in the survival of the church, but with the backlash it is at this point not looking good. Thanks for this article I will be sharing this information.

  • Pastor John says on

    I’m in Wales UK and there’s an overwhelming trend for ‘religion’ here. Churches full of items that have been donated with people’s names stamped on them. If you move the wrong chair you’ll be pulled up in front of a church meeting. I’d never go to the church I pastor if I wasn’t the pastor. All the Biblical talk of the ‘world’ v the ‘church’ is a nonsense in the reality of my life. The ‘world’ are nice people, but inside that chapel of ‘christians’ is everything which is against the Kingdom of God.

    Any yes, it’s all ‘power’ games of people who are on the make. Every 18 months a new pastor brought in and destroyed.
    My solution – don’t ‘join’ a nasty church as a pastor it will destroy you and your family. Instead, START a new church. At least then if you do have people they’ll be on your side, which is the side of the Kingdom.

    And finally. The worst thing is when as a pastor you speak to pastors in ‘functioning’ churches who have absolutely no idea of what it is like to in the ‘lions den’ of church 24/7. They offer you all the ‘solutions’ as if you don’t know what you’re on about. That’s a hard one. You’re better off speaking to non-christians because they’ll understand religious people more that a middle class wealthy pastor……


    These problems are common in truly Bible based Churches like the Baptists. The worst thing is that the Pastors are copying a lot from the Pentecostals where The pastor is a Strong Man owning the Ministry. They do not take the congregational position of the Priesthood of every believer serious and hence they do not intentional teach every believer to effectively participate in church activity. Like in the Pentecostal system, the believers are looked upon more as their goldmine. Worst still, some go into building clicks so as to maintain their privileged people and ideas in positions. All is due to lack of the right biblical knowledge of a Congregational Church and a conviction of the faith they profess.

  • There is a great quote from Sherwood Lingenfelter in a book called “Transforming Culture” p. 143-144. “Independent power in the church belongs to Christ and Him alone…Delegated authority is always subject to the prior authority of Christ, of Scripture, and of a living senior generation of mature leaders whose lives have evidenced “the spirit and wisdom” of servant leadership…Each of these patterns [of leadership methods] fail when people grasp social power, implicit in the relationships, rather than work in submission to the authority of Christ and the Scriptures.”

    Basically, many churches have become fraternal organizations like the masons. They have hierarchies and secret initiation that are “Christian” in dress, but not in heart. It may be lunch with key leaders. It may be a moment in the church office. These things are grasping and wielding social power or authority rather than demonstrating submission to Christ. It is sad. In my own battle with it I wonder how far to go with resistance to it (or if I have gone too far). “A Tale of Three Kings” by Gene Edwards has been a great challenge to me. Yet, I’m not sure it goes far enough considering passages about false teaching, especially if you have been giving a position of authority in the local body of His church (called out ones). There is definitely a time to leave and it is best if you leave alone as Edwards says. However, concerns ought to be raised to those in authority in my opinion before you leave. Done to the best of your ability with an attitude of humility, quietness, and firm faith.

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