When Christians join a church, they expect to find that the congregation can become a second home and a supportive faith family. There is usually the understanding that it might take a while to become fully acquainted and comfortable with how things are done at a new church, and most people understand that it takes time to get to know new people. That said, it should not be too long before a church is a welcome source of Christian fellowship, community service and religious growth.
Unfortunately, some churches do not live up to those expectations. Such churches may be trapped by traditions that no one is willing to change or have an endless revolving door of leadership that makes it impossible to get things done. Sometimes, those churches are merely unfulfilling for their congregation and can be saved by a little T.L.C. from the community, congregation or leadership. Other times, however, churches simply become toxic. The idea of a toxic church can seem baffling to some Christians, but churches are filled with and maintained by fallible humans. This can lead to a church that is everything a Christian should try to remove from their life. Here are seven types of churches to avoid at all costs.
A church’s primary role is to help you grow and strengthen your faith. The leadership and the congregation should all be focused on helping members of the church draw closer to God. This is nearly impossible to do when your church keeps changing the rules on you.
Shifting theology is especially common today when churches are desperate to retain old members and struggling to attract new ones. As such, the church’s theology tends to begin shifting in an effort to seem more attractive to those who may be considering joining the church. The basics of the theology rarely change, but the devil is in the details more than ever. This is especially true when it comes to hot button issues in the political arena. Since many people today demonize those who do not agree with them 100 percent, churches may alter their official theology in order to avoid the ire of the modern thought-police. Such a wishy-washy place is not going to help you strengthen your faith, especially since you will need others to have your back when your Christian convictions will almost inevitably cause you to need to face down the secular lynch mob.
The only way you are not aware of the problems that come with cliques forming in a community is if you have been living under a rock. Even if you have forgotten or blocked out your time in middle and high school, you have almost certainly watched a movie portraying those periods in a person’s life or heard about friend troubles at school from someone of that age. One of the most common, pervasive and enduring problems is that of cliques, small groups of friends that either actively exclude others or refuse to give others a chance to join their circle. Such cliques are most commonly thought of as a problem reserved for middle and high school girls, but adults are almost as quick to form cliques as teens and preteens. Churches are no exception to this. There are plenty of churches out there where it is very clear that the only people invited to brunch after church are those who are in music ministry or that the only people who talk to each other at the potluck are those who have been attending the church since they were children. Everyone else is given the cold shoulder. This is not an environment which fosters a Christian life or encourages Christian fellowship. Leave the high school drama behind, and find another church.
Us vs. Them
Some churches seem to divide the community or even the congregation into two groups, “us” and “them.” The in-group, “us,” is righteous, pious and good. The out-group, “them,” is sinful, foolish and should be avoided at all costs. “We” are good. “They” are bad. Welcome to tribalism 101.
Tribalism helps absolutely no one. All it does is cause people to refuse to compromise, distrust others and tend to see people who look, act or think differently as inherently bad. Everyone has heard that people dislike those who are different because they are afraid. Tribalism takes it one step farther. People who are different are not scary. They are evil.
Modern tribalism largely seems to focus on how people think. If you do not believe it, go on Tumblr, which tends to skew heavily left, and post something praising Trump. You will be inundated with hatred because you dared to disagree with the tribe.
Churches are not normally as flagrant about their tribalism as the depths of the internet or the political circuses that the media adores, but that does not mean there are not some tribal tendencies. Churches that repeatedly have sermons putting down other denominations, turn their nose up at those in the community who do not come to that church or seem to be forever congratulating themselves on their righteousness are not good churches to attend. Christ castigated the Pharisees for very similar behavior.
When looking for signs of tribalism, also be wary of a church that looks or acts nothing like the demographic of the surrounding community. If you are in a rural area that is largely populated by blue-collar workers, a church filled with people who wear $300 shoes and gold cufflinks to church is probably not in touch with the wider community. Similarly, a church that does not have a single member over the age of 40 in an area filled with retirees is probably focused inward more than outward.
