Remember the rhyme about Humpty Dumpty and his tragic fall? It’s really a sad little story; even now I get depressed thinking about it. Humpty’s real problem, however, was not that he had a great fall, but rather that he was foolish enough to sit on a wall in the first place! In other words, he was content to hang out in a precarious situation in spite of his fragile condition. I bring up ole Humpty because many churches have experienced significant crises that were the results poor leadership decisions. There are obviously many reasons for church splits, but bad leadership always seems to be one of the more frequent causes. As refugees begin to leave their churches they inevitably ask one question, which is, “How did we get here?” I’ve been thinking a lot about this question lately. These musings have led me to evaluate several churches that have recently experienced catastrophic “falls,” and as a result I’ve identified several indicators that those churches were on the verge of a significant crisis. These are not signs that a church is already in a crisis—no one needs a list for that. Rather, this is a list of signs indicating that a church is precariously “sitting on a wall” if you will—so here we go.
1. An emphasis on a comprehensive biblical theology is not appreciated. This sign may seem obvious, but quite often it’s not. Sometimes a church’s theology is not unbiblical per se, but instead it’s just precariously out of balance. Here is a simple test, ask yourself this question: is your church always emphasizing a specific area of theology? For example, is your church always focusing upon a concern for meeting the social or physical needs of the poor; or on miracles; or on God’s predetermined plan for salvation; or on retaining seekers; etc., etc. If the answer is yes, then your church is potentially heading for a crisis.
2. The Sunday morning “experience” is the priority. In other words, what happens on Sunday mornings and how people feel about it is pretty much all that really matters.
3. Biblical practices are altered with no scriptural explanation. If your church changes how the gospel is communicated, how baptisms and/or communions are performed, or who is accepted as leaders or members within your church without any biblical inspection, then your church is napping on the edge of a wall.
4. Leadership positions are filled because of relationships rather than qualifications. This point is easily testable. Just look at the staff and lay leaders of your church. If you brought them all in one room would it look like a family reunion? This is a real problem in many churches today. Too many churches are basically family franchises rather than ministry centers. A major problem with filling a church’s leadership spots with friends and family is that it inevitably leads to “group think,” which is not a problem if the group is thinking correctly—but let’s be honest, that hardly ever happens. Another sign that this may be occurring in your church is that leadership positions are being filled by domineering women in spite of the biblical mandate for churches to be led by qualified men.
5. Diversity is valued without any insistence of biblical conformity. As people become refugees from other liberal or unhealthy churches and join yours, does your church accommodate them rather than disciple them in biblical spirituality and theology. In other words, is your church just glad to have them and only concerned with making them feel comfortable? If the answer is yes, then your church is making a big mistake! Look at it this way: initially they were content with attending unhealthy churches to begin with, so why should anyone assume they aren’t also bringing some unbiblical baggage with them?
6. Mature believers and innovators begin to disappear. When the most biblically grounded people begin to leave, or those that are most passionate about reaching others for Christ start visiting other churches, then your church is not sitting on a wall—its tightrope walking!
7. Methodology and/or environment are viewed as “the solution.” When leaders suggest that “if we would just start doing ministry in the right way,” or that “if we just create the right environment then God will bless us,” then your church is in real trouble. God is not obligated to bless any church’s efforts at anything simply because it uses specific methods or creates the “perfect” environment. Of course doing ministry the wrong way is a non-starter, but the important point is that ministry atmosphere and specific types of ministry methods are no guarantee that “times of blessings” are just around the corner.
8. Results are emphasized without respect for any process. If a church’s leaders have a history of making major decisions on their own without any interaction from the congregation, then your church is in a very precarious situation—even if in their short-term decisions are perceived as successful. Short-term growth that is sown with seeds of failure inevitably leads to crisis—even weeds look like vegetables when they sprout. This type of attitude is evident when leaders claim that they can’t fail because they have “prayed about it.” In other words, prayer is a license for them to do whatever they wish regardless of how many red flags are raised.
9. Leaders aren’t held accountable for their responsibilities or the impact of their decisions. The great thing about church is that they are tolerant. A weakness of many churches is that often they are too tolerant. If leaders aren’t held accountable in small matters, then why should we be surprised when catastrophes occur? Many poor leaders justify their rash or bad decisions because they are concerned for the health of the ministry or because they sense that their “church is dying.” When leaders justify their bad decisions with these excuses they don’t realize that they have just indicted themselves. The reality is that they’re the ones responsible for their church’s failing condition in the first place, how on earth then can they be a part of any solution?
10. Stagnant policies are protected while attempts at outreach are squelched. I’ve been involved in countless churches that when ministry opportunities are presented they require insurmountable paperwork, accountability to impenetrable policies, and restrictive supervision that makes no sense to volunteers, all of which generally causes lay people to simply give up. You find this hard to believe? Then try this, suggest starting an outreach ministry at your church on a different night of the week. If immediately you are required to interact with several committees and fill out countless forms then your church has issues. We aren’t talking about hiring a new cleaning service; we are talking about rescuing people from Hell! If anything is true for a church then evangelism, discipleship, and worship should be the easiest ministries for us to do—regardless of a church’s size. Incidentally, Jesus didn’t leave behind a single form for anyone to fill out before attempting to reach the lost with the gospel.
Well that’s my list. I’m sure there are many other signs, but this is a blog and not a book. Noticing one or two of these signs does not mean that you church is about to experience a significant fall. However, if this list describes how your church operates, then it may well be that your church is on the verge of becoming a burnt omelet. It may not be this year or the next; nevertheless, if you can’t talk your church off the wall now, then there will be no repairing the scrambled mess it will become in the future.