10-Church-Diseases

By Chuck Lawless

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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?
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. “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.
  9. 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!
  10. 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?

Give us a title and description, and we’ll provide a copy of my book, Discipled Warriors, and Dr. Rainer’s I Am a Church Member to the person who submits the most ingenious description by the end of the day on Wednesday.


Lifeway_Blog_Ad[1]Chuck Lawless currently serves as Professor of Evangelism and Missions and Dean of Graduate Studies at Southeastern Seminary.

You can connect with Dr. Lawless on both Twitter and Facebook.

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Comments

  1. Phillip Swindall says

    I have two:

    Burger King-itis: Everyone there wants to have it their way and disregard the scripture teaching us not to think too highly of ourselves and to submit to one another (after, of course, we submit first to God) (not original to me)

    Hotel Hysteria: Churches who believe the church is supposed to be a hotel to serve them, and not a hospital to serve those in need

  2. Brian Ledford says

    How about “Revolving Support Staff Syndrome”

    This occurs when the church is hemoraging members, but all of the blame is placed on the Associate Pastors (seems to hit Youth Pastors hardest). Why YPs? They want to see the church reach out to young people, but the Senior Pastor is focused on keeping the older members with disposable income happy.

  3. Georg Meyer says

    Adolescentia Ecclesia Futura Disease

    AEFD is another common disease among churches, who view their youth (only) as the church of tomorrow. The (unconscious) motivation behind such attitude seems to be the desire that youth should not be actively participating today, but rather become a “clone” of the present day church, in order to preserve its longevity – without any changes ! – into the future.

  4. Jake says

    “Traumatic Church Experience Disorder”
    I classify this as a church that has had many members who have been through some experience at a house of worship that has weakened their faith and even caused them to leave the faith. It is our responsibility to not let te world shape these people’s minds but rather take care of them by providing strength and helping them overcome the issue, even if at the end of the day they are going to a different evangelical church. So many people walk out the door and never return and we really need to solve that problem.

  5. Michael Baines says

    Rumour-tism. When church members share their complaints with everyone except the appropriate leader. Highly contagious. Often accompanied by delusions, like the delusion that leaders are ‘unapproachable’. Or that the complaint sharing is ‘for prayer’ or ‘the good of the church’.

    • Phil Wages says

      Michael,

      Have you been to my church?! :-) I just spoke with my deacons about this on Sunday night. This disease is not rampant in my church but it is here. It is especially prevalent among some “sisters” in my church. They say I am unapproachable and that I don’t like women. I was in law enforcement for 11 years and they think I’m unapproachable because I was once a policeman. And they are under the delusion that I am unapproachable. I feel for you brother. i think the problem may be that they just don’t like men who have a backbone and who aren’t a push-over.

    • Chuck Lawless says

      Michael,
      I like your point that rumour-tism is highly contagious. If there were no listeners, there would be no such disease.

  6. Eric Stephens says

    PLASTIC MAN DISORDER
    This is characterized by asking the same people to do more and more in the church, thereby stretching them too far. You have a lady that teaches children’s Sunday school? Why, she’s the perfect candidate for GA’s! Now she teaches Sunday School and GA’s, so she’s obviously into children’s ministry, let’s get her to keep the babies in the nursery. Now all these kids love her, and it’s time for these kids to move into youth ministry so let’s have her do a “tweener” class to help them into the next ministry. This only leads to them being stretched too thin and harbors resentment that it seem only she is doing all the work while everyone else gets to enjoy church. Pretty soon they are at the “burnout” stage, yet they won’t give anytihing up for fear that no one else will step in and save the day.

  7. JW says

    AIDS: Acquired Impunity Doing Sin. Obviously, this is an ambiguous term, but I liked it and used it in one of my sermons on church health several years ago. (See…This would have been fun for the Friday Freebie….LOL)

  8. Brian Horton says

    Renal Failure. The kidneys are designed to filter out waste/impurities from the blood. The blood is the lifeline of the body, carrying oxygen and nutrients to the body. Churches that fail to “purify” by not preaching on sin and its effects, and applying strong doses of sound doctrine, are destined for failure.

