7. Bad health.
Anyone who has spent time in more than a few churches can see that some are just unhealthy. And by that, we do not mean they are small—they are sick. You can be small and healthy; behold the hummingbird.
An unhealthy church is known more by what it does than by a list of characteristics and attributes. A church that runs its preachers off every year or two is unhealthy. A church that is constantly bickering is unhealthy. A church that cannot make a simple decision like choosing the color of the carpet, adopting the next year’s budget, or accepting changes in an order of worship may be unhealthy.
So, what is a healthy church? Entire libraries could be filled with books written on the healthy church, and consultants abound ready to assist congregations toward that purpose. But Romans 12 is God’s blueprint for a healthy church: Verses 1-2 call for each individual to make a personal commitment to Christ ("present your bodies as a living sacrifice"); verses 3-8 call for each one to find his/her place of service where they can use their spiritual gifts; and verse 9 through the end of the chapter describes the relationships within a healthy, loving fellowship of believers.
Show me a congregation where members are wholeheartedly committed to Jesus Christ, each is using (or learning to use) their God-given spiritual gifts in the Lord’s service, and their fellowship is sweet and active—and I’ll show you a healthy church.
8. Lousy fellowship.
This overlaps with the last point, but it deserves a spot by itself. For my money, the best thing a church has to offer individuals and families in the community—other than the saving gospel itself—is a place they will be loved and welcomed and made part of an active, healthy family. It’s what we mean by "fellowship."
There are ways to tell if the fellowship in your church is unhealthy: Visitors are basically ignored, even resented in some areas. No one follows up with visitors to let them know they are wanted or to give information on the church. There’s no attempt to get people to visit your church in the first place. Everything is orderly in the worship service, but it’s the same order you’ve used since forever. The singing is lifeless, and any departure from the norm is verboten. A new hymn or chorus, a different kind of musical instrument, a testimony here, an interview there, a short drama or video—no sir, not in our church. There’s no laughter, nothing spontaneous. The invitation time is tacked on, lifeless, and without any response—ever. The prayers are stale and filled with platitudes.
When the Old Testament prophets called on God’s people to "break up the fallow ground"—Hosea 10:12 and Jeremiah 4:3—they wanted to see evidence of brokenness, a willingness to change, a desire to bear new fruit. Fallow ground is soil that has laid unproductive for several seasons. The hard crust requires a deep-turning plow to open it up, and even then the soil may require more preparatory work before it is productive.
A church with poor fellowship is not failing to have enough socials and dinners. The church is failing in the most basic of area of discipleship: a failure to love. Jesus said, "By this shall all men know you are my disciples, that you love one another" (John 13:35).
The disciple who is close to Christ loves the brethren. As such, a congregation that is unloving toward one another may be said to be far removed from the Lord and in a backslidden state. It’s a simple deduction. "Draw near to the Lord and He will draw near to you" (James 4:8).
9. A state of neglect permeates the church.
Not always, but often, a dying church shows signs of its weakening condition by the disrepair of its buildings and the neglect of its appearance. The interior walls haven’t been painted in years and bear the collective fingerprints of a generation of children. The carpet is threadbare, the piano’s keys stick, the pulpit chairs need reupholstering, and the outside sign is so ugly it would be an improvement if someone knocked it down.
Dying churches do not tend to their business. They let problems fester and divisions go unaddressed. Listen closely and you will hear a leader speak those infamous words: "These things have a way of working themselves out." And so they do nothing, and the church trudges on toward the grave. No one gets saved, no one joins, people drift away, the community becomes less and less aware of the existence of that little church, and the remaining members complain that people just don’t love the Lord the way they used to.
10. No prayer.
It’s tempting to make a little joke here and say, "Such churches do not have a prayer," but they could if they chose to. When King Saul was bemoaning the woes that had descended upon him as a result of his rebellion against God, one of his chief complaints was that God no longer heard his prayer. "He inquired of the Lord, but the Lord did not answer…" (I Samuel 28:6) Luke tells us, "Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up" (Luke 18:1). Pray or quit. Those seem to be the alternatives.
Want to give your congregation a little test, pastor? Next Sunday, call for your people to meet you at the altar for a time of prayer. Do not beg them or cajole them. Just announce it, then walk there yourself, kneel, and begin praying. See if anyone joins you. Notice who comes and pay close attention to who does not. It won’t tell you everything you’d like to know about your church, but it will say a lot.
A friend on Facebook requested prayer for his new ministry. When I asked him about it, he responded privately that in addition to pastoring his church, he was working for the state convention in his region. He said, "Almost all our churches in this part of the state are dying. We have buildings that were constructed for hundreds now running 15 or 20." The plan, he said, is to get systems in place to re-evangelize those regions as the old-line churches die off. I hope they don’t wait until those churches actually close their doors; a lifeless church can take a long time to give up the ghost.
The best solution would be for those stagnant, dying congregations to awaken and get serious about becoming vibrant again. This would mean taking the unprecedented step of doing whatever it takes to re-establish their witness and presence in the community. Unfortunately, in almost every case I know personally, this doesn’t happen. The leaders would rather see their church disappear from the earth than to do anything new or different.
That is as sad a sentence as I’ve written in a long time.
Let us pray. "Father, we do like our routines and ruts. Forgive us for limiting you by asking you to adapt to us instead of the other way around. Lord, in the words of the old hymn and the older Psalm, ‘Wilt thou not revive us again that thy people may rejoice in Thee?’ We ask this for Jesus sake. Amen." (Psalm 85:6)
Dr. Joe McKeever is a preacher, cartoonist and the retired Director of Missions for the Baptist Association of Greater New Orleans. Currently he loves to serve as a speaker/pulpit fill for revivals, prayer conferences, deacon trainings, leadership banquets and other church events. Visit him and enjoy his insights on nearly 50 years of ministry at JoeMcKeever.com.