Ten Warning Signs for Churches

Prior to my present place of ministry, I spent over 20 years consulting with churches across America. I have also had the wonderful opportunity to research churches primarily in the United States. Over time I began to notice certain patterns or signs that would indicate a congregation might be headed for trouble.

After reviewing my consultation notes and research, I found ten warning signs for churches. If a church had four or more of these signs present, I would let the leadership know that remedial efforts were in order. If six or more signs were present, I was concerned that the congregation was in immediate trouble.

The List

The warning signs below are not listed in any particular order. Nor are they the result of a scientifically accurate study. Though the information is both experiential and anecdotal, I found it immensely helpful in diagnosing the health of a church.

Church leaders should be concerned  . . .

  • If the pastor does not have adequate time to be in the Word or if he chooses not to do so.
  • If the members are spending time arguing about how money should be spent.
  • If none or only a few of the key leaders are actively sharing their faith.
  • If there is no clear process of discipleship in place, just a plethora of programs and activities.
  • If corporate prayer is not a major emphasis in the church.
  • If church members are arguing about worship style or worship times.
  • If church members expect the paid staff to do most of the ministry, instead of the staff equipping the members to do the work of ministry (“Why didn’t he visit me in the hospital?”)
  • If there are ongoing disagreements about matters of the church facilities.
  • If the church has more meetings than new disciples.
  • If the leadership of the church does not have a coherent plan for what is taught in small groups and Sunday school classes.

The Pattern

There is a common pattern for most of the warning signs. Church members are more concerned about their preferences and desires. They are inwardly focused. They ask what the church can do for them, instead of asking how God can use them sacrificially and radically through the ministries of the local church.

True Christianity is a faith that always seeks to put others first. Sadly, in many of the churches across our land, members are more concerned about getting their own personal needs and preferences met.

Your Story? Your Church’s Story?

I would love to hear from you about any of these signs in your church. I particularly would like to hear from some people how their churches address these matters positively and proactively.

Do some of the items on the warning list take place in your church? Are there others not on the list?

What is your story?


Posted on April 27, 2011

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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  • Frustrated, that sounds how the Lord was moving us, and what my church saw as unnecessary. My church had OK’d me going to a different denom’s college that was nearby, and there I was challenged with what you’re talking about. I started to see churches at the time unwilling to do outreach and evangelize as “country clubs”.

  • Frustrated Student Pastor says on

    My church has all of these warning signs. I’ve been at the church for 2 years, and I am constantly in shock of how disfunctional we are. I feel passionately about trying to be a change agent, but sometimes I feel like I’m feeding the hand of the enemy and spinning my wheels. I want to do real ministry, meet real needs, share the gospel and make disciples. I’m too busy having to be an event coordinator and program planner. I don’t want to leave just because I’m frustrated, but I don’t want to stay and waste valuable Kingdom building time and opportunities. Any advice?

  • Ricky Ray says on

    Dr. Rainer, thank you for not telling the world that you used my church to come up with this Top Ten List. Lol. We have made great strides in the past 3.5 years. It began with all leaders reading and implementing Simple Church. I will never be able to thank you enough for that research. I keep loaning out my copy. I’m on my sixth one now.
    I’d advise anyone thinking of seeking to change the status quo to take the time to read Eating the Elephant before they began. It helped me to put things in perspective and get a “battle” plan.
    May I be so bold as to suggest two additional barometers for church health? 1. If there is a constant turnover of staff (esp. pastor). 2. If past sins have not been dealt with (staff firings that were swept under the rug, etc.) Forgive me for being so bold. These probably are not in the Top Ten but might help someone.

  • Thom Rainer says on

    Thanks to all of you for your comments. I have been seeing several Twitter questions and comments as well. Please send any questions or comments to the blog; I am not able to respond to most of the Twitter questions.
    For those who asked about a single resource on dealing with a church that has several of the signs, I (modestly) recommend my book, Eating the Elephant. I wrote it with these issues in mind.
    I like that some of you are interacting with each other, offering your own insights to brothers and sisters who are hurting.
    Greg- Thanks for the kind words about Simple Church.

  • Thom, great list of warning signs. I had to do a gut check to see if I was guilty of the first one…. gut checks are good and necessary.. Thanks

  • Greg Wack says on

    Thom, I can see all of those signs where I’m at. This summer I’m going to a new church. As United Methodist that’s one option. To prepare for the new appointment I’m doing several things: drawing on lessons learned from a neat book called Simple Church, simplifying my approach so that I improve my weak areas, focusing on the mission of the church from inward and outward approaches, build leadership on this approach that is grounded in prayer and an inward and outward use of God’s Word. That’s the short of it. I’m no longer going to get lost in the details, but stay focused on the mission. Thanks for being a great source of nourishment!

  • Gaye Ramsey says on

    Thom, my husband and I are in full time evangelism. The sad part us that a lot of the churches we serve in have these signs. Many if our churches across the US are in trouble. We need to be deligently praying for our churches. We need revival across the SBC. People are perishing without Christ and The church is in such a mess I’m not sure most even know what to do or even care. It breaks my heart and know it breaks God’s even more.

  • My wife and I had been at our former church for a decade and a half, in leadership, it wasn’t until we were asked to step down from our positions we started to see these things. The two big things being that the lead pastor was removing people in leadership positions for family or friends and the elders being upset, but not willing to talk to him about it. The other was the pastor saying he was concerned for the mobile home park around the corner from the church, but then not doing anything to launch a team to minister to this area. He basically said to me that they had down Easter and Christmas outreach cards and no one came so that’s it.
    Now we’re in a church plant that is everything the opposite of that list. With a heart for the area we’re in.

  • I don’t have your email, I left mine in the above post.

  • Fellow Concerned Pastor says on

    Frustrated – drop me an email – would like to chat off-blog with you. Understand your position.

  • Thom,
    My church has most of those signs. My question is how do we address/change those without closing the doors and starting over? I wonder if it’s worth the effort and if its not time to seek another church to pastor? After all there are 4 other SBC churches in our small community and ours is the only one not growing.
    Frustrated to the Max

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