If We Want Healthy Churches, We Need to Take Risks

by | Apr 24, 2024 | Faith | 29 comments

Woman praying about whether to leave her church

Sometimes finding a life-giving church means investing in building one.

When our girls were tiny we lived in downtown Toronto, and attended an amazing Anglican church that was made up mostly of people who weren’t Anglicans. It was in a historic church building, with very little parking, in the middle of an area where there was no room for expansion.

And the church kept growing, because it was a really healthy church and it was, frankly, amazing.

(Here’s Rebecca and I outside the church when I’m about 8 months pregnant)

Right as we were leaving Toronto the church made a big decision. They were going to send out ⅓ of their members to “seed” another Anglican church a few subway stops away that was dying. Its congregation was aging, and it needed new life.

So one of the pastors left with a whole bunch of people, and this older church got to grow, while the original church now had room for expansion again.

It was a win-win for everyone.

I’ve thought of that church growing model many times over the last few years. 

In that case, it was two healthy churches who joined in a way to bring life to both, so that more people could fit in healthy churches and could find churches with good ministries.

But what if that needs to be our model (or at least one of the models) going forward if we need healthy churches?

After all, if you were part of that ⅓ who left, that would be scary. The original church had a great youth group, a great Sunday School program, a great College & Careers ministry. The new church they were going to had none of that. You’d be building from the ground up.

But once there are at least a few kids in a church, often that church can start growing again. It’s very hard to grow a church with no children. And so moving ⅓ of the people over gives that new church a chance to start Sunday School programs, etc.

Here’s why all of this matters to me:

I’m haunted by two seemingly contradictory stats about church attendance:

  1. Church attendance, on the whole, is very good for people’s well-being
  2. Going to a toxic church and internalizing toxic teachings eradicates the benefits of church attendance

So going to church is good–until it isn’t.

We talked about this at length in our book She Deserves Better, because we dug down deep into the numbers. And we can’t get away from both of those facts: Church attendance is really good for kids. Youth group is good for kids.

But church & youth group where girls internalize that they have to be small; that men lust after them; that it’s normal for men to objectify them and dehumanize them? Then those girls don’t do well long-term.

So what is our response when we go to a church that teaches toxic stuff–and it seems like all the other churches do too?

Toxic teachings seem to flourish in certain types of churches: Megachurches run by charismatic men. Think James MacDonald, Mark Driscoll, Matt Chandler, Josh Howerton, John MacArthur, John Piper. Churches that become based on celebrity often attract a certain type of pastor, and these teachings that solidify male power tend to go along with celebrity megachurches.

But if you’re in a church like that, it can be really hard to leave.

Your kids likely love the Sunday School and youth group because it’s so big. Your kids have their whole social life there. Often these megachurches are a huge part of the community (as people tell me Lakepointe, under Josh Howerton, is in Rockwall, Texas).

Now, these teachings can also flourish in smaller churches, especially in denominations that don’t want women in any kind of leadership. I’ve attended a church where a pastor came in where one of the main doctrines he fought for was male only leadership. Even though the pastor before him believed the same way, he made sure women participated in as many ways as possible, making announcements from the front, teaching snippets of sermons if they had good illustrations, leading Sunday School classes, etc. But the next pastor made sure women were barely visible from the stage.

That church began to shrink, as it should.

So it’s not always bigger ones. But when you’re in the midst of churches like this, and it seems like all churches in your area are like this, what do you do?

I don’t have good answers, except to say that we know that most people who attend church regularly:

  • Believe that women can exercise all the gifts, and that leadership isn’t a male-only purview
  • Believe that marriage should be mutual and equal
  • Believe that mental health is important, and that we shouldn’t shame people for mental illnesses
  • Etc. etc. etc.

Most people who attend churches, even the churches that are toxic, actually believe healthy things.

So why are they going to these churches that teach toxic stuff?

Because the youth groups and Sunday Schools are there; the worship is awesome; everything is flashy; and it doesn’t look like you have a choice.

Change means that some people are going to have to take the risk to leave.

If we want change in the church, some people are going to need to leave and stop propping up the toxic places.

They’re going to need to seed the local congregation in that old church down the street that is mostly run by senior citizens who would absolutely love to have a Sunday School again. They’re going to need to get together with like-minded friends and decide to do something new.

