Mean Churches: How to Spot Them and Avoid Them

Posted on April 15, 2015 in Theology by

mean christianI wrote not long ago about mean people in the church. Sadly, if you’ve been going to church for any length of time, you’ve had an encounter with someone that is known to be mean.

It seems I’m not alone in my discouragement over the growing number of mean people (and mean churches) that give Christ and His church a bad name. In fact, if you’ve never read about “The Dones,” you will find it fascinating. This group, which is the fastest growing group of people is characterized as: once faithfully committed church members walking away from the church because they are tired of the abuse inside the church.

One common trait among The Dones that I have noticed is that they say they are fed up with the mean-spirited, abusive people in the church. One person recently wrote a letter to Lifeway President Thom Rainer saying:

“The non-Christians I associate with are much nicer people than the members of my church.”

As stinging a comment as that may be, it is also very true in many cases. I’ve often said that church people are some of the meanest I’ve ever known. An old adage says “if you want to learn to fight, join a church committee.” I didn’t say it was a good adage.

For my part, I want churches that are known to be mean to simply cease to exist. I want them to grow smaller and smaller until their doors close forever. That might surprise some people, but, in my experience, the harm done to unsuspecting people by these churches outweighs any possible “good” that comes from their existence.

I would also state that many of these churches have no interest in changing because they see no need. When they look around everything is just as they want it, therefore everyone else has the problem. Unfortunately, these churches resemble the church at Laodicea (Rev. 3:14-22). It’s hard for Pharisees to see their need, even when Jesus shows up.

So yes, I hope many of these “mean churches” close and are replaced by churches that are known by their community as loving, friendly places filled with truth and grace.

How do we spot the mean churches so we know how to avoid them?

Responding to the letters written to him about mean churches, Thom Rainer compiled a list of 9 traits that he found to be in common of churches that are known as mean. The list is telling, if only because as someone that has been a part of numerous churches, I can say with confidence that the list is true.

Some of those traits include:

  1. Too many decisions are made in the cloak of darkness. Only a select few members really know what’s going on. The attitude of those elitists is that the typical member doesn’t really need to know.
  2. The pastor and/or staff are treated poorly. Decisions are made about them without a fair process. Complaints are often numerous and veiled. Many of these churches are known for firing pastors and/or staff with little apparent cause.
  3. Power groups tenaciously hold on to their power. The power group may be a formal group such as a committee, elders, or deacons. But the group can also be informal—no official role but great informal authority. Power groups avoid and detest accountability, which leads to the next point.
  4. Leaders of the power groups have an acrimonious spirit. Though they may make first impressions of kindness and gentleness, the mean streak emerges if you try to cross them.
  5. A number of the members see those outside of the church as “them” or “those people.” Thus the church is at odds with many in the community instead of embracing them with the love of Christ.
  6. Many members have an inward focus; they view the church as a place to get their own preferences and wants fulfilled. They are the opposite of the description of church members in 1 Corinthians 12, where Paul describes them as functioning members for the greater good of the body of Christ.

Wow, what a list. A sad list.

Let me respond to these very briefly. In response to the first trait I want to say that while I don’t believe the Bible teaches that members of the church are to be involved in every decision of the church, it is very dangerous to keep people in the dark. Not clearly communicating what is being done and why ensures factions, gossip, and rumors. Not good for the church. If you’re wondering why I don’t support congregational votes on every little decision, see: the book of Acts. Or for that matter, try to find a church vote in the Bible. I’ll wait.

Trait numbers 3 and 4 are spot on. If you’ve ever been in a church where a few people seem to have all the authority, pull, or weight (this seems very common in smaller family type churches), you know these to be true. Sure, they are friendly on the outside, but the first time you cross one of the elite, your name is mud. These churches almost seem more like country clubs or social groups.

I once wanted to invite a group of bikers to the church I was at. The guy I was talking to was all for it but said “I don’t think the church would welcome those people.” Trait number 5 is alive and well in many churches. There is a “us four and no more” mentality that prevents growth and ensures death. Sadly, many of these churches would rather die than reach new people and “lose power.”

Read the rest of the list here. I would also suggest reading this post by Chuck Lawless on why churches don’t discipline. The fact is, the two are intricately linked. Mean churches don’t discipline because the people in power care more about being in power than about following Scripture. Many other churches don’t discipline and that is a sad reality.

The bottom line is that any excuse not to exercise church discipline is false and falls short. No one knows better how to love than God and He included church discipline in the Bible. This means that refusing to exercise church discipline is nothing short of arrogance and pride. Essentially, those churches and pastors that don’t exercise church discipline are saying they know better than God how to love people. And yet most Christians have never heard of church discipline, much less seen it exercised properly.

My suggestion is to find a church that cares more about the Bible and what it teaches than opinions, culture, traditions, or power hungry people. If you find a church like that there is a good chance you will find a place that emphasizes expository teaching/preaching, discipleship, service, and missions; with a heavy dose of doctrine. This combination will grow you and help produce an unshakeable faith. This kind of church will also lack many of the stumbling blocks most churches face.

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