I just recently read an article titled 20 Signs of a Toxic Church Culture, where the author Dr. Joseph Mattera recounts several signs that he has observed over time that indicate that the church you are part of may have a toxic culture.
The article appeared on Ministry Today Magazine‘s website, and to be fair, the author did note that the signs he listed could be applied to either a for profit or a non-profit organization alike.
The article caught my attention because, I’m a pastor, and I’m in the process of planting a Church and so I was curious to see what Church leaders were saying about Church culture.
But here lies my issue, and the point where my mind began to ponder what I was reading and how it applied to the Church, and that is this: is it possible that the toxicity that Dr. Mattera is citing in his article is there because the Church culture in general has become a consumer driven culture that treats its local church body more like a business rather than the very Body of Christ?
My answer is quite simply, yes.
The very concept of attracting people to Church (which is a phrase you will hear often from church planters, pastors, church leadership, etc.) has become a breeding ground for the toxic church culture that looks more like your local shopping mall (don’t like what you see in this store? try another store) than a spiritual entity that embodies the heart and mind of the Creator of the universe (we are all intertwined as one body that represents Christ to this world).
The biggest issue, from my vantage point, is that not only have we adopted the concept of attracting people to Church as a legitimate model for conducting Church life and church planting, but that some of the highest levels of Church leadership, leadership training, and church planting resources don’t even recognize this concept as a problem.
Again, to be fair to Dr. Mattera, and to his article, I’m not suggesting that some of his points are not valid or applicable to the Church body. I certainly believe there may be some overlap. However, from my perspective the bulk of his list is derived, not from a Biblical perspective, but from the presupposition that the opposite of what he lists is a sign of a healthy church. For some points, this may very well be the case. For others, can we really say these would be marks of a healthy church or just reflecting what a good business should look like?
What follows isn’t so much a response to Dr. Mattera’s 20 Signs of a Toxic Church Culture, though in some ways it may reflect a response to some of the points raised by Dr. Mattera, as much as it is a list of what I believe to be 20 signs of a consumer driven church culture which has inevitably produced the toxic church culture that Dr. Mattera is addressing.
So, without further ado, here are what I believe to be 20 Signs of a Consumer Driven Church Culture.
1. Your church spends more time trying to develop a marketing plan than they do searching the scriptures for what God says will be the drawing force to the Church.
I know of some churches who very literally have marketing departments with staff who all they do is focus on creating materials, branding, and developing the churches “image”. Which I find to be most interesting, since the only image we ought to be concerning ourselves with is reflecting the image of Christ.
2. There are more people in your church who are there specifically because of your pastors charisma and personality than they are to experience God deeper.
At some level, we are drawn to the leadership of the church we belong to as we find things in common with them. But when that becomes either the primary reason they join a church or the primary reason they refuse to leave a church, then they have made an idol out of their pastor.
3. Your church has designed its entire existence and outsider experience from the outside inward with a heavy focus on outward appearance.
Most churches in America have developed their facilities, “ministries”, etc. around the concept of what best attracts people to the church. In other words, they develop this outward appearance with the sole purpose of drawing people to that church. This, too, is interesting because the Bible is clear that when the early Church devoted themselves to prayer, breaking of bread, fellowship, and the apostles teaching that God alone grew their numbers.
I can assure you, in those early days, and for several hundred years following, they didn’t have grand facilities, and greeters, and coffee bars, and lounges in the lobby, and so on.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting we cannot appreciate or use modern technology. I’m not Amish now. I’m just saying these things aren’t what ought to be drawing people in. As has been stated by far greater minds than mine, what you draw people in with is what you will have to keep them with. If people are being drawn to Christ and not you, then the pressure is off of you. If you draw people in to yourself, then the pressure falls to you to constantly one up yourself. And frankly, this is an unbiblical approach.
4. What your church talks about from the pulpit and in a small group setting are more determined by how it will impact the bottom dollar than whether or not you are being biblically faithful.
There is a sad reality that many pastors steer clear of certain topics, or refuse to address certain things within the church body because it may drive “tithers” out of the body. And, since they have invested so much in a facility and in their own salaries (again, not against these things), then they are constantly fearful that they will be in a financial tight spot if they were to lose anyone.
This is living with a spirit of fear, and not how Christ commanded us to live…which is boldly and obediently.
5. Your church views your pastor and fellow ministers as hirelings and frequently refers to them as staff and not as shepherds.
I grew up Southern Baptist, and unfortunately this denomination like many, have a skewed view of pastors. They view them as mere hirelings who are there to do as they wish. And in many cases, if the pastor isn’t meeting their often unspoken standards and expectations, then they toss him aside or run him out and find a new guy.
This is sad because this isn’t remotely what the Bible says about pastors or how churches ought to treat pastors. But when you’re church is run more like a business than an actual church, should we expect anything less?