For whatever reason, some churches seem to think that society needs to return to locking people up in the stockade for the afternoon. Given that the city square does not have a place for public humiliation anymore, some churches decide to take it upon themselves to humiliate members. If you are at a church that makes a habit of singling out individuals, couples or families and shaming them, it is time to leave.
There is a huge difference between helping a Christian brother or sister correct their behavior and calling them out in front of the entire congregation. One is helpful and done with love. The other is a power play that does nothing but cause the person being humiliated to become angry. Be wary of shaming that is directed at a certain group as well. Some churches seem to love blaming all the world’s ills on lazy, entitled, sinful young people and then wonder why the youngest person in their congregation is a 40 year old father of three. A general warning against drinking to excess is one thing. It is another to stare pointedly at an individual or identify them by name from the pulpit.
God is Secondary
The primary focus of any church should be three letters long, start with a capital “G,” end with a “d” and have an “o” in the middle there somewhere. Otherwise, the church is not a church anymore as much as it is a Christian gathering that is meant for another purpose. Some churches that lose track of their purpose end up becoming largely social clubs. Others sell their souls for the money to do bigger and better things while promising themselves that they will return to focusing on God once they have that new building or can pay the pastor more or have raised enough to make better contributions to the community.
Churches where God has become secondary do not normally intend to become such places. They often start out with good intentions. They are trying to raise more money because the current church building is a mess, and they need room for their growing congregation. They want to give members more opportunities for Christian fellowship and forming relationships with Christian brothers and sisters. They see a need in the community but do not quite have the cash or manpower to fill it yet. All of these are good intentions, but slowly they become the main focus of the church.
This sort of mistake can happen to any church. Just because the church plays Christian rock from a huge stage does not mean that it has lost its way. Similarly, a little white church where everyone brings their Bibles on Sunday could easily have services that are empty of meaning.
Here is a shocker. Christians are not perfect. They sin. They mess up. They swear when they drop the couch on their foot. They struggle to forgive that jerk who made their sister cry when he ran off with some bimbo and left her at the altar. They lie about why they were late to work, fight with their families and sometimes love money just a little too much. Welcome to the human race.
For most people, the fact that Christians are just as inherently imperfect as every other human being on the planet is not news. Some churches, however, do not seem to have gotten the memo. Such churches are often filled with modern day Pharisees. The congregation always acts like everything is perfect. Everyone lives perfect Christian lives, and all the children are simply little angels. Everyone is deliberately blind to the fact that the Sunday school teacher’s daughter has a drug problem or that the boy who plays the piano knocked up his girlfriend and walked out on her. Anyone who has visible problems or admits to their struggles simply has weak faith. They are not good Christians.
Such places are filled with nothing but lies. Christians are not perfect. Weak faith is not the reason for a family member’s suffering, and hiding imperfections does not make them disappear. If anything, it gives them more power.
No Place For Kids
A church without children is not a church that is going to survive. A lack of families is also a warning sign that something may be very wrong. Church should be a place where Christian parents take their children to help them being their faith journey. If the parents are unwilling to expose their children to a church for some reason, there should be warning alarms going off in every part of your head. There is not necessarily something sinister afoot, but if the sermons are so heavy on the fire and brimstone that kids are having nightmares or filled with such esoteric theology that the Sunday school class is baffled, it is probably time to move on to a new church.
Being a church for singles is not an acceptable excuse. Assuming the church is really focused on God, there would likely be at least some families in the congregation. If the church is so heavily geared toward single people that couples and families do not feel welcome, there are bigger problems afoot in the church culture, and they are not ones in which you want to be embroiled.
Churches are created by, run by, maintained by and filled with fallible humans. Sometimes the failings of a church’s humans seem to seep into the church’s very walls. This can lead to a congregation that is unwelcoming toward new members, is self-righteous or pays little attention to the actual point of worship. Such places are not anywhere that a Christian should want to spend time, and such congregations should not be trusted with a Christian’s faith journey or expectations for fellowship. There are certainly problems that come with Christianity fracturing into so many denominations and Christian communities splintering into dozens of churches, but there is one clear advantage. When a Christian finds themselves attending a toxic church, it is not hard to find somewhere else to go.