I learned about bad churches by talking to students. I had to do so, because I had wonderful pastors.*
My dad is a great pastor and he was in charge of my church life all of my growing up. Pastor George Osborne, the other notable man of God from my childhood, is a man of wit, brilliance, and holiness. When I moved to California, I had a pastor who ended up going through so much persecution for the Faith that I believe it destroyed his health and killed him. Father Michael Trigg was a saintly man. My present pastor is Father Richard Petranek who is tough, godly, and visionary. If he wasn’t a Chicago Bears fan, then he might be perfect, but he is from Chicago so we forgive him.
No church is perfect. Everybody makes mistakes and we should judge anybody, especially pastors, with the mercy we hope to receive. The Church was formed on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2) and nothing can defeat the true Church of Christ.
For every church where the true grail is lifted at communion, there are places where strange fire and a false grail brings death and destruction to the people of God. Here are six signs you may have chosen . . . badly that I have gathered from years of talking to students.
Your church has or is contemplating getting a compound or forms a virtual compound.
There must be someone who builds a little Christian Utopia who is not whack-a-doodle or who does not become a little tyrant, but I am unaware of this place. If you are cut off from anyone “outside” the “community,” you live in a virtual compound. Just because there are no walls doesn’t mean there is no compound. Church is great, but if your church tries to be your whole life . . . or control your whole life . . . that “church” is overstepping the boundaries set by God. Flee.
Your church has a leader who is only “accountable” to a group he controls.
If your pastor has “oversight” from family members and best friends, then run. A good pastor has strong leadership in the church and people outside the church who can check bad behavior.
Your church publishes reams of books, videos, or other promotional items centered on the pastor.
Beware the church where the pastor is the center of a conglomerate built on personality.
You find it hard to find out what everyone is paid.
The more transparent the budget, the better the church. Pastors work hard, I know that from watching! They should be paid for their labor and their families should thrive, but nobody (good) goes into the ministry to get rich. A church should strive to pay, a pastor as well as the local elementary school principal. No church should watch their pastor grow personally rich on the Gospel.
Maybe if more of us could say “silver and gold have I none,” we would be able to say “rise up and walk.”
Criticism from “outsiders” is treated unfairly.
Nobody likes criticism. I don’t enjoy it. The openness of a church to hear criticism is the mark of a good ministry. I watched my dad listen to critics, sometimes change, but always act reasonably. He did not become paranoid or blame church problems on “outsiders.” Christians are sometimes ridiculed, harassed, or treated with a double standard. A good church does not justify her own bad behavior based on the unfairness of the critics.
“We might do x, but they do super bad stuff!”
This is no defense, but you will hear it in a bad church.
Frequent sermons on “murmuring” and “complaining.”
I grew up in the church and believe me, there are people that just cannot be pleased. The children of Israel did complain against Moses and God did tell them to quit. However, here is a general rule of thumb: we are not the children of Israel and our leaders are not Moses leading us through the wilderness. I have seen a pastor come to a congregation in gentleness to dialog about complaints that were not justified. That is a good thing.
We should stop whining.
However, I have seen such a sermon preached two or three times in forty-three years of church. If you are in a church where people are always telling the congregation to “unify” around the leader . . . you may have a problem church.
Think about it. If you cannot remember a time when a complaint was heard and direction changed, time to find a new home.
The difficulty, of course, is that if we found the perfect church our joining would ruin it. When we look at “bad churches,” we must ask ourselves as laity:
Do I wall myself off from accountability? Do I check in with a spiritual advisor?
Do I have any spiritual authority in my own life? Do I ask my pastor questions and take his views seriously?
Do I care only about my business and not the health and financial welfare of my church?
Is my pastor’s family going hungry while I feast? What do my pastor’s kids get for Christmas? Would I like my kids to live in the pastor’s house?
Do I go out of my way to be critical? At the same time, are we refusing to talk about hard church issues to keep the peace? Am I in dialog?
Good churches have members in dialog with leadership.
At the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit fell on the Apostles, the Mother of God, and many unnamed souls. You and I would have been one of the “unnamed souls.” We have the Holy Spirit of God. We are not called to preach, heal, or govern the church, but we are called to live spritiual lives. If we see a bad situation, we should help. If we see something good, we should praise it.
We must strive to live in the community, the church of God, formed at Pentecost.
*In fact, it was a bar I did not think I could meet myself!