6. Your church conjures up ways to manufacture a “spiritual experience” rather than being faithful and devoted to what God has called us to be faithful and devoted to (Acts 2:42-47) and let God do what God does best.
Too many churches believe that, if God doesn’t show up, then they had better show up for Him. What I mean by that is, if for some reason the “power and presence of God” doesn’t seem to be felt, then we feel the need to manufacture His power and presence for Him.
Some churches have taken this to an extreme by putting gold dust and feathers in the AC ducts. While others are far more subtle like having a “spontaneous baptism” and then hiding certain people throughout the crowd who will respond at a certain time to create a herd mentality.
Yes, each of those examples are real and documented in various churches all across this nation. And this is a sad testament to the Church.
7. The number of people present in the auditorium seats holds the highest value than anything else, and justify it by saying that “numbers represent souls”.
People matter. I get that. So that’s not what I’m suggesting. But there are churches and pastors who place the value of the number in attendance above all things. Shoot, there are denominations who determine the effectiveness and success of a church solely based on how many are coming on a Sunday morning.
Have we really become so shallow? People are more than numbers. And God’s ability to use a church far exceeds the number of butts in the sanctuary on a given Sunday.
8. Over 80% of your church members haven’t lifted a finger in service to other church members since they darkened the door of your church. And if they have served at one time or another, and are asked to serve in other areas again, their response is “I’ve done my time.”
I’ve literally had people tell me that they aren’t going to help me in an area of ministry that I’m serving in because, get this, “They’ve put in their time” OR because they figured someone else would pick up the slack.
I realize a lot of this is because we have boiled service in the Church down to what can be done to accommodate a Sunday worship service. So it’s not entirely their fault. Not everyone is comfortable or gifted at teaching kids, and not everyone is comfortable or gifted in music, etc. So I get that. But at the same time, it is far easier to consume than it is to serve. And people are less likely to attend a Church that may have an expectation on them to serve.
9. People leave your Church gatherings talking more about your stage props, the music that was played, and your pastors outfit.
We see this play out every week at multiple churches across America. Doing things with excellence is a good thing. However, when we set out to wow people with our stage props, with our vocal or instrumental range, or with our sense of fashion and style…then we aren’t using these things to draw attention to God…but instead we are drawing attention to ourselves.
I know, it feels nice to be complimented. But our gatherings as the Church body aren’t there to draw out compliments, but to point to someone specific…Jesus Christ. To equip people. And to minister to one another.
People should come out of the gatherings with the praises of Jesus on their lips.
10. The topic of service to one another actually scares people away from your Church body rather than bringing people in.
I actually had one lady tell me in the last year that she and her husband left our church because we asked too much of them. That we as a church were just too “needy”, and that we just had too much expectation on people to “serve” in the Church. I totally wish I was joking, but this was exactly what she said to me.
It’s an even bigger travesty because this isn’t the first time I’ve heard such things said by people who leave a church.
11. People would find a quick exit out of your church if your pastor decided that the church was no longer going to have age segregated ministries.
There’s an unhealthy attraction to the idea of having the church body broken down into age segregated groups. Children’s ministry…youth ministry…college ministry…singles ministry…young adults ministry…adult ministry….senior adult ministry…..and so on. If these don’t exist in your church, in the minds of many, then you aren’t doing ministry right.
This is unhealthy because Paul makes it clear that the intertwining of the generations in the life of the Church actually benefits the body. By segregating everyone out, we don’t have the ability to benefit the most from one another. Yes, children can bring value to our gatherings. Yes, senior adults can bring value to our gatherings. Yes, everyone in between can bring value to our gatherings. So let’s stop splitting everyone up and start being a whole once more.
12. You have more “ministries” (read: programs) than you can count with both your hands and feet put together.
Ephesians 4 says that apostles, prophets, teachers, preachers, and evangelists exist for one purpose…to equip the Church body to do the work of the Church. When we stop equipping the body to the work of the Church and we instead offer a ministry for that (hey…we got a ministry for that!) then we are depriving the Body of the much needed exercise of their giftings that make a Church body healthy.
It would be like going to the gym but only ever working out the fingers on your right hand. The rest of your body would remain neglected. Sure, you’d have strong fingers, but they don’t really do much if the rest of your body is emaciated.
In turn, by creating all of these ministries we almost inevitably run into a “volunteer shortage” and we become so busy that we effectively crowd God out.
13. You can count on one hand the number of people in your church who actually exercise their spiritual gifts as part of that local church body. The rest just watch.
There’s a false notion that ministry can only be accomplished by someone bearing the title “pastor”. So, what we are left with is a church filled with a bunch of viewers, who sit back and watch the professionals do their thing.
In reality, Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 12 that there are MANY members and MANY gifts, and that we all function as one body. He even clarifies that not everyone is a pastor or a prophet or a teacher, but that we all have a purpose in the Body.
14. Your pastor and leadership disregard the value of the Old Testament and suggest that we “unhitch” ourselves from it if we are going to “attract people to the church.”
