Seven Potentially Deadly Church Sicknesses

For the past two years, I have been monitoring the comments and challenges mentioned by church leaders. I am attempting to answer the question: What is hindering many of our churches from achieving health and vitality?

As I have categorized the problems and challenges the church leaders shared, I have seen seven distinct categories of hindrances. Since I am primarily concerned about church health, I call these hindrances “church sicknesses.”

The good news is that none of these sicknesses have to become terminal. They can be reversed from sickness to health. The bad news is that, without intervention, each illness can potentially lead to the decline and death of the church. Let’s look at all seven sicknesses:

  1. Attitudinal Angst: a church illness where church members are most focused on getting their own desires and preferences met, rather than being a serving member of the body of Christ. It is also called Church Country Club Membership.
  2. Slippage Syndrome: the church illness where a church stops focusing on its primary purposes. Evangelism slippage is the most common.
  3. Detail Distraction: a church illness where there is too much focus on minor issues to the detriment of major issues. For example, routine meetings can become more important than compelling missions.
  4. Institutional Idolatry: a church illness where the members have an unbiblical devotion to inconsequential matters such as facilities, order of worship, or styles of worship.
  5. Activity Acclimation: a church illness where the members see busyness to be the same as commitment and/or godliness. The church calendar becomes the guiding document for the congregation.
  6. Purposeless Prayer: the church illness where corporate prayer is non-existent or steeped in non-useful tradition. Such prayers can be perfunctory, showy, or gossipy.
  7. Detrimental Defensiveness: a church illness where the members and leadership are fearful to move forward because of memories of past conflicts and the presence of troublemakers and bullies.

I plan to cover these sicknesses in detail in a series of videos on “The Rainer Report,” our Wednesday video blog at this site, The series begins on March 21. I hope you can join us. In the meantime, give us your feedback on these seven sicknesses. Do you recognize any in your church?

Posted on March 12, 2018

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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  • Robert H. Wright Jr says on

    In todays crazy mixed up secular world, we need: 1. The Lord 2. The Word of the Lord and 3. The Body of Christ more than ever. We need to go and to do.

  • There is also the sickness of group think. Current leadership (elders, deacons) has to think the same way or else the odd thinker will be constantly out voted and could be asked to resign. Those who want to make deacon and/or elder have to think like the current group or else they won’t get chosen.

  • Brent Lay says on

    Agree with all seven. An underlying cause may be the fact that the median age in the SBC has increased from 36 to 57 in over the last 30 years? In practice this fact has created a Big Sqeeze—more pastor’s hours for funerals, hospitals and nursing home visits and far less time for Evangelism and Missions. Of course this only applies to our SBC churches which average less than 250 in worship which have 3 or less full time staff. (About 94% of all SBC churches?). What is your assessment of this possible underlying issue?

    • It’s a topic worth pursuing, Brent.

    • Even 30 years ago, evangelical churches were far more interested in funerals, hospitals and nursing home visits than anything else. I was a kid at that time. I saw it.

      • So true, Mark.. I remember, too. We’re only panicked now because we’ve awakened to find our churches dying or dead due to failure to evangelize the lost where we work, play and live. All the workers are dead and dying. This year’s SBC annual meeting was supposed to be focused on evangelism, but in my opinion that never happened. We listened as speakers droned on for too long (Augie, come on, man. That was prime time.) when we should’ve ditched the program and gotten on our knees in repentance and prayer. And from the looks of our crowd in Dallas, we would’ve done well to fast, too. Good grief at the obesity in that convention center!

        I had to come back to my home and give a Messenger report and I WAS EMBARRASSED that I couldn’t bring home anything of real spiritual substance. My little bankrupt church spent money we didn’t have to send two of us to Dallas, and for what? Watching and participating as David Platt and the IMB sent off missionaries to dangerous places in the world was about the heaviest thing we experienced, but sadly only about 15% of the Messengers were there because it didn’t occur until too late in the evening on the first day. Twitter lit up with angry Messengers over Pence, Russell Moore, ERLC, #metoo, etc. But where was Jesus? Where was the call to evangelize? Thank God for the IMB and the NAMB who are on track.

        Sorry. This reply evolved.

  • I think it interesting that what I did not discern is a problem in many churches of a larger size with a capable staff. The staff run things and do not engage well with the members – partly because the staff can get things done without having to have lay people help. But then the staff wonder why the members are unwilling to fund what they (the members) have no engagement in. When I was doing stewardship consulting the principle for success was “Support comes from a sense of ownership and the way to build ownership is involvement; therefore involvement produces ownership which produces support.” Without involving or engaging people in the creation of ministry activity, they will probably not provide financial support. The exception to this rule is the church culture where the people pay the professionals to do the work of ministry, but church members will be limited in their motivation to fund the church’s professionals. The better way is to engage church members in ministry creation and execution; when they own it they will support it.

  • Bro. Thom, we are a church that is in the mist of revitalization and these are rabbits that we see people take-off on quite often. We have seen major growth in every area of our church except budget and we would add to your list “strong vision and purpose” as an antibiotic! We know that telling 30-somethings what we do or should do really has no effect. But when you tell them why…you get response. We have just recently defined budget as a TOOL! Those of us who have worked in the church realize that, but new Christians really have no idea where the money comes from. When defined, we have seen a really jump in our giving.