  9. says

    “Rancorous Reaction” (Don’t Get Bitter, Get Better)

    Geared more towards the hopeful leader looking for their next step in ministry. Churches that may suffer from poor, entitled leadership. The man or woman who believes they’re deserving of a position based on the quantity of their time served rather than the quality of their served time. Along comes a talented leader who hasn’t been part of the ministry as long as he or she may have, and because we believe we are better than what we are, we tend to get bitter when we aren’t given the opportunity. In turn, that impacts how we lead, who we lead and the health of ministry. We become this cancerous wild fire of negativity that spreads to others we influence. We should take the stance of getting better not bitter. A good place to start is doing a check-up on your heart. We know that from the abundance of it, everything else flows. Attitude reflects leadership.

  10. Gideon Ape says

    “Rancorous Reaction” (Don’t Get Bitter, Get Better)

    Geared more towards the hopeful leader looking for their next step in ministry. Churches that may suffer from poor, entitled leadership. The man or woman who believes they’re deserving of a position based on the quantity of their time served rather than the quality of their served time. Along comes a talented leader who hasn’t been part of the ministry as long as he or she may have, and because we believe we are better than what we are, we tend to get bitter when we aren’t given the opportunity. In turn, that impacts how we lead, who we lead and the health of ministry. We become this cancerous wild fire of negativity that spreads to others we influence. We should take the stance of getting better not bitter. A good place to start is doing a check-up on your heart. We know that from the abundance of it, everything else flows. Attitude reflects leadership.

  11. Chris Russell says

    OES… Open Exit Syndrome
    This is where the church leaves the back door wide open. The members never stay for a long period of time but instead are constantly exiting the back door without anyone really noticing. This type of church has a completely different membership every 5 to 10 years.

  12. Chuck Auschwitz says

    How about Church Heart Arrhythmia? Disease which strikes at the heart of the church. Symptomatic of churches whose hearts are no longer stirred by Christ or ministering to its community, but are more concerned for their own traditions, preferences and pleasure.

  13. says

    Apathendicitis – Much more life threatening than it’s counterpart, apendicitis, apathendicitis occurs when a church knows what they are supposed to be doing (The Great Commission), knows why they are supposed to be doing it (to reach a lost and dying world with the only message of salvation), and yet could care less because of comfort, complacency, laziness, and a number of other preceding symptoms.

  14. says

    Hey, all these are great. I really can’t add anymore. But what I would love to see is the steps to cure these diseases. The first step to curing a disease is identifying what it is. Next one needs to come up with the plan to cure said disease. I think it would be interesting to see these diseases described and then discussion on how to bring about a cure based on the symptoms described.

  15. Skip Cook says

    Church Dwarfism Disease (CDD) can be caused by any of more than 200 conditions. Causes of proportionate church dwarfism include controloholic and gossipmatic disorders such as Fear of Church Growth Deficiency (FCCD). Which includes the outward symptom of and strong desire to know everyone in the church yet the underlying condition is an uncontrollable urge to know ABOUT everyone in the church! The cure is Grow up and become a mature Christian!

  16. DDinMS says

    “Steve Urkel Syndrome”
    Almost everyone remembers the classic line from the quirky character on Family Matters: “I’ve fallen, and I can’t get up!” Some (many?) churches have fallen. They used to run 350-400; now they run 50-75. They used to see 20 baptisms a year; now they see 2… maybe. They used to see young families with children coming into the church; now, well, you get the picture. They have fallen… and they can’t get up. They’ve been doing the same things the same way for so long, they no longer know or believe or imagine that there might be other viable ways of doing things, ways that might actually reach people, attract people, get people excited about Jesus, minister to people, help them fall in love with Jesus, transform lives by the power of the Gospel, turn the tide, and help the church “get up.”