They’re going to have to stop supporting the old stuff that is hurting people.

As I’ve been talking about Josh Howerton on social media, so many pastors have entered the discussion dismayed at what is happening in megachurches.

There are really good pastors out there. They just often don’t have huge churches with fog machines and huge worship bands. The worship may just be a piano and a guitar, and the guitarist may be tuned wrong. The Sunday School may be grades 1-5 altogether. It may not seem like much.

Six years ago, when my daughter joined a little church in their small town, it had about 80 people a Sunday. The worship wasn’t great. There weren’t a lot of young couples. But with the addition of my daughter and her husband, suddenly there was a critical mass of couples under 35. And more started coming. And now they’re having a baby boom, with four other women pregnant at the same time as Katie was.

It often just takes a few people committed to going.

I know it’s a risk. It’s hard to leave when your kids have good programs. But long-term, are those programs good if what they’re being taught is toxic?

There are good pastors. There are smaller churches that want to serve their communities, but can’t compete with the megachurch down the road. There are friends who want an honest community that they’re not experiencing right now in churches that try to stop them from using their gifts.

But it takes a risk to start over where there aren’t necessarily good programs.

I pray everyday that more and more people take that risk. Because that’s how change happens.

Written by

Sheila Wray Gregoire

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Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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29 Comments

  1. Nethwen

    This goes along with what I’ve thought, but don’t have stats to back up. In my opinion, once a church starts edging towards 200 people, it should send out about half the people to plant a new church. I don’t know if it’s true that humans can generally only maintain a community of about 150, but it seems about right.

    I also think the church plant should be an independent church, not a satellite location, because that would allow for more freedom to correct things if one of the churches started turning toxic. How amazing would it be if churches were praised for sending out church planters instead of for building a 1,000-person auditorium?

    The church divide-and-plant model might also help put healthy churches closer to more people. It would be like dividing irises. Irises are healthier (and you get blooms in more places of your yard) when they aren’t too crowded – dividing is essential for good health!

    Reply
    • Angharad

      Always love a good gardening analogy. And this one is spot on!

      Reply
  2. Angharad

    This resonated with me so much!

    There is a church near us that has around 300 people on a Sunday morning (which may not sound much to you, but is HUGE for this part of the world) They have a big worship band, top-of-the-range IT and sound system, coloured floodlights, coffee bar offering everything from espresso to chai latte, children’s playground and a packed programme. Yet last time I went there, their lead (female) pastor was talking about how sex was just for men and most wives would be happy if they never ever had to have sex again.

    Every Sunday, people drive for miles to get to this church. They drive right past dozens of small, struggling rural churches who would just love to see ONE of those families join them. Churches like ours. A ‘good’ congregation is 20 people. We meet in an old, inconvenient building with no floodlights or internet, and usually sing along to pre-recorded songs because we rarely have any musician. The coffee comes from a filter machine, not a bean-to-cup machine, but if you come often, we’ll remember how you take it. My husband may not have a perspex pulpit with neon lights running through it, but he does have a heart to share God’s word faithfully and to see people built up and encouraged in their faith and enabled to use their gifts – and if someone thinks he’s got something wrong, he will listen and reflect and apologise if he believes they are right. We can’t afford to hire professional illusionists, reptile handlers or circus skill teachers to come to our kids’ events, but we know each child and pray for them by name.

    I know small churches are not feasible for everyone, but I’d love it if more people would stop to think whether it is actually better for THEM to travel to the big, wealthy church – or whether they might find a happier home in one of the many little fellowships nearby.

    (I’ll climb off my soapbox now 😉)

    Reply
    • Nethwen

      Angharad,

      I’m looking for a church right now and your church sounds like a great fit. I think you’re on another continent, though. 😉

      Last week, I visited a church that was 20 people plus me. There were 4 people and a pianist in the choir. The singing ability was closer to the enthusiastic end of the spectrum than the skilled end. (I’m a musician.)

      And they were overwhelming welcome. It was a little embarrassing, the attention they gave me, but I’d rather people be abundantly welcoming than reserved. If their doctrine checks out, I’d like to attend there.

      All that said to hopefully encourage your little church.

      Reply
      • Angharad

        These different continents are a nuisance! (I look forward to the day when we will all be worshipping together – every tongue, every nation!)

