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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  • Thank you for these insights. I would like to add two additional ideas. First, the observations that you list appear to be symptomatic of a much deeper organizational culture problem. I would suggest reading Edgar Schein’s “Organizational Culture and Leadership” as a starter for change agents to begin addressing the deeper underlying values that usually resist change and promote stasis. Second, I believe the church needs to rethink its concentration on leaders and leader training. It may be that the Bible is written by followers, for followers, about followers, with the desire that followers should follow the greatest follower, Jesus Christ in order to follow the will of the Father. If we are followers first, then perhaps we have hitched our horse to the wrong wagon, especially as it relates to the church.

  • That pastors position should be immediately terminated, and I wouldn’t even consider him to even be a member of the congregation at this point. Get a “real” Sheppard, and not necessarily someone that has formal credentials. It must begin and end with the heart, without true love for the flock, he is useless to the Lord for any use, especially leadership. Anybody can deliver a sermon, anybody can read scripture, anybody can lead the prayers, not anybody can lead the flock.

  • Stephanie,
    Others may disagree, but if I had a church who’s pastor was absent like that, I would want to see what the church’s constitution allows for finding another pastor. Even if the church is a “campus” of another church, there should be a campus pastor locally.
    Church is about more than a good sermon and enjoyable music, it is a 7 day a week entity. Likewise, a pastor is more than a figurehead who leads the services and meetings. A pastor should be equipping the saints to be ministers and this cannot be completed exclusively through sermons, no matter how good they are.
    Eventuall, any power vacuum will be filled by someone. If the church is not intentional about filling the vacuum, the person who fills it could very well be someone who is more interested in power than in godly ministry. The person who fills it may not even have a title, but will still be effectively in charge. It is much better to be intentional in leadership.

  • stephanie says on

    I have been attending a church now for nine months and the church has no designated person as the leader. The pastor for the church has another church in another state that he supervises. There are many capable members in the church that I attend. Should the pastor assign someone to take the lead?

  • Brian Millar says on

    Those warning signs are only the tip of the iceberg. There are far more problems in almost all churches these days, and people need to be aware of it all.
    Church is NOT a rock band, video screen, headed up with a sermon of mindless babble.
    People are being entertained at those places, they do not worship, they are not spiritually fed, they are not challenged in their faith, nor are they worshipping in any manner what so ever in these places., They are at best, being placated, and it’s big business these days.
    The leadership is always self appointed, not from a calling, but because the leaders have no jobs, nor desire to work for a living, so they start churches instead.
    The members are only focused on themselves, their status, their world, and have little time or room for dialog with anybody in need, much less are willing to help. Walk into any church anywhere guys, see if you are actually greeted, see how many people talk to you, see if you are invited back..you will find the latter to be very rare, you simply are not welcomed in these places, they have degraded to becoming social clubs.
    Listen to the sermons, how much of it is word for word, from scripture? Very little if any these days.
    Look to the building itself, how much money is spent on maintaining it that could go to better causes.
    Look to the manner of dress these people are wearing, it is not unusual to see many wearing highly pervocotive attire.
    Look to the family unit’s in these places, it’s typically the mother with her children, the father always seems to be absent. Look to the age of the people that attend, typically they are in their 50’s – 60’s, where are the 30 – 40 yo’s?
    Bible studies, are you able to participate, or are you still stuck sitting on the side lines while someone dictates to you, so very typical these days.
    Singles groups, none exist unless you are in your very early 20’s, once you reach 30 and if you aren’t married, you are considered an outcast and there is something seriously wrong with you according to these places.
    Look to the divorce rate, apparently the marriage vow’s are optional to obey.
    Leadership never arising from the ranks, only a few people take initiative because only a few people’s faith extends past that one hour a week.
    Baptism, confession, pennance, etc. all are things to do on the side and rather optional, there is no urgency to cover those matters. Yet, that collection plate manages to revolve ardently.
    I just love attending a new church and to be slapped in the face with their leaders lack of understanding of the church I belong to. If you are Catholic and not a fallen away Catholic, they watch you closely, out of fear that you might influence others to visit your own church.
    Do not be more knowledgeable then their leadership, they will not only resent it, they will do their best to bury anything you say into obscurity. Their leadership loaths being challenged, and prefer to deliver milk, even if the members are ready for more.
    Attending a meal in these places assures you will be eating alone. Always the same people show up for those, always the same people that know each other and have no interest in knowing newcomers.
    I face the same thing, every church, from Catholic, to protestant, they are all the same, same problems, same issues, same luke warm followers, and nobody seems to be upset over it, except for a very small fraction of individuals.

