By Nick Brzozowski
Finding a church is tough. I have friends who have moved to a new town and spent years looking for a good fit for them and their family.
The real difficulty comes when you're trying to figure out if a church is healthy or not. To *really* know the culture of a church with certainty, it might take years of attending. But, do you really want to invest years into a place just to rip relationships apart because you know you can’t stay any longer?
In this article, I want to help you identify indicators that the church you are trying out might be a toxic church. The reason I say “might” is because not all churches are perfect. You might notice something a bit off with one church which may mean that it is toxic or just that they have some things to work on. Either way, if you notice a lot of these indicators, you might realize that it isn’t worth sticking around long enough to know for sure.
Of course, you probably have some preferences when looking for a church. It could be: theological convictions, size, or a preaching style that resonates with you. That’s all great. But, more than anything, you want to join a church where you can trust people, where you know that they have your best interests in mind and where the leadership has integrity.
And those are the things that this list should help give you a better idea of.
1. Toxic Churches Think They Are the Best.
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves.
A healthy love for your church is one thing. Heck, it doesn’t hurt to even be proud of what you have done or to care about your theological distinctions. But, God is much bigger than just your church.
And when a church thinks they are the best, some of the affects can be traumatic.
One of the worst affects of this kind of arrogance is shown when someone leaves a church like this. People stop talking to them. And they start talking about them. Their reputation is ripped apart because they betrayed their community. Since people think that this church is the best, it comes to represent God, himself. So, leaving it is as bad as walking away from God.
A lot of other unhealthy behavior and attitudes can come out of a church that thinks it’s the best. Talking badly about other churches can be common. Arrogance about their theology can lead to close-mindedness. A church may not hold abusive leadership accountable because they simply can’t believe that anything bad can happen at their church.
There’s also far too much pressure put on staff and volunteers to give more money, volunteer more time, invite more people, etc. Looking back, I sacrificed too much for my church in the past. The reason why? I thought what we were doing something so special, so it made sense to forget about my own well-being.
So, when checking out a church, pay attention to how they talk about themselves. How do they talk about other churches? It’s ok to have an appreciation for a church or leader. I think this is especially common if it is a church plant, new leader or just a new church to you that there would be a honey-moon phase. But, do people think too highly of the church or the leadership than seems right? Do they treat leaders like celebrities? Do they talk about their beliefs as if there is no room for disagreement? Is there a lot of applause for what the church is doing or its leadership?
2. Toxic Churches Run on Fear and Shame.
There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.
1 John 4:18
In my early Christian experience, fear and shame were major ingredients for growing in my faith. I became a Christian to avoid hell, for crying out loud! And I was always afraid of others going to hell. Shame felt like healthy confessions and humility. I can remember putting myself down constantly in my prayers, thinking that this was what was pleasing to God.
Now, humility and confession are good. And we should admit our mistake. We should even feel a healthy dose of guilt when we hurt people. But, there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ. And we are a new creation. The healthier you are in your walk with God, the more confidence you should be getting.
On top of that, the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. But, there are different ways to “fear.” Fearing God is aligning your life around his priorities, honoring him as higher and stronger, and obeying/trusting him. It is not walking around with constant anxiety and panic of doing something wrong.
In a toxic church, people are often motivated through shame and fear. They are afraid to upset the pastor. In shame, they think of themselves and their needs as worthless, so they give to the church, not regarding their own well-being.
When checking out a church, look for signs of fear and shame. How often is hell used as a motivation to share your faith or become a Christian? Why are people coming or serving? Are there any vibes that the pastor has an anger problem? How often is sin talked about? Is there an expectation that you will confess all your sins to a leader or a group (AKA forced accountability)?
3. Toxic Churches Don’t Care About People.
…so we cared for you. Because we loved you so much…
1 Thess 2:8
Recently, I was talking to my counselor. I asked why a particular Christian would do something to hurt me so often. And his answer was so simple and obvious that it shocked me.
“He doesn’t care about you.”
Many churches are filled with well-intentioned people. But, some are led by and filled with narcissists who lack empathy. They are so concerned with themselves - their needs, their image, their success - that they don’t have any room to care about hurting people around them.
Toxic churches may be so focused on growth and success that they don’t care about hurting people. When I used to hear people criticize churches for running like businesses, I thought that was unfair. Churches are like businesses, I thought. But, instead of making a profit, their mission was far more important - to save souls.
But, now, I tend to sympathize with the critics. If businesses should care about people, how much more should churches. But, tragically, we can find churches treating people so poorly that the business world would even be shocked.
How often is growth and numbers and attendance talked about and celebrated? Are women empowered? Are women believed? Are women honored? Are minorities welcomed and shown hospitality? Is the pastor accessible at all or impossible to reach? Does the church do anything to serve the community around them? How does the church talk about people and outsiders? How often are people cut off (fired, disciplined, etc.)? When people leave the church, are they honored? How are divorced people treated? How are queer people or people who have had abortions talked about? Is it with honor and grace and love or judgement?
4. Toxic Churches Hate the World.
For God so loved the world…
Yes, Jesus does warn us that the world will hate Christians. And yes, John strictly tells Christians not to “love the world.” But, we shouldn’t hate the world. We ought to see people outside of the church with compassion and love.
We should also admire parts that are worth admiring. In fact, Peter tells Christians to submit to the governing authorities (1 Peter 2:13-14). He goes on to say that they are put in place to punish evil and reward good. Keep in mind, this is the same government that had him killed! They obviously didn’t get everything right. But, there was something to admire.
But, you typically don’t hear anything good about culture from a toxic church. Society is evil and wants to corrupt you, is their message. The Christian life is not presented as faithful engagement but always faithful resistance. Now, that might make sense in other countries, but it is ridiculous to see Christians as persecuted in the US.
Many times, this is shown through a church’s alignment with the Republican Party. The belief in an evil world is welded to the belief that America is a Christian country. So, the evils of the world tend to be all liberal issues — that the world wants to destroy foundations by targeting gender, sexuality, family values, religious freedoms, etc.
When visiting a church, does it feel like you are at a political rally? Do they only talk negative about outsiders or people different than them? Can they say anything good about society?
Hopefully, this list gives you a better idea to spot a church that is worth investing your time and heart into. Being an active part in a healthy church can be one of the most meaningful things you do. You might even build relationships that last your entire life. You might find people who will help you grow and who will be there for you in difficult times. You might find a place for you to experience God every week.
So, please remember, there are good churches out there. Good luck on your search!
And if you are in the Champaign area, we would love it if you checked out Anchor. Of course, we are not perfect, but we do strive to be a healthy place for you to belong and grow. That's why we focus so much on our groups. It's one way we try to put people first! Check them out here.