        Lovely to hear you may have found your new church family though. I pray that you will know if this is to be your new spiritual ‘home’. I did laugh when you talked about the overwhelming welcome – my husband has several times had to suggest that maybe it might be best if we don’t ALL rush to greet visitors at the same time! But I’d far rather have to try to get people to tone down their enthusiasm a little than be in a church where no one was interested in greeting new people. I went to one small church where I was told “We don’t like visitors – we’d rather just be by ourselves”. Compared to that, I’m grateful that the worst our visitors get is being offered a coffee 10 times in as many minutes 😂

        Reply
  3. Jo R

    It seems like we need to be very clear and specific about what “good” means in relation to worship, children’s ministry, youth ministry, etc.

    Do we mean popular? Upbeat? Growing numerically? Entertaining?

    Or do we mean people are growing in Christlikeness? That worship is allowing us to grow closer to God and to one another? That we are seeking to serve one another more? That we bearing one another’s burdens? That we are feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, ministering to the sick?

    Frequency in sex is so much easier to quantify than the quality of the overall marriage, so that’s what too many people focus on.

    Same with too much in church. “Our numbers are growing!” is much easier to say compared to evaluating how well people are growing more like Jesus, then getting them the help they need to keep maturing.

    Reply
  4. Marina

    This makes a lot of sense. Although, do you have any advice for single people who sometimes think of finding another church? We have no children or spouse to add to a new church’s population. And for myself personally, I don’t actually have any real friends at my current church, so I have no one to come with me except for 1 or 2 family members who I know won’t leave (we all stayed through one pastor with a temper already, my family is the “you stay committed to a church” sort). The current pastor is better, but I don’t know. It’s not really “bad” for me here, but I feel like I don’t click with people at my church. The only Sunday school classes for my age range are a couples’ class and my current one where the women are all my Mom’s age or older. Yes, they are pleasant mostly, but I’m getting sick of sitting through very simple bible lessons and listening to various versions of semi-political “what is wrong with the world these days” pearl clutching. Trying to add to these discussions would be…awkward, especially with our age difference. I wonder if the dissonance is because I like learning about theology and church history, while I almost never hear those topics brought up? Plus, I don’t really have anyone else who shares my hobbies or interests. And no, I have no interest in becoming a teacher myself to try to add to any discussion: all the people at my church to my knowledge are very much Southern Baptist (to one degree or another) who rarely look at anything outside the denomination or typical “Christian” media. I highly doubt I would ever be taken seriously enough to make any changes. Plus, my Mom is one of my family members attending, and I’m fairly sure it would only embarrass her if I made any obvious waves (I think I already embarrass her sometimes in our class with some of my comments).

    Sorry for the word dump, but like I said: No one I know at my church who has even similar interests.

    Reply
    • Wild Honey

      This is what I’ve learned from attending different churches over the years and lots of reading on the subject. And from finally finding a church that feels like “home,” after many years of bouncing around.

      Change will only happen if leadership is on board with it. If leadership is ok with the way things are, do not expect any meaningful change.

      Just because a church isn’t toxic, doesn’t mean it is healthy. It is ok to leave an unhealthy church, particularly if leadership or the critical mass of congregation members has no desire to change (see note above).

      Even healthy churches cannot meet the needs of every single person. The good ones recognize this and, while they may be sad to see you leave, will ultimately want you to be where you are growing in maturity and your relationship with God.

      Single people are valuable for their own sakes. You do not need a spouse or children to be a loved and contributing member of a community. If a church operates otherwise, that is a potential sign of unhealth. (As a side note, there is no guarantee that just because one spouse attends a church, both will.)

      It can take a really long time to find a good church fit. Because sometimes it takes a few months of attending a particular church for patterns (both good and bad) to emerge. It’s ok to take your time.

      Sometimes churches change. Sometimes that’s for the worse, and sometimes that’s for the better. Don’t be afraid to check out churches you may have known from a while ago, but a few years may have passed, especially if there’s been a change in leadership.

      Regarding being “committed” to a church… at some point this can turn a specific church into an idol (pun very intentional). Yes, there is value in being committed to a marriage or a job or a church or a friendship, for example. But if the relationship turns out over time to be more one-sided than not, that’s not good for the long-term health of EITHER party. Yes, all relationships bring with them at least some sense of obligation. But, if I’m channeling Marie Kondo, does it also bring you joy?

