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How a healthy church can spiral — quickly — into dysfunction

Churches are more like organisms than they are organizations.

By Sam S. Rainer III

tornadoOf course, organizational management is important in churches. Finances, staff reviews and operations are among the many management activities in the church.

Ultimately, however, churches are alive. Biblically, the church is a body. As a functioning organism, the church body is always changing. Like our own bodies, the church either becomes healthier or less healthy. Churches grow. Or they start dying. Congregations may plateau for a season. But no church remains static in perpetuity.

Like an organism, when church health declines, it typically does so slowly. But there are cases when an otherwise healthy person experiences a sudden deterioration. Healthy churches can also experience a sharp decline in health. There are cases of healthy churches quickly becoming dysfunctional. Below are five ways I’ve seen churches spiral downward quickly, almost overnight.

  1. Killer gossip. There is a reason gossip and murder are listed together in Romans 1. Gossip kills. While every church probably has a gossip or two waiting to ambush an unsuspecting soul, killer gossip is a more sinister monster. Killer gossip is more than a Twitter rant or an intentionally misleading question (“Did you hear what the preacher said at his son’s baseball game?”). Killer gossip has as its goal the complete destruction of another person. This kind of gossip destroys families, careers, and churches. It’s viral and can spread so quickly through the church body that it leaves a permanent sickness — one ultimately resulting in death.
  1. A silent majority during a moment of crisis. A small group (it’s usually less than a dozen) can do a lot of damage in any church. Heathy churches can spiral quickly, however, when this small group takes advantage of a crisis in the church to get their way. The crisis magnifies their voice and power. If the silent majority does not speak out against this kind of power play, then a healthy church can become dysfunctional in a short time period.
  1. Moral failure of a pastor. Few disasters affect a healthy body like the moral failure of a key leader. Indeed, even the healthiest of churches will likely struggle through the after-effects of leader’s moral failure. Unfortunately, there are too many examples of healthy churches becoming dysfunctional following a moral failure in leadership.
  1. Force majeure event. Force majeure is often used as contract language to free both parties from liability or obligation in the event of a major natural disaster, like a hurricane or flood. When these types of events affect entire communities, churches suffer. For example, when a large manufacturing firm left a small town, it meant most of the community was either unemployed or had to move. Every church in the community struggled. Some became dysfunctional quickly.
  1. A snake is allowed to slither. Evil is real. And it’s not a vague concept. People sin. Sin hurts other people. Not every sinner is a snake, of course. On occasion, however, an evil person enters the body. When you have an unwanted snake in your house, you don’t pet it and ask it nicely to leave. You strike it. Don’t play games with evil. Get rid of it or your church could quickly spiral into dysfunction.

The powers of darkness will attack. In fact, healthy churches should expect evil to oppose an expanding gospel work. Most healthy churches are prepared. But no church should get comfortable. Satan’s goal is to make healthy churches fall . . . quickly.

However, God is infinitely greater. Even the most disastrous of situations do not necessarily lead to dysfunction. In fact, it is the body that will determine whether the infection will spread or cause a response that leads to greater health.

sam_s_rainer_IIISam S. Rainer III serves as president of Rainer Research (rainerresearch.com), a firm dedicated to providing answers for better church health. He also is the senior pastor at Stevens Street Baptist Church in Cookeville, TN. He writes, speaks, and consults on church health issues. You can connect with Sam at @samrainer or at his blog,samrainer.wordpress.com.


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