    Chronic symptoms include an abiding fear of the unknown, an enduring nostalgic recollection of the past, an overemphasis on the comfort and preference of the current membership, and a stubborn resistance to any perceived change to the status quo. Mistrust of church leadership, meticulous scrutinization of the monthly financial statement, and the shift from democratic church governance to oligarchy have been noted in a number of cases. (The latter applies mostly to those in the “Baptist” family of churches.)

    Treatment options include:
    1) Doing nothing – Let time take its course, and the church will die. It might be 2 years or 20 years, but doing nothing will, inevitably, lead to the death of the church.
    2) Doing something – Doing almost anything is better than doing absolutely nothing. I’m reminded of the Celebrex commercial: “A body at rest tends to stay at rest, while a body in motion tends to stay in motion.” Of course, once the church starts doing “something” and gets “in motion,” it becomes important to make sure they do the right things and move in the right direction, so they can actually “get up” rather than perpetually expend “sideways energy.”

    Before starting treatment, churches with the “Steve Urkel Syndrome” would benefit greatly from reading Dr. Rainer’s post on how dying churches can find life (http://thomrainer.com/2013/04/27/can-a-dying-church-find-life-six-radical-steps-to-yes/).

    • Chuck Lawless says

      Thanks, DDinMS. I agree this disease is a problem, but I think Urkel was remembered for the phrase, “Did I do that?” — which, for that matter, might characterize other church problems. The “I’ve fallen . . . ” phrase is from a commercial.

      • DDinMS says

        You are correct, Dr. Lawless. The phrase is originally from the LifeCall commercial. (Thanks, Wikipedia, for helping me “remember” that.) And, I had flat forgotten that Urkel said, “Did I do that?” But, Urkel also said, “I’ve fallen, and I can’t get up.” ;-)

  17. Bryan Manary says

    “Fearful Fellowship Disease” – this terrible affliction strikes laity and leadership alike. In its most basic form it is characterized by a paralyzing fear of upsetting the fellowship of the church. Congregants not only want peace at all costs, they are afraid that if anybody is made to be upset, they may leave. Therefore, leaders are constantly warned against church discipline of any sort, and Pastors are warned against strong stands of any sort. This infects the leadership with a fear for their jobs and positions, resulting in paralysis. A corollary to this is the fear of being labeled “judgmental”, which also causes paralyzing fear and results in the church striving to become inoffensive at all costs.

  18. Child of God says

    “I’m A Big Kid Now” Syndrome
    The church is the people inside, not the building. This Syndrome is made up of all the children of God who want it now. They think they are ready. They look for the reward in everything they do. We’ve all been guilty of this one. “I can’t wait until I’m all grown up and can to it my own way!” Looking back I see that childhood was full of unknown dangers, unknown to the child of course, the parents saw them all to well. Lets step into our proper roles for a minute, child of God and God the Father. Have you ever said or thought something like this: “I can’t wait until I’m up in heaven and can __________!” Sound familiar? When we loose sight of the mission we loose sight of what matters most! Not the reward but the servitude to God Almighty! This is training time for reigning time! Have you got your training pants on?

  19. Sherri says

    The Ad Agency – too much attention to bringing in “customers” by providing many different fellowship opportunities, as well as Bible studies and classes. This is a nice plan but in this kind of church the heart of the matter is all wrong; there is little-to-no-room to wait on The Lord to direct the plans and without His direction the plans are nearly, if not entirely, futile. This kind of church is ideal as long as God is allowed to take the lead.

  20. Mark Terry says

    PASTomania–This is a condition in which the church focuses on the past glories of the church, usually the 1950s. They cannot embrace the present or plan for the future because they are always remembering the past (fondly). I served a church like this once, and they established a museum in the church to celebrate the church’s past.

    • Chuck Lawless says

      Nothing speaks quite as strongly as a museum . . . unless it is the church that had its building declared a national landmark so it would be against the law to change it!