      Reply
      • Marina

        It’s kind of a “I’m not sure if it’s me or the church” situation. My Mom (who I go to church with) enjoys our Sunday school class, and this was the church we were with when we lost my Dad to cancer. It’s just…I know people always say befriend people outside your age group and interests, but how much difference is too much, if that makes sense? I’m a C. S. Lewis loving nerd in a “If you don’t like football and Hallmark movies, good luck” church.
        The singles question was because I see Shiela’s suggestion about how moving to a new church can revive a smaller congregation. It is a good point, but the only way I see that working is if you bring numbers with you, something that singles simply don’t have (and with little desire for marriage and no desire for children, there is not even the potential for that on my part.). Otherwise, one person will probably have little effect on even a tiny congregation. Plus, at least at my church, people always talk about getting more families with children in church, and most outreach I’ve seen focuses mainly on families with children. Might be why I’m one of the only singles in my age range, huh?😅
        There is an Episcopalian church literally across the street I’ve been curious about before, plus I’ve been thinking of trying a liturgical church after hearing of some other Baptist misfits liking them more than they thought they would. It’s just, I’m concerned about awkward questions both at church and home unless I have something specific like “this church has a bible study on biblical archeology I’d like to go to”. When I say most of my church knows little of outside of our denomination, I mean it! Most probably have no idea what a liturgy even is, and there is a high chance of “is it really christian?” suspicion. Our current pastor even introduced singing the Doxology, but I doubt most have any idea of what it is other than another hymn. Plus, we had a lot of people leave before a former pastor was asked to resign, and people are still kind of on alert about “losing” more. Also, all the members of that Episcopal church I have seen have been elderly and I’m really worried about ending up in a church version of my Sunday school class.😝

        Reply
        • Angharad

          I can only speak from my own perspective, but we would LOVE to have a single person join our congregation, especially a single person who is keen to go deep in their faith and be actively involved in church. We have a new church member who isn’t single, but her partner and kids have zero interest in faith and never darken the doors of a church so she’s ‘single in church’, and she has been such a breath of fresh air for us. She’s enthusiastic and keen to learn and grow in her faith, and her positive attitude and willingness to join in has been a huge encouragement to us. So please don’t think you don’t have anything to offer a church just because you are going on your own. Also, a church that is only interested in couples and families because they boost numbers more is probably not going to be a healthy church for you to attend anyway – or for those families to attend either, come to that!

          As for ‘how much difference is too much’, that’s going to depend on the person. The fact that you are asking the question suggests that the difference is too much for you in your current situation. I think it’s probably got more to do with attitude than age – I reckon if you found an 80-something C. S. Lewis nerd in your church, you’d probably feel far more at home than you would with a bunch of singles your age who know nothing about Lewis and care less.

          Perhaps you can try out one or two churches with the excuse that you are seeking to widen your understanding of different church types (which happens to be true)? Or maybe just be honest and say you feel you might be called to a different church and are seeking the Lord’s guidance on this? Keep praying and God will show you where you need to be x

          Reply
          • Tim

            I second all of this!

    • Angharad

      Pray about it and then maybe try visiting a few potential churches. The worst that is going to happen is that you will know a little bit more about some of the other churches in your area, which will enable you to pray for them more effectively. And just maybe, you will find a new spiritual home.

      As for commitment, it doesn’t have to be for life! It’s good to have a church that is ‘yours’, where you fellowship regularly. People who ‘church hop’ all the time don’t build up those links with church family because they are constantly moving from one to another. And also, if everyone did that, there would be no committed folk to help out! But sometimes, you need to move on, especially if the season you’re in changes. I used to live in an area where I had a wide network of friends, and I enjoyed being in a church that had really sound teaching, in depth weekly Bible studies etc, even though I didn’t have any close friends there. But when I moved to an area where I didn’t know anyone, I deliberately sought ought a church that was very friendly and welcoming, even though I found the teaching a little on the light side (although still sound), because I felt that I could ‘top up’ the teaching with home study or online sermons, but I was desperate for Christian friends. Nothing ‘wrong’ with either church, I just needed different things for the different stages in my life.

