7 of the Most Dangerous Church Cultures I’ve Observed

I was talking with a couple of pastors recently about leading in church revitalization and growth. Both of these pastors are seasoned church leaders — having far more experience in total than I have in vocational ministry.

Mostly I listened to their stories. Both are currently in difficult pastorates. One of them serves in a church that has a history of very short-term pastorates. The other is in a church that has seen a roller coaster trend in church attendance — every time they get in a season of growth its followed by a season of decline — sometimes rapid decline.

Frankly, I prefer to have conversations about opportunities and possibilities than about challenges and frustrations. But, get a few pastors in the room and there will be some war stories. Leading towards health in a church can be a battle sometimes.

Just like it’s been said numerous times — leading people is easy if it wasn’t for the people.

I tried to encourage them in their call and offered a few suggestions for them in their current situations. But, the conversation stayed on my mind for days afterwards.

A few days after this conversation, I was talking with another pastor friend reflecting on what I had heard in the previous conversation. I didn’t share names or specific situations, but it led us to a discussion about church cultures.

Every church has its own culture.

Both of the pastors in the original conversation just seemed to find themselves in some very bad church cultures.

I’ve seen lots of different cultures while consulting and working with churches for over a decade.

Regardless of what some believe — there are some healthy churches.

And, there are some who are not so healthy.

It’s always breaks my heart to encounter a church that is ready to implode. Frankly, some churches live in that tension continually. Some cultures are dangerous — toxic even.

Why do some churches seem to have such a hard time keeping church staff for any significant length of time? It usually has something to do with the culture of the church.

Why are some churches more resistant to change than others? It will almost always reflect back to the culture of the church.

Why do some churches have a history of church splits? Culture.

This friend in the second conversation said to me, “There’s a blog post for you. You need to talk about some of those dangerous cultures.”

Sadly, according to numerous statistics, more churches are in decline or have plateaued than are growing. Certainly not all growing churches are healthy. I would never define a “healthy” church exclusively as growing church. I do believe, however, most healthy churches will eventually grow.

Some of that health in a church depends on the culture of the church. How do people respond to church leadership? How do they respond to each other? How do they react to change? How are decisions made? What upsets people most? What is the atmosphere — the mood — of the church during the week and on Sunday? How does the church treat vocational staff?

All those are usually relative to and indicative of church culture.

So, I decided to post about some of the more dangerous church cultures I have observed. Most likely you’ll have some of your own to share.

Here are 7 of the most dangerous church cultures:

Selfish – Some churches are filled with people who just think they have to have it their way. And they fold her hands — and sometimes hold their money – – until they get it.

Prideful – This is a culture that is proud of their heritage — which is a good thing — but is resting on their laurels. They refuse to realize it’s no longer the “good ole days”. Their pride keeps in the past keeps them from embracing the future. They resist any ideas that are different from the way things have always been done.  

Rigid – A rigid culture would never kill something — even if it isn’t working. These churches do tradition well. They don’t do change well. Try to change — and it’ll be the death of you.

Cliquish – I’ve heard this from so many people who felt they just couldn’t break into the already established groups within the church. In this culture, it takes years for people to feel included, find a place of service, or begin to lose the “new person” label.

Bullying – Sometimes this is disguised and called church discipline, but in some of the stories I’ve heard I would tend to call it legalistic. If it’s a “one strike you’re out” culture or people are made to feel they can’t be real about their struggles for fear of retribution — the picture of grace that Christ died on the cross to provide is diminished. People are encouraged to put on masks to hide their struggles.

Stingy – In this culture, there is a greater concern that the balance sheet look attractive than meeting the needs that God brings their way. This church rarely walks by faith because that seems too irresponsible.

