Six Symptoms of a Dysfunctional Church

If you want to hear about really sick churches, then stick with me on this post. If you are tired about many of us writing about the sordid state of congregations, I understand. Skip this article and I will return with more good news in the near future.

So what is a dysfunctional church? By definition, it is a congregation that no longer carries out essential biblical purposes. In other words, the church does not function properly; it is thus dysfunctional.

Unfortunately, I did not have to look far to find over 20 current examples of dysfunctional churches. In my quest, I found six recurring themes. In every one of the congregations, the church manifested at least three of these symptoms.

  1. Severe theological errors are pervasive in the church. I’m not referring to differences over minute matters of eschatology. These errors to which I refer were denials of the essential truths of the Christian faith. In some cases, leadership no longer held to the exclusivity of salvation through Christ.
  2. The church is known as a “pastor-eater.” The congregation often terminated pastors on a regular basis. At the very least, pastors felt the pressure to leave. Short pastoral tenure was thus normative.
  3. The congregation experiences severe conflict. Any group will eventually have some level of conflict: families; fellow employees; students; and churches. But dysfunctional churches take conflicts to a new level, often resulting in emotional outbursts by members and leaders.
  4. Hardly anyone in the community knows the church exists. One of the simple steps I take in many consultations is to visit businesses within about a mile radius of the church. I ask them for directions to the church. If no one has ever heard of the church in that close proximity, I know something is wrong.
  5. The church is declining while the community is growing. An example works better here. Suppose your church has declined in worship attendance by 3% the past two years. Now suppose the community in which the church is located has grown by 4% the past two years. The contrast between the two growth rates is stark, a symptom of a dysfunctional church.
  6. The church is “family owned and family operated.” One particular family, even if it’s an extended family, makes all the decisions in the church. Nothing gets done without the nod of typically the patriarch or matriarch of the family. The church exists largely to meet the needs of one family.

Of course, when I write articles about the negative state of many congregations, I am rightly asked about potential solutions. We are putting together an entire video series on revitalization this fall. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, let me hear from you. What do you think of these six symptoms? What would you add?

Posted on July 2, 2014

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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  • Charles says on

    I have ministered in those churches. If dysfunction is not doing what the church is designed to do, I would say the biggest dysfunction is lack of discipleship.

  • I pastored a dysfunctional church, those that made it dysfunctional had no idea they were causing it. They wanted to blame everyone else.

  • Jeff Glenn says on


    How or where does spiritual apathy “fit” into the equation? In the area where I have served for 14 1/2 years (8 1/2 at one church, now 6 at my present church) that is my biggest obstacle.

  • Louise says on

    Reasons why a community’s population might not know a church exists:

    –The convenience store clerk you ask may live in another community and commute to the town you’re inquiring in. She/he has little understanding of the town they work in, except to work their job there.
    –The members of the church you’re inquiring about almost all commute in to the church from another location. The ones who do live in the same community the church is in work outside the town all week and have little connection with their fellow townspeople. In other words, most of the church members are not “local” folk and therefore have little or no sense of outreach to the community the church is in.
    –If the pastor holds a job outside his church, he may be one of those who commutes outside the community everyday, limiting his contact with fellow townspeople. Or he may commute in to the community his church is in, and live where his 2nd job is. This can particularly be true with new church plants. If his 2nd paying job is ministry related, he is reaching others with the Gospel–just more outside of the community his church is in. Some of those may end up coming to his church, but will likely come from outside the immediate community, because they were reached in his 2nd job. So ministry becomes more “global” than local, with people in a larger urban area knowing that a particular church exists, but not necessarily those who live in its exact location.
    –The church is off the beaten path and does nothing to advertise or promote itself (more than a free “local churches” listing in the dying town newspaper). This seems particularly true with churches that have become comfortable with who they are (or the people who attend currently). They don’t necessarily care if anyone else knows they exist.
    –The overall community population is so non-church-minded (or so self-focused) that they pay no attention to the churches in their area, or even the general goings-on in their community. So unless the church is on the main drag and somehow very attention getting (a giant Jesus statue, a flashing neon sign), the general population has no interest, and nothing to grab its attention to cause it to consider becoming interested.

    These are all examples pulled from real life, from a very pagan urban area loaded with commuters…..

  • Sadly, when I worked as a church secretary, the church where I worked displayed all of these symptoms plus others not listed. I finally quit due to the burnout as a result. 5 years & 4 pastors

  • Forced Out says on

    Article is spot on.

  • Deaidre says on

    Great article. I think there is one dysfunctionality that should have been included in your list that is critical – lack of love. At John 13: 34, 35, we as Christians are commanded to love one another. However, in our society today, this is a real challenge for too many churches.

  • 7. Most members have no idea where their offerings are going.

    There should be full transparency within the congregation on where money is going and members should take an active interest in financial matters. This avoids the unexpected event of a shortfall or unscrupulous spending that can divide the church at some point.

  • I Believe if your near Princeton ky.. You’ll find many dysfunctional churches….. The church of Christ had the ONLY open door,heart,mind policy I experienced in that community…Other than that…A nice community…I really hate seeing hypocrisy in the church….yes you Harrell Riley…when police are kinder than pastors I call bull doo doo!!

  • Can #4 also be… “People in the community won’t come to the church because they all know it’s a #6?”

  • Lemuel Mobley says on

    As I read the six points on a dysfunctional church I begin to pray and I also received a holy conviction,far too long the church has been acting as a though all is well. I’m grateful to The Holy Spirit for giving Thom the holy boldness to address this real problem and to awaken the consciousness of the church. I’m convinced that change must come.