      Reply
      • Marina

        Maybe you’re right about being in a different season. And I might check out some podcasts as well. Although, visiting other churches might be awkward for me. Like I said in my reply to Wild Honey, it might mean awkward questions both at home and church, and lots and lots of explaining about why I’m trying other denominations.

        Reply
        • Angharad

          Sometimes, we have to deal with awkwardness in order to move on. If you’re worried about the reaction from your church leadership, it might be worth just telling them that you are considering moving on. We had a family who moved to another church last year – they had teen children (the only teens in our church) and felt that they needed to go somewhere where their kids could connect with other teens. While we were really sad to lose them, we 100% supported them in going because it was right for them. If your church leadership truly cares about you, they will want you to be in a church where you can thrive, even if that means they have to deal with the sadness of losing you.

          Reply
        • Nethwen

          Could you schedule interviews with someone from church leadership in the different churches? That way, you could meet at a time different from Sunday service and screen out churches where you disagree with too much of their theology and doctrine.

          Maybe you could lay the groundwork for visiting other churches with fewer questions from your church if you start talking a lot about how God loves everyone, even the early Christians had disagreements, and anything else that you think will reinforce the idea that people don’t have to be exactly like you to be faithfully serving God. Then, when you start visiting other places, you can link it back to your growing understanding that God loves all types of Christians and you want to experience the variety of Christian expression.

          If you get pushback along the lines of “X aren’t Christian,” if you’re brave, you might calmly say, “If this church has given me such shallow teaching that visiting other church traditions will destroy my faith, then that’s a problem with the teaching at this church, not me visiting other places.”

          Someone who is better at diplomacy could probably suggest a gentler script.

          Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Honestly, if you’re not “clicking” with the people in your church, you need to find a new church! I think for single people especially church should be a place where you can make meaningful relationships.

      It sounds like you may fit better into a different denomination? And I’ve found that joining serving teams is a great way to meet people. You really sound like you have so much to offer! I do hope you’re able to find a place where you can make rich relationships.

      Reply
  5. K.M.

    This post really resonated with me. Especially the thought that going to church is good, until it isn’t.

    My husband and I attended a wonderful church, and I’d say it’s mostly still good. It’s still growing. But we had to leave.

    But what makes it hard is that while it’s still a good enough church, there was at least one lady and mother there who is essentially a mean girl. She gets jealous of every pregnant woman, every pregnant woman who is going to have a daughter, every person who gets a job in her field of work, and until last year (when she and her husband bought a house), every young person who owned a house. She made going to church incredibly unsafe. (Not to mention the side effects of anxiety, exhaustion, and so much more that a bunch of us other women have experienced because of her.) She’s also involved in the kids’ program, so if we stayed she would’ve interacted with my daughter. That was a huge red flag for me.

    The leadership knows about her. The people in charge know about her. We’ve had the meetings. There’s enough of us who have spoken up. And nothing has been done. It’s been heartbreaking because my brain says that if this church is actually good enough, how can they just let this problem go on for years? (It’s been 5 or 6 years, at least!) And they talk about being missionaries to the city, but what about those of us who were already faithful members? But if it’s not a good church, why is it still growing?

    Anyway, since leaving, my health has improved tremendously. I know it was the right choice, and I’m mostly at peace with it. But sometimes it just bothers me. Sometimes church hurts more than it helps. Sometimes it’s safe until it’s not. Your blog has given me courage to walk away and to find my fellowship elsewhere.

    Thanks for reading!

    Reply
  6. Laura

    In all the churches I have attended throughout adult life, I have not found one that is perfectly theological or biblically sound. I know that perfect churches do not exist, but I feel that I need to stay in fellowship with other believers. I also realize that not one single Christian thinks exactly the same, but I do feel pressure that I have to believe certain things such as one-side submission in marriage, end times doctrines, a literal 6-day earth creation, etc or I’m not really a Christian. It does make perfect sense that not one Christian thinks exactly the same; that’s why there are so many different Christian denominations and lots of churches in a single town, even a small town.