    The ones we see here are 3 & 4. The “old heads” still want a pristine building with the interior design like it “all ways was”. We have found that reaching young families is really exciting (52 additions this year with 1/3 of those baptisms) but it is messy! Lots of kids, Lots of noise, Lots of LIFE! I guess we should just run to the mess! the tradeoff from “the list” is life. It is hard work to maintain a young family church facility, but the win is worth it.

    We have found a few people that hold your list as the plum line change their tune when they see and hear the pitter patter of feet down the isle. Loving people, seeing lives changed and being apart of the redemption process of young families…the best!

  • As a church consultant, Vision Casting/Clarification is one of the ways I work with churches. Many or most of the illnesses you describe will eventually leak in when churches do not have (as Will Mancini describes) a 5 C Vision – Clear, Concise, Compelling, Contextual, Catalytic vision. This is not a vision that would fit any and all churches (which is the vision statement most churches carry) but one that uniquely and specifically fits them, and gives the congregation and leaders a clear mandate forward.

    For example: I recently facilitated a visioneering process with a church where we landed on the vision, “Bringing Hope to _____________.” This is a community where there is a great deal of hopelessness – crime, drugs, single parenting, at levels well above the typical community. This simple vision to “Bring hope to the hopeless” gave exciting direction and strategy to the church, and many of the illnesses of the past simply disappeared as focus moved from the non-essential, the routine,the non-strategic to the most important – reaching their local community for the Kingdom.

  • Craig Hodgins says on

    I am most interested in #5. Today are many distractions and choices, so our time can be spent on those. There is a difference between being productive and doing the right thing at the right time. We need clarity on what our work is.

  • Detrimental Defensiveness: a church illness where the members and leadership are fearful to move forward because of memories of past conflicts and the presence of troublemakers and bullies.

    Thom , now in my twenty fifth year in the only church I have pastored, young pastors need to know that this is an issue I believe most of us will always have to deal with.
    Those that are loud about something happening may be the first to be against when you take action to lead.

  • Thom Rainer says on

    Tony –

    That’s more of an individual issue than a congregational sickness.

    • Nate Malone says on

      Wouldn’t this *individual issue* become an *infection issue* becoming a Congregational issue? I have a couple of these type in my congregation and they have almost singlehandedly destroyed the church. I have spent 3/4 of my tenure as pastor in *BATTLE* only BY GOD’S GRACE! and His POWER with the exception of two, He has moved them out.

  • What about unsaved leaders? I’m dealing with a person in leadership who is unsaved, or I believe is unsaved, and this leader has been “pastoring” our church for almost 30 years.

    • Janice Kessler says on

      I feel the same. Most of our church members who were in leadership roles have gone from our church and our leadership teams are not now saved christians with different opinions and beliefs. Our church is falling and failing

  • We are currently without a senior pastor and Misister of Music, and we have several of these illnesses. The good news is that key leadership has awakened, and we seem to have “weathered the storm” and ready to implement needed changes. However, I am not sure that there is any church without a contingent of members who “remember it as it never was, and want it that way again”.

    My question is whether it would be possible to download the series of video blogs and use these as a starting point for discussion of the illnesses and possible cures. They would be used at the Wednesday prayer meeting.

  • Praying Hard says on

    Pass the antibiotics because unfortunately the church I attend has all of these illnesses. Please pray for my family regarding #7 and for our leadership. Our leadership is not afraid because they are new to us, but we are as we have seen church members dig in their heels in regards to change in the past and make life miserable.
    We are a solid gospel preaching church, yet so many have become lukewarm. My family shares the gospel in the community, but I dread inviting people to our church.
    Looking forward to your message on this. Thank you!

    • I am praying for you and the church.

    • Raymond Mitchell says on

      Thom I agree with your articles and statements re apathy in the church. I think one very simple and easy solution is for churches to start preaching an extremely neglected teaching in the Bible. One which Christ and the Authors preached and wrote about very often and urged believers to live for this. We need to preach about all the REWARDS and privileges Christ wants us to live for. He URGED and Commanded that we live and seek to earn the Eternal Rewards, which are super valuable, precious and something we should rejoice and be glad about. Living for heavens rewards is not evil, it is good and commanded by Jesus and God. They said we should rejoice, be glad and leap for joy that we get great eternal rewards for living for Christ and being persecuted. We should also keep on preaching the free gift of eternal life which cannot be lost no matter what, but rewards must be earned by obedience and faith/faithfulness. We also should preach that Christ will have an eternal kingdom and government and we should seek to rule and reign with Him by obedience to His Word and seeking His kingdom and will and not ours. Only the faithful obedient spiritual believers will be allowed to rule and reign. Many believers will be denied the right to rule because they were so fleshly and selfish and did not live for Christ. That is why we also should pray for (and campaign for godly) government officials since God says the authorities/government rulers are God’s agent and ministry. Govt is a ministry of God now so why should we not be involved in it for Christ and praying about all the evil and wicked things going on in our govt. who has the power to try to silence the gospel as they do in most nations.

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