  21. says

    How about Sticky Pew Syndrome? This is where the people coming in are only encouraged to be fed. They are not encouraged to ever leave the pew and reach out to the community so desperately starving for Jesus. As long as they have their life insurance and their weekly feedings, they are like content zoo animals.

  22. David Shivers says

    Churchophrenic Disease — Symptoms include the use of I, me and we in every sentence. This disease is most prevalent in people who have left another church because the church was not doing things the way they thought they should. Treatment must begin quickly, before they find things not being done right at the new church. Treatment–A mirror Cure—-When patient prays for God to show them what He sees and who they should fix.

  23. Esteban LS McCune says

    Tyrannosaurus Wrecks Syndrome…

    Small eyes/ears
    Super-sized mouths/appetites
    Short memory/long tail(tale)
    Slow to digest/respond
    Quick to stampede/rampage
    Highly odiferous!

    Although reportedly extinct, I have seen good similes on the big screen, frequently in my very own personal mirror and occasionally on Sunday mornings at the meeting place. Okay, I’ll give you a clue: it’s not a

  24. steve windon says

    Church of the Better Offer or “I’d attend worship, but I’ve got tickets to this sporting event, amusement park, or concert!” closely followed by “I know what God’s Word says about worship and gathering together, but my family time has to come first.”

  25. Allen Nelson says

    Not a creative name here but the denial of the sufficiency if Scripture is a major problem. We talk about how wonderful the Word is but we don’t spend time in it. Don’t memorize or meditate on it. And often when it comes down to it we test our experiences over what the Word says.

    Thanks for this post!

  26. says

    Manemia – an unhealthy and dangerous (potentially terminal) condition in which the necessary element of male leadership is absent in homes and consequently in the church itself. As a result, the church may lack vision, energy, risk-taking capacity, strength and/or enthisiasm. Ultimately this results in impotence that renders the church ineffective in Kingdom advancement and it will ultimately lose ground and fail in its mission. BTW – I’m sending this from a gathering of men’s ministry leaders called the National Coalition of Ministries to Men. NCMM.org

  27. Randall Slack says

    Arrested Spiritual Development – No matter how much prayer, bible study, fellowship, small groups, etc., real growth in the believers life does not occur. They remain spiritual infants even after years. (I must give credit to Chuck Smith form whom I first heart this term years ago).

    Pastor Killers – churches that lead a candidate to believe that they are committed to serving Christ and reaching their communities with the Gospel. But once the “honeymoon” period is over (usually about a year), the truth sets in and any “ministry” becomes a real struggle, and the Pastor resigns.

  28. John Mushenhouse says

    Once again another vain attempt to sound clever under the guise of solving the problems in a church.

    I see only 2 diseases , actually sin. The first is that the congregation and leadership mostly isn’t saved. The second if they were saved, they have lost their first love (Jesus).

    If the church is saved and loving Jesus they will desire the things of God. They will read the word and hear from God. They will pray and God will lead, guide and correct them. If they love Jesus they will love their fellow man.

    Instead of these entertainment blogs we should be witinessing to, praying for, discipling when needed, and then discipling the church. A saved person wants to grow into a mature christian because the Spirit is changing and leading them. We are reduced to little entertainging blogs which condems but doesn’t resort to God or His word to overcome these problems.

    It makes a good read, but it doesn’t make a holy church.

    Proverbs 3:6
    In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.

    • Randall Slack says

      John it seems that you are the man and wisdom will die with you. Sure glad the Holy Spirit has you to help keep us in line.

      • john mushenhouse says

        So your reply to my thoughts was not to provide biblical answers , but to insult me.

        Did you think about your answer.

        Are you in this for entertainment or to see the Kingdom expand. I realize I stepped on the feet of important people, but the spreading of the gospel is what really matters.
        I want to challenge you to read the bible as much as read blogs, listen to instructors and do it without other humans commenting on it. Just pray and ask the Holy Spirit to explain it to you. Your life will never be the same and you will love the brethern .