    When I was younger, I was all for the worship music and felt like I was at a concert. I chose larger churches because I believed I could find a bigger pool of single men. Now that I’m in my late 40s and soon to be getting married, I just don’t care about that stuff anymore. Just the other day, I mentioned to my mom and my fiance (in different conversations) that I’m at a place in my life where I would rather listen to a Bible scholar on a podcast than a pastor. I’ve found that the pastors I’ve sat under don’t seem to have as much Bible knowledge. They may, but when they preach, they just repeat stuff they’ve heard in seminary (usually denomination-based) years ago, they don’t often mention the context of the verses such as when it was written and to whom and the culture of that time. I know of some pastors who did not attend Bible college; they just studied the Bible and had the gift of gab which made them charismatic in their teaching/preaching.

    Since COVID happened and I could not attend large gatherings for two years due to living with my mom (who has health issues), I have become more disillusioned with the church. I am thankful to be a leader in Celebrate Recovery where we have two churches in town who do it. I feel like CR ministry is where I fit in most. I have also learned that I do not have to rely on one weekly sermon to nourish me spiritually. I think a lot of Christians rely on that weekly sermon, then they think that’s all they need for the week.

    I have found a somewhat healthier church within the last year. The husband and wife are co-pastors. There’s another female pastor. The church is small, but there’s a variety of age groups and plenty of activities and ministries involved. I like that this church has many ministries that help those in need. Still, I am just not a fan of organized religion and never really have been. I just want more of Jesus.

    Reply
    • Winter

      I empathize with your sentiment of just wanting more of Jesus, but if those who trust in, rely upon, & cling to Jesus are actually His Body on earth, wanting more of Jesus would mean wanting more of His Body–your fellow believers–which means some form of corporate worship, fellowship, and service would be part of your desire, too. I see the New Testament teaching us that we can’t be part of the Body of Christ without being connected to the Head (Christ, Col. 1:18); and the converse is true: If we’re connected to the Head, then we’re part of the Body. I’ll be praying for you to find which part of the Body God wants you to worship, serve, and fellowship with.

      Reply
      • Tim

        Slightly off topic, but uour comment reminded me of this, from Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

        The believer feels no shame, as though he were still living too much in the flesh, when he yearns for the physical presence of other Christians. Man was created a body. The Son of God appeared on earth in the body. He was raised in the body. In the sacrament the believer receives the Lord Christ in the body. And the resurrection of the dead will bring about the perfected fellowship of God’s spiritual, physical creatures. The believer therefore lauds the creator,the redeemer, God, father son and holy spirit, for the bodily presence of a brother. The prisoner, the sick person, the Christian in exile, sees in the companionship of a fellow Christian, a physical sign of the gracious presence of the triune God. Visitor and visited in loneliness recognise in each other the Christ who is present in the body. They receive and meet each other as one meets the Lord, in reverence, humility and joy.

        But if there is so much blessing and joy even in a single encounter of brother with brother, how inexhaustible are the riches that open up for those who by God’s will are privileged to live in the daily fellowship of life with other Christians.

        Reply
    • Nessie

      I had a new Christian once tell me that I must not really be a Christian because I did not crave the loud worship music and flashiness that she desired in a church service. I enjoyed and grew much more in a small group setting, whereas she cared very little for that. In part, introvert/extrovert, in other parts, personalities played into this. Nothing against corporate worship but as different parts of the same body, it makes sense that we might have different preferences and capacities in how we grow closer to and celebrate Christ.

      Also, if you are an empath, you may be like me and find that, depending on who is preaching or leading worship, etc., you may be picking up on some of their issues. (I say this having been at a church led by a narcisist for years, but it could just be that person is going through some hard things and you are picking up on their unease.)

      Reply
      • Laura

        Nessie,

        I do see how personality plays a part in the type of church that one prefers. I am more of an introvert so I prefer to be in a smaller group setting. At one time, I liked being in a larger church because it was easier for me to hide, yet I also loved the worship music and the bigger selection of single men. Though, I never found any single men of interest when I went to these bigger churches. I may have been interested in some of them, but the feeling was never mutual.

        I have attended churches where the senior pastor was a narcissist, though I did not realize it until long after I left. Awhile back, I returned to that church to visit and I wondered why I had spent four years there.

        Reply
  7. exwifeofasexaddict

    Sheila, you say that most people believe healthy things, even when they go to a toxic church. But what I’m seeing in my location is that the churches with toxic teachings are the ones growing. My church has its problems, but on subjects of women, marriage, family, it’s healthy, but we keep shrinking. We just can’t figure out what to do about it. It’s very sad, and exhausting for the leadership.

