In the 1990s, Peter Wagner published The Healthy Church, a book describing several diseases that churches sometimes exhibit. Some of his descriptions are quite helpful (e.g., koinonitis = excessive, inward fellowship), and the list itself challenges readers to come up with their own descriptions.
Here are ten diseases I see as I consult with unhealthy churches around the country:
- Community Disconnect Disease. Churches with this disease meet within a given community, but they do not know that community. Often, church members drive to the church building, meet as “church,” and then drive home—without ever taking note of a changing community around them. In fact, I’ve seen church members with this disease lock their doors as they drive through the community where their congregation gathers.
- Methodological Arthritis. I give credit to my former student, Kevin Minchey, for naming this condition. The name says it all: this church is stuck in doing things the way they’ve always done them. Change (that is, movement) is painful, and it’s seemingly easier not to take a step forward. What these churches often don’t recognize is that standing still is also risky. Eventually, they will not move at all.
- The “Grass is Greener” Syndrome. This syndrome is a malady of leaders who are always looking for the next church leadership position. They establish no roots, and their current congregation is only a stepping-stone to the next place. Because they are always looking elsewhere, they miss the present tense blessings of their ministry. And, though leaders think otherwise, a church often recognizes when its leader has this syndrome.
- Professional Wrestling Sickness. I grew up watching professional wrestling (with my Church of God grandma, no less). Professional wrestling is hero vs. villain, right vs. wrong, good vs. evil—but it’s all fake. The church with PWS talks a good game in standing for righteousness, but hypocrisy is everywhere. And, as in professional wrestling, most spectators watching the show know it’s fake, too.
- Program Nausea. Churches with Program Nausea try a program, toss it soon, and then quickly try the next one. They never have a settled “organizational stomach” and direction. Members of this kind of diseased church are so accustomed to change that they seldom invest in any program. Why should they invest in what will soon be spit out, too?
- Baby Believer Malady. This congregation is doing evangelism well, but they have no strategy to grow new believers. Their unwritten, and wrong, assumption is, “As long as you show up for our small groups and worship service, you’ll grow.” This church disciples poorly and often elevates leaders on the basis of attendance rather than spiritual maturity.
- Theological Self-Deception Ailment. I am cautious here, lest I leave the impression that theology does not matter. No church with an unbiblical theology can be healthy. TSDA, on the other hand, is characterized by a belief that teaching theology is all that is required to be a healthy church. Teaching theology is critical, but a theology that does not lead to intentional evangelism, disciplemaking, and global missions is not biblical. Indeed, TSDA congregations tend to be classrooms more than New Testament churches.
- “Unrecoverable Void” Syndrome. Church leaders and laypersons alike suffer from this syndrome, characterized by statements like, “This church will close its doors after I’m gone.” Symptoms include spiritual arrogance and self-righteous anger, though they may also include hyper-spiritual speech (“This is God’s church, and we’ll see what He does when I shake the dust off my feet”). Church members with UVS fail to realize that God’s church will go on without any of us.
- Talking in Your Sleep Disease. You may recognize this church. They go through the motions, but the motions lack energy. They meet for worship, yet the singing is lifeless. Even the preaching is lackluster, as if the speaker is monotonously only meeting his obligation. Here is one way to recognize the church with TIYSD: many of the attenders really ARE sleeping!
- Congregational Myopia. The congregation with this condition is nearsighted, focusing on themselves only. They have no vision for the future, and they fail to see that their current direction will likely lead to further disease and decline. Ask the leaders what their hope is for the church five years from now, and their description will sound strangely like the church in its current state.
What other diseases come to mind for you?