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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  • Thom, To be fair I think you would have to also add “Church-eating Pastors”.in my forty-three years of pastoral ministry I have seen numerous churches call pastors who were dishonest, devious, and downright devilish. Who made up degrees and awards, plagiarized sermons, and used their position as a source of power and domination over the congregation. Churches need to be meticulous in checking the references of a prospective pastor and not just call the references that the candidate provides. I am thankful that these preachers usually leave the ministry but not before they ruin the reputation of a good church. The smaller the setting, the longer it takes for the congregation to recover, if they are ever able to recover. I love honest, holy, and godly pastors but Jesus warned against wolves in sheep’s clothing. My last pastorate lasted thirty five years and my watchword was “Trust the Lord and tell the people”, which being interpreted means no hidden agendas.There were things which were handled in confidence, but nothing which would have been deceptive to the congregation. MIke Shaw

  • About 10 mos ago, my husband and I was asked to pastor the very described. My husband accepted their request to become the interim pastor, after speaking for them a few times. The previous pastor, a dear friend of ours, had died suddenly from the complication of diabedes. We later discovered that certain members had literally worried the poor man to death with all of their constant demands for his personal care and attention. Anyway, things went well for about 6 months, but when , at the encouragement of numerous members in the congregation , my husband announced that he was submitting his resume for the position of senior pastor, “certain individuals “in leadership” attitudes changed dramatically . These individuals began to systematically work behind the scenes to undermine everything that The Lord was doing in the church. Things turned really ugly during our church interview. Our God-focused answers to their questions was met with blatant rage and disrespect. Because we refused to pander to their wants, the disrespect escalated , with one individual actually attempting to draw my husband into a verbal exchange . The sad part about this church was that there were some wonderful children of God in this church, but they had been intimidated by one particular woman, her children and the poor deceived souls that she had recruited to do her bidding so that she could retain her “untarnished” image. I thank God for revealing the truth of the situation before we agreed to enter the “lion’s den”. My husband and I prayed and asked The Lord for guidance and direction since we thought that we had clearly felt his leading to shepherd this flock. The Lord continued to reveal the truth of what we had walked into. The Lord through wise counsel, directed us to the book of Revelation 2:18 – 29. Jezebel had become deeply imbedded and was in full control of the church as well as it’s members. Needless to say, we did not take the church, but continue to pray for and minister to it’s members.

  • I can’t help but wonder if there is one more.

    7. Unrepentant Sin. I am currently pastoring a church that is severely divided, unforgiving, and unloving and they have been so for almost a decade. We have existed as basically two churches in two buildings and have not forgiven each other for past offenses (separation simply prolonged the problem without having to resolve it). There are some who would rather destroy the church than reconcile. I was told by one of the deacons that he’s talked to members that honestly don’t want the church to grow. I am leading the church now and up to repentance but we’re going to vote!!! on whether we will go into a single service (that has been the point of contention). How do we vote on morality and sin and whether we ought to try and repentant? It might seem strange how a single service brings repentance. But sitting with one another, having to shake people’s hands, being stuck with others, even praying for one another, etc – that we will have ample opportunity to love one another and to repent.

  • Number 5 bites the hardest with me. Working hard to remedy it but it seems like church attendance overall is declining in our state. (Not an excuse just an observation). Still, healthy things grow and a healthy church should be a growing church! Mike

  • You got it, but i think you can find some more 😉

  • Dr. Rainer, I question your use of the term “disfunctional.” It is such an over used term. I am weary of it! I am reminded that the people we serve, are people who easily get distracted by other issues. My experience teaches me that they fail to focus on the proper priorities irregardless of who the pastor is. They can easily be conscerned about the cost of an air conditioner, or about expense of a budget account. Not to mention the many earthly temptations which dominate their relationships. Keeping people focused and motivated is the challenge. If you are going to use a secular title you should consider the title of “The A.D.D. church.”

    In Christ alone, Trey Lewis

  • You forgot “The church covers up child sex abuse by failing to report known and suspected abuse to the police.” Not just dysfunctional, this is a criminal church that does this.