    Reply
    • Angharad

      How do you define ‘growing’?

      If it’s just numerically, it’s not really surprising. Some people relish toxic teaching, especially if it reinforces their own beliefs. Larger churches also often have more to ‘give’ people attending, in terms of glitz, glamour and freebies. They’re more likely to have ‘big name’ speakers at their events. There’s a buzz involved in being in a big crowd with lots going on.

      I don’t believe a church is ‘growing’ unless there is evidence of spiritual growth. People becoming more Christlike. That’s true growth. And that can happen in a church of any size.

      We’re a small fellowship, but we’r seeing people who’ve been believers for decades gaining the courage to speak about their faith to others for the first time ever. People whose idea of following Jesus was just turning up to church on Sunday realising the difference he can make in their lives every day. People who’ve read the Bible for years out of a sense of duty getting excited about it and wanting to understand it more. We may not be seeing a huge increase in numbers, but I would say we are most definitely growing!

      Reply
      • Nessie

        I echo this.

        We left a previous church when it was growing well in attendance count. The music was becoming more concert-like, the kids’ programs were larger and trying to be more accommodating to some in the neuro-diverse community (that part was great!), but the sermons were becoming more watered down and few in the congregation were living Christ-like lives outside the walls of the church building.

        We switched to a church that is about 1/8th the size… while not perfect, all in my family are growing more in our faith, understanding, and character than we did at the larger church. Because we can know everyone’s name, it is much easier to feel like we know others enough to open up and be vulnerable with one another. That, I feel, is often lacking at larger churches.

        It is disheartening to see toxic churches growing while smaller ones shrink. Could someone ask those who left why they chose to leave with an approach of “we want to see if we can change anything that may need changed?” There may be nothing you need to change, but with a humble heart, those who left may give some answers at least.

        Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I think this is so true. And I think there are a whole variety of reasons (that would take too long to enumerate), but it’s that we’re also very enamoured with the entertainment model of church, and with amazing worship and flashy kids’ programs. And it tends to be the larger churches that have this.

      It’s really hard, I know. And the problem is that people start going to these churches not realizing they’re toxic, and then 10 years down the road they’re so invested, but they’re also really hurt and burned out.

      Reply
  8. Willow

    I was active-duty military for many years, and now I travel constantly for my job working on ships, and I visit friends and family whenever I can, so I’ve attended a lot of churches of different flavors. By far, the most uncomfortable one was one where I’d been hired as a musician. The pastor was a hot mess, but I needed the money, so I treated it as a job and sought spiritual food elsewhere.

    I was so excited when my home church, which I started attending when I was 19, went online and then hybrid during the pandemic. I can now fellowship with my home “community” wherever I am in the world, and in whatever time zone – sometimes it’s even a different day of the week, I’m so many time zones over!

    But the coolest part has been to watch my church, and particularly my pastor, grow into a whole new kind of faith practice, and our community evolve in Christian love along with it. We’d always been a unique church – we met in a dance hall, a pub, and a park at various times – but after many people and pastors moved away, the remaining pastor was very professorial, and he gave long dissertations on books of the Bible, verse-by-verse. But we have grown in Christ, and now our services are egalitarian and discussion-focused and engaging, sort of like a guided Bible study with plenty of (good) music, where we are attentive to listening as the Spirit leads through any and all of us. And afterwards, our small group spends up to an hour sharing our needs and praying for each other. We are all working on learning how to love like Jesus loves. “As for us, we know that we have passed from death to life because we love each other, brothers and sisters.” 1 John 1:14

    Everyone is welcome! bethechurch.net

    Reply
  9. Rebecca

    Several years ago my husband and I brought our two preschoolers to a small, mostly retired congregation. There were other thriving churches in the area where there were other young families but we decided to join this one to “help.”

    The experience was so battering that when we staggered out three and a half years later one of us was seriously doubting the existence of God all together. It’s taken us five years in a new place (and a lot of counseling) to start considering “helping” in any church ministry.

    I agree with the sentiment of this post, but I would like to offer a heavy caveat: if you’re going to consider joining the small church that isn’t growing, be curious about why it isn’t growing. It might be because they aren’t flashy and just need some more hands on deck. But it might be because it is toxic. In this instance, letting it die out is the best thing to do.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Very good warning!

      Reply

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