        I guess I could come up with a new genre – Get even when my idols are stepped on or my entertainment is held up to the light of the gospel.
        Now isn’t that edifying. Here we are name calling church goers and joining in a mutual laugh about them. We just laughed among ourselves yet didn’t ask for prayer or come up with a biblical solution.

        I think my 2 aspect of sin really does hold true.
        This has become an us versus them and of course, we are the ones who are the most holiest and right. After all we have a position in a structure.

        1 john 4:7 Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God.

        I see so little use of scripture as a guide.

        2 Tim 3:15

        And that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.

    • Devon Bordeaux says

      John –

      The irony is that you chastise us for reading blogs instead of Scripture while you are spending time reading and responding to blogs.

      Matthew 7:3-5

      • John Mushenhouse says

        Once again, no scripture but just an attack. No I am sorry for insulting you as I guess you believe that you are beyond that.

        Concerning the word, I read it a lot more than blogs for only one reason. Fellowshiping with the Lord is the most peaceful, exciting, enriching, comforting and glorious thing that there is. I recommend you try it. Too many think that by going to chuch, reading supposedly christian works, perhaps going to or teaching at a religious institution are a good substitute for the word. It isn’t. There are no substitutes.

        With all thy trying to get even try getting with Jesus.

        Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity

        You don’t have to hear that. You can hear something else from Jesus. But you have to love Him above all things. That is so easy bcause of this:

        1 John 4:19 We love, because he first loved us.

        Jesus makes it so easy to love Him and then the Brethern

        Isn’t Jesus wonderful

        even if you lie to yourself and say that you are doing christiany type things when they are fleshly it is still a lie. 1 John 1:6 If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth:

  29. Barbara says

    The Who You Are and what you have group. By this I mean the boards/promotions and etc. are chosen by who you are and not what you are. These churches are ran(lack for a better word)by whose who and not by christian character that truly represents the kingdom of God. You can live like satan all you want,they do not care. However,that is why we are called human beings and not human doings. I”ve come up with a saying of my own “You cannot live like he devil and look like a saint.” Only God can put the real stamp of approval on his true people. Also,passing of the mantle. By this I mean choosing unsaved family members and friend to pass their church(business)to. There was a time the church was a highly respected major part of the community,but that has changed. We have got to get back to where the church is the church. Made up of people who cannot be bought or sold. People who truly represent the kingdom. Not so much by what they say,but by the way they live. We must always bear in my that even a child knows the real deal and the truth when he/she comes upon it,so does the world.

    • john mushenhouse says

      It has always been going on. Please read about the Half-way covenant in New England (1662).

      Different times – Same Devil

  30. Johnathon Moore says

    Wow! what set of statements.
    It is very true unfortunately that these syndromes exist.
    I’ve experienced them in various forms in various churches,
    and I wonder what is the remedy to overcome the syndrome your church displays?
    A common theme among all these and was mentioned in a few – is change.
    Yet, it needs to be guided, directed, focused change not change for the sake of change
    otherwise the church is just spinning its wheels with a lot of talk and no action.
    As a pastor, this is the hardest to do – lead change. It certainly takes me out of my comfort zone
    as well as the church’s comfort zone.

    • Randall Slack says

      Thom, sorry for hijacking your thread. You have a wonderful blog. Debating the self-righteous is always defeating, for theirs is the only opinion that matters.

      I have subscribed to your blog as I appreciate the topics you address. Blessings.

      • Thom Rainer says

        Randall –

        You did not hijack this blog at all. To the contrary, you offered a reasoned response to our self-righteous friend. I rarely disapprove comments, including those that directly criticize me. But I’ve had enough of this guy and his agenda. I stopped allowing his comments to post.

        Thank you friend.

    • Donny says

      Thanks for allowing so many of us to share what often burdens our hearts in relation to our calling from God! Looking forward to the great reads and thanks for them and all you do for His Kingdom!

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