by Thom Rainer
Sick churches become dying churches.
Dying churches become closed churches.
Those statements are factual unless some type of change or intervention takes place. But intervention or change is unlikely unless the church recognizes that it is sick.
In simple terms, we must first be aware that many of our churches are sick.
In order to help create greater awareness, I have described illustratively seven personality types of sick churches. For certain, no one church is a perfect illustration of any one type. But I am confident you will recognize churches that have taken on one of these seven as a dominant personality type.
- The Denier. Several years ago I did a consultation at a church in the Midwest. The church’s worship attendance had declined by over 60 percent the past ten years, but most of the members I interviewed told me the church was fine. That church will be “fine” all the way to its closing.
- The Deflector. In these churches you hear constant complaints about what others outside the church are doing wrong. It’s the denomination’s fault. It’s the culture’s fault. It’s the young people’s fault. And, too many times, it’s always the pastor’s fault. Thus the church’s pattern is a series of short-term pastorates.
- The Cool Kid. These churches are rarely viewed as sick. They are typically growing numerically, and often are seen as the cool church in town. But their growth is largely tied to a single ministry, like bus ministries of the past, or to a charismatic leader. When the charismatic leader or the hot ministry goes away, the church declines dramatically. This illness is particularly dangerous because of its superficial appearance of robust health.
- The Nostalgic. The nostalgic church lives in the past. It longs for “Brother Bill,” the pastor of thirty years ago. The members are convinced if they would just return to music styles and programs of the past, everything would be fine. These churches grow increasingly unhealthy because they exert so much effort to resist change.
- The Street Fighter. These churches are downright mean. Their business meetings are more like a street fight. Bullies and critics often control the church, while the majority of the members remain silent in cowardly fear. The healthier members exit quickly, exacerbating the sickness of the mean church.
- The Autopilot. These churches do things they way they’ve always done them because they know of no other way. They don’t necessarily resist change, because they don’t even see the need for change. As long as we do the church the way we did it in 1974, we will be fine.
- The Living Dead. There are few active members left in these churches. Most of the members recognize the church is sick, because the worship center is 83 percent vacant. Often the remaining members become desperate and somewhat open to change. Unfortunately, it is usually too late to do anything. The church is on the precipice of death.
I share these less-than-pleasant realities with the prayerful hope they could be used by God as a wake-up call to leaders and members of sick churches.