  • Janice says on

    Lynn you are right on target with your comments!

  • Sadly, my family and I find ourselves in a church with many of the warning signs. But, perhaps because we are not seminary-educated pastors/leaders, we have a different view of the problem. Our church is led by a pastor. Period. He has found multiple excuses to have no other leaders besides the music minister (who was already at the church when he came.) It has become obvious that if you don’t have a seminary degree and have been ordained to pastor, your leadership is not valued and actually smothered. Rather than educate, our Sunday School teachers are primarily looked at as the people who will bring new families into the church, and somehow mobilize the dozens on each class list who are considered “members” even if they haven’t attended in years.
    Unfortunately, this is not the first time we have encountered this very problem. There is a great movement of pastors who believe they are the single appointed elder of a given body of believers, and so remove from themselves any hope of accountability.

  • I am the interim pastor at a church here in Michigan where I see at least seven of the 12 warning signs mentioned. I also see another sign: a community oriented church becoming a church made up of only one or two families.
    The church wants me to be there as pastor, but does not want me to have any authority, so I have no idea how to influence them other than the two vital elements of prayer and consistently preaching the Word.
    It is heartbreaking to see a church whose past actions have given it a bad name in the community. But God has me here (instead of in a permanent pastoral role somewhere else) for a reason, so I assume He still wants to do something through this church.

  • Joshua Carvalho says on

    This sounds like most churches in America. This is why we need another Reformation in Western Christianity.

  • Brandy says on

    Wow. I hear about this type of stuff all the time and it is especially prevelant in this day and age. I am however happy to say that my church as a body is amazing. We have been resilient, through every trial. Our staff dedicates alot of time to make sure that our homes, marriages, and spirits are being attended to. We have so many ministries, discipleships, and events to actively keep us in the word as much as possible. We have a lead pastor that humbled himself quite a bit and gave up a mega church to follow a calling. It was a calling to spread the love of Christ to an area that the Lord felt could use it. All of our pastoral staff give so much of themselves and live instinctively by faith. Our members love to serve and do it quite cheerfully. We are a body that stretches out our arms to those in peril and tries very hard to recoginize “heartache” in the pew. We are human and don’t always get it completely right, but we are on to something. Our church is growing, our minds are strengthening, and our love for Christ is overflowing. I am just a member. I am not on staff at my church. I do know that I have seen more marriages put back together, more addictions cured, and more spiritually broken people brought back to Jesus then any church I have ever attended. I love Reliance Church in Temecula, CA. Simply Jesus, Simply Divine.

  • Wow, great insight.
    I can concur with every point in many churches that we’ve worked with. As you can see, once the church gets away from Glorifying God, and Reaching The Lost, we run into problems.
    I just wish we could get the people that get caught up in meetings, financial arguments and the like to realize what they are neglecting in the time wasted on those things.
    I guess that’s just one more tool Satan uses to keep a church inneffective.
    Thanks for the insight.

  • Thom Rainer says on

    Ricky –
    Great input, especially your two additions to the list. And thanks for the good word on Eating the Elephant.
    Frustrated –
    The first step is fervent prayer. That step is followed by incremental steps, sometimes three steps forward and two steps backward. If the church remains unwilling to move, it may be time for you to move. Those are tough words, but our life is brief and should not be wasted.