It’s no surprise to anyone by me saying his name, but Pastor Andy Stanley, son of famous pastor Charles Stanley, recently made the remark that the church needed to “unhitch” itself from the Old Testament.
But Andy Stanley is hardly the only pastor out there who thinks this way. In fact, I’ve come into contact with a large number of Christians and pastors alike who hold the same view.
Really? Without the Old Testament we can’t fully understand or appreciate the New Testament. Plus, he’s assuming that there’s nothing applicable to the modern church in the Old Testament which is a total farce and not something that the New Testament agrees with. In fact, we are told in the New Testament that ALL scripture is God breathed and useful. Interestingly, at this time, the Old Testament would’ve been what they were referring to since that was the Bible of their day.
15. Your church has made the worship gatherings the mission rather than making the worship gatherings a moment for equipping FOR the mission. (I give my pastor, Dr. Kevin Baird, credit for this one as it came directly from him)
Everything the modern Church does revolves around the weekly worship gathering. Not only that, but we have structured the worship gathering around the unbeliever rather than around the believer.
This is a very unbiblical perspective and derives itself from the seeker sensitive movement of the 80’s and 90’s. Because so many churches experienced massive growth through this model of Church, others began to adopt it as truth rather than examining it against the scripture and what it has to say about who the Church is and why it exists.
Fortunately, pastors around the country (including my own) are beginning to address this. My pastor is currently teaching our church about what it means to be the church. You can check out the sermon series, House Hunter, HERE.
16. Your pastor preaches more from his own book than he does from THE Book (aka the Bible).
Back in college I watched Robert Schuller, founding pastor of The Crystal Cathedral, actually preach from his book. Not quote from it. But preach from it. As though what he had written was gospel truth.
Unfortunately, he isn’t the only one who has done this in churches across America. As a writer myself, I know the temptation to want to hear our own voice. But the Bible is the standard of truth, not our books. And the Bible ought to be our foundation for teaching and preaching, and not our opinions on what the Bible has to say.
17. The majority of your people believe that the only call to ministry is to become a pastor, music minister, or student pastor.
This point falls in line with point 13 above. And it’s true. I recall back in college when I was called into the ministry I felt I had 3 to 4 options: senior pastor, youth/student pastor, music pastor, or missionary. I chose youth/student pastor.
Now, I do know for a fact that I’m being called into becoming a church planter and a senior pastor. But, I am not arrogant enough (now) to think that my role as a pastor is the only form of ministry or only calling out there.
The pastor is very important, no doubt, but he is not a ministry island unto himself. He joins with countless others who have special giftings and spiritual giftings and unique callings that only they can fulfill through the power of the Holy Spirit. We have to stop perpetuating the idea that only certain people can use their spiritual gifts in the Church.
18. Your church spends the bulk of its ministry years fundraising for its building program(s).
Facilities can certainly fulfill a need and purpose. However, too many churches get so focused on building programs that they end up spending the bulk of their ministry years trying to coax people out of their money to help fund their program.
I often wonder, how much better a steward we would be if we rethought the purpose of buildings and our structure as a church in general to make the most of the tithes and offerings to truly fund ministry and not just fund buildings.
19. The sermons sound more like a 12 step self-help program.
We all need help. But sermons have become self-help speeches, motivational speeches, and everything but what preaching was intended to be. Some churches have even become known for their pastors sermons looking like this. Mention the name Joel Osteen and immediately people will say “12 steps to your best life now!”
In reality, we can’t help ourselves. At least not without the aid and power of the Holy Spirit. We need to focus less on making sure people walk away from our gatherings feeling good about themselves, and instead feeling more equipped to tap into the power of the Holy Spirit to face themselves head on throughout the week.
20. People actually say they like your church because there they don’t feel any conviction.
Many pastors intentionally design their worship gatherings to create the least amount of pressure, pain, or conviction as possible because they view this as a deterrent to people coming back. And it is. But that’s not because we have done something wrong…but because people don’t want to face reality or conviction.
The Word, we are told, cuts like a two-edged sword. Straight to the heart. If we are avoiding this out of fear of offending people, then we are in fact avoiding the full power of the Word and not doing our jobs as pastors. This needs to change.
OK…this is a long article. I am going to have to stop because I could continue.
In fact, I could probably create a FAR larger list than what you see here. There is, unfortunately, just that much out there to address. But I think you get the point. The American Church has become so consumer driven that we actually view these things as positive things, and in many cases we actually justify our behavior and convince ourselves that the issue isn’t how we are conducting ourselves but rather with people just being jealous of our churches.
The toxic church culture Dr. Mattera is addressing is an environment of our own making because we have lost sight of what it means to be the Church.
My hope in writing this article, as long as it has become, is to challenge the American Church to rethink what is really the toxic nature of the Church culture in America and hopefully we can all begin to address this and move toward a healthier Church.