Seven Warning Signs

by Dave Anderson for REVEAL


Kip McKean, the ICC's founder and leader of its Portland (Oregon) Church of Christ, recently wrote an article mentioning "seven warning signs of a dying or false church."

Summarized, they were:

  1. The singing lacks joy, reverence and "spirit"
  2. The sermons are not centered on the Scriptures
  3. Throughout the service "Christ and Him crucified" is rarely heard. Communion is not centered on self-examination and God's infinite grace.
  4. People are late for the service, displaying a low priority in their lives.
  5. There are few visitors and fewer baptisms. There is no sense of mission, especially world missions.
  6. The congregation is always spoken well of -- no persecution for truth and godly lives
  7. The entire congregation is not "sold out"

McKean seems most disparaging of any lack of intensity in a church. You can see the full article here.

Seven Warning Signs of a Cultic or Abusive Church

Although a lack of intensity may not be ideal for a church, there are dynamics of over-intensity that should worry us gravely when we see them -- especially when we see them in an ICC church that claims to be reformed.

Using McKean's rough outline, here are seven warnings sings of a cultic or abusive church.

(I am not saying that these dynamics exist today in all ICC congregations -- or any one of them in particular -- merely that we should all be watchful for these old tendencies.)

  1. Worship dynamics are partly based on feigned enthusiasm and conformity pressure, in sometimes overt but usually more subtle ways. Members who feel down aren't comfortable showing their true feelings about themselves and the church. Members may feel high levels of pressure about minor issues such as not displaying 'proper' enthusiasm while singing. There is unusually strong pressure to conform to the group's mode of worship.
  2. Sermons focus on member behaviors that directly or indirectly benefit leadership, backed up by methods of scripture interpretation that appear sound, but upon closer examination are actually shallow and self-serving. Although the preaching might be "hard-line" about sin, it is soft on self-righteousness and in fact seems to encourage it.
  3. Christ becomes a banner under which leadership's agenda gets promoted. The subject of communion tends to be either the church, or membership's need to repay God or Christ by exhibiting proper behavior. Forgiveness is not a gift to be received and celebrated, it is conditional. Members are repeatedly made to feel that they are in sin or not "true Christians" when they don't live up to the demands of the leadership (which are kept so high that no person could attain them).
  4. People are made to feel guilty for missing or being late for services. Those who are there tend to be either the givers or receivers of love bombing (or both) - displays of affection and approval that would rarely be given to people who had left the congregation or were opposed to its mission. With the emphasis on outward enthusiasm, older attendees may be uncomfortable or even driven away by the pep rally atmosphere.
  5. The group exists more to attract outsiders (and through this to achieve the aims of leadership) than it does to meet the needs of members. A sense of the-ends-justify-the-means seeps through the church's goals and methods. There is little discussion of ethics - the right way to treat people outside the church - unless something happens that clearly goes against the group's mores. The group's mission feels not only palpable, but inescapable: one cannot try to correct or modify the mission without being seen as an enemy to it.
  6. Leaders claim to be persecuted for being right, when in fact they are usually criticized for legitimate reasons: ethical failings, mistreatment of others, a parasitic lifestyle and for not practicing what they preach. The church is poorly spoken of by former members and some others in society, and those who do speak poorly of the group are denigrated by leadership (in a curious twisting of the Golden Rule). Not only is there smoke, but members are discouraged from looking for the fire.
  7. There is much talk about "unity", but what the church really asks for is unanimity - uniform consent for leadership to implement its program. Groupthink prevails. Individuals are made to feel responsible for the performance of the group. Members are not free to determine their personal level and nature of "Christian duty" but have one thrust upon them, with little room for alternative expressions of faith. Helping the poor is a means to an end - either a way indirectly to achieve the group's mission (by attracting outsiders and motivating insiders), or a way to hold God's favor while it does His supposedly more important mission: making more people members of the group.

Thanks to Keith Stump for his suggestions.

©2004 by Dave Anderson. All rights reserved.

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