Depraved – This one may in some ways be a summary of the previous six — because there is sin in all of these cultures — but I wanted to expose it on it’s own. If the Bible is left in the rack attached to the pew and no longer the foundation guide for the church — the culture will obviously suffer. Church culture can begin to decay whenever the focus is more on things like money, programs, buildings , even worship style — as good as all of those can be — rather than on living our lives as children of God for the glory of God. Whatever distracts us from the very core of the church — our Gospel mission and calling — will injure our church culture.

Those are from my observations.

What dangerous cultures have you seen?

I should mention again — especially to those outside the church, those who have experienced pain from these type churches, or those entering into the ministry in whom I may have raised caution — there are healthy churches. There are healthy church cultures. There are no perfect churches, but there are some who have staff with long tenures, where change is manageable and where people truly live out the Biblical model of church.

And, as someone who loves the local church, that’s where I hope to lend help through this blog in the majority of posts I share.

In a future post I will try to expand on some thoughts and experience I have in helping to change church cultures.

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Ron Edmondson

Author Ron Edmondson

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Join the discussion 11 Comments

  • John Crowe says:

    In the absence of a biblical formation of a Christian culture as the body of Christ, the social, psychological and family of origin culture will become the culture of the church. In so many churches where there is an absence of a Christian culture of being the body of Christ shaped by the teaching of the bible that goes further than skin deep, the business model with its consumerism has come in to fill the void.

  • raj says:

    We need to define our terms here. Church is not a building, not a business, not
    a social group. It is a God's family, His people, living stones. Yet I see that leaders have plans and strategies and organisational charts to promote growth. In my church it seems that programmes take precedence over people. People are asked to fit programmes, that is an organisational approach. Which leads to my next point – leaders need to be extremely careful about using words like "family" and "community" if they take an organisational/business strategy approach to leading. The approach is incongruent with being a family or community.

  • shukion123 says:

    Wonderful stuff here Ron, I have never had an abuse church culture yet, and I hope not to.

  • Steve Reynolds says:

    Under bullying I would add that there are sometimes church antagonists who will play a power game with the church. Making matters worse is when an antagonist is in a church where the leadership is too timid to confront him.

  • Glenn Ball says:

    Been there done that Ron, both as a pastor and as the denominational official who had to go in and try to sort out the chaos. The me first attitude is growing in both clergy and congregations. your seven dangerous trends fit well into the nine diagnostic criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) This is a form of narcissism that is taking us over the top in terms of inappropriate behaviour for Christians. My research indicates that 25% of clergy have NPD and over 5% have levels that are toxic. And there are congregations and even denominations that are so blinded by this that they are failing miserably at being the church.

  • jimpemberton says:

    This could be titled, The Seven Deadly Sins of the Local Church. Another great article!

    I would add the Club Culture. This perhaps has some overlap with some of the others. The idea is this: the church does what it can to offer people the services (certain kinds of childcare, youth activities, wedding and burial, worship styles, hospital visitation, etc) they want so that they come to church. Coming to church, the people expect these services as part of the service package that they are paying for in their offerings. They shouldn't be expected to do any more than give offerings because their offerings go to pay the pastor do it all. Thus, they never grow spiritually, the pastor gets burned out, You develop a privileged inner circle clique who takes care of everything that the pastor can't do because the large majority of people in the pews on Sunday morning won't do it. If the inner circle dwindles, the church will implode. It's like a morbidly obese person who gains more fat than his muscles can lift. These churches need to turn fat into muscle. The idea is that the church should have enough muscle to get up and take the gospel to the world instead of ministering to the paying club members.

  • @JustinHoca says:

    " There are healthy church cultures. There are no perfect churches, but there are some who have staff with long tenures, where change is manageable and where people truly live out the Biblical model of church."
    From my observation, some pastors take on a pastorate with an intention to simply steward the congregation (ie: maintain status quo) and fall victim to the culture. Others want to make it "better" but don't have a clear foundation for what "better" means. Those that have something like Nine Marks, where they can point to five concrete biblical aspects they want to improve, tend to fair better and change the culture. Where there is no overt strategic plan, there is no change. Just my observation.

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