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6 Warning Signs Your Church Culture is Toxic

church culture toxic

Every church has a culture. But how do you know if your church culture is toxic?

More importantly, how would you know whether you’re creating a toxic church culture as a leader?

I’ve interacted with many church leaders (and readers of this blog) and the sad reality is that there is no shortage of toxic church culture stories and experiences.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. And it certainly isn’t always that way.

Leaders are the architects of culture.

You create a culture whether you intend to or not.

Part of shaping a healthy culture is being aware of the signs of toxic culture and the signs of health.  I blogged about the early warning signs that a person may be toxic here. But organizations have different signs than individuals do.

So how do you know if your church culture is toxic? Believe it or not, the Bible gives incredible practical advice. The longer I lead, the more I use Galatians 5: 16-23 as a health check for me personally and for anything I lead. It describes what’s healthy and what’s not, for me as a leader and for the church.

Below, I outline 6 warning signs that are practical applications of that text.

Leaders are the architects of culture. You create a culture whether you intend to or not. Click To Tweet

1. The politicians win

One sure sign of a toxic culture is that you have to play politics to get anything done.

You know things have gotten political in your church when:

Decisions rarely get made the way they’re supposed to be made.

Most decisions happen outside of meetings or any agreed-upon process.

You can’t get a yes without offering something in return.

You have to continually lobby to be heard.

If you’re always jockeying, lobbying and courting favour to get the right decision made, it’s a sign your organization is unhealthy.

In the local church, having to play politics to win is a sure sign there’s sin.

When you do what you say you’re going to do the way you said you’re going to do it, you bring health to an organization.

In the local church, having to play politics to win is a sure sign there's sin. Click To Tweet

2. What gets said publicly is different from what happened privately

Another sign things are becoming toxic is when what gets said publicly is different than what happened privately.

When there’s spin on every issue and nothing can be said publicly without ‘agreeing’ on what gets said first, things are bad.

For sure, there are times where a situation is delicate and you will want to ‘agree’ on what gets said publicly to honour everyone involved, but in too many organizations few things that get done privately can be announced the same way publicly.

And to be sure…when you’re crafting any kind of a public statement, you want to pay attention to the words you use and perhaps even find agreement on them.

But the end product should never be the opposite or even different than what actually happened

I have good fortune of being part of several healthy organizations. I love it when people pull me aside and ask (in hushed tones), “So what’s the real story?” and I get to tell them “Actually, that is the real story.”

Living in that kind of culture really helps you sleep at night too.

When what gets said publicly is different than what happened privately, things become toxic. Click To Tweet

3. You deal with conflict by talking about people, not to people

The golden rule of conflict is this: talk to the person you have an issue with, not about them.

In too many churches and organizations, the opposite is true.

People talk about people rather than to them.

The church should be the BEST organization in the world in dealing with conflict. Often, we can be the worst.

The next time you want to talk about someone (i.e. gossip), talk to them instead. If you can’t or won’t, there’s something wrong. Pay attention to that.

Want to know what’s wrong most of the time? You’re gossiping. That’s what’s wrong.

Trying to resolve conflict by gossiping about the person you’re angry with is like trying to extinguish a fire with jet fuel. It only inflames things.

Sure, occasionally you need advice from a friend about how to approach a situation. When I’m in that situation, I try to assume the person we’re talking about will hear everything I say. Even if they don’t, the fact that they could speaks volumes.

Do I always get it right? No, but it’s a great integrity check, and I try to live by it.

If you want more, I outline 7 steps for dealing with conflict in a healthy way in this post.

Trying to resolve conflict by gossiping is like trying to extinguish a fire with jet fuel. Click To Tweet

4. Church fights are normal

Conflict is normal. Church fights shouldn’t be.

Yet so many congregations are in perpetual fighting mode. One day it’s the music. The next it’s the carpet. The next it’s some staff member everyone ganged up on.

Failure to get point #3 right above is the way churches come to see fights as normal.

Another reason churches fight regularly is because personal preferences have trumped organizational mission.

Churches fight regularly when personal preferences trump organizational mission. Click To Tweet

Essentially, members decide that what they want is more important than what others want or the church needs to make progress.

When that happens, it essentially pits one selfish person or group against others.

And when that happens, everything dissolves.

If your church is in conflict there should zero mystery as to why it isn’t growing.

If your church is in conflict there should be zero mystery as to why it isn't growing. Click To Tweet

5. There’s an entrenched ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality

The church should always be a ‘we,’ not an ‘us’ and ‘them.’

Fundamentally, being a Christian causes us to die to ourselves and rise to something bigger than ourselves.

Some Christians forget that.

Whether the ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality exists between factions in your church or between your church and the community, it’s always fatal to health and growth.

The job of a leader is to raise vision high enough and urgently enough for all of us to become bigger than any of us.

United, the church will always accomplish more than we will divided.

The job of a leader is to raise vision high enough for all of us to become bigger than any of us. Click To Tweet

6. No one takes responsibility

So who’s going to fix your church?

No one.


Anybody but me.

As long as things are someone else’s fault, things will never get better.

As long as things are someone else's fault, things will never get better. Click To Tweet

A final sign your church is toxic is that no one takes responsibility. Instead, people just blame everyone else.

You can blame the culture, the pastor, the leader or anybody, but until you take responsibility, things will never get better.

Blame is the opposite of responsibility. Leaders who stop the blame cycle and take responsibility have the potential to usher in real change.

But, you say…”I’m not responsible for all of it.” True.

But you’re likely responsible for some of it. Own what you can. Own all you can.

If no one else does, still take responsibility.

You’ll get healthier. And if they don’t, you’ll leave and will eventually join a healthier church.

Health attracts health.

You may not be responsible for all of it. But you're likely responsible for some of it. Own that. Click To Tweet

Want a healthier church in 2020…


So you would love to see your church grow in 2020, but the question is how? 

Naturally, I can’t make a church grow and you can’t make a church grow. Only God can do that.

But I believe you can position your church to grow. You can knock down the barriers that keep you from growing. You can eliminate the things that keep your church from growing and implement some strategies that will help you reach far more people.

That’s what I’d love to help you do in the Church Growth Masterclass.  

The Church Growth Masterclass is designed to help you jumpstart a stuck church, or help your growing church reach even more people. 

It’s everything I wish I knew about church growth when I got into ministry more than 20 years ago.

In the Church Growth Masterclass you’ll learn:

  • The 10 reasons your church isn’t growing
  • Why even committed church-goers aren’t attending as often as before
  • How to tell if your church leaders are getting burned out
  • The five keys to your church better impacting millennials.
  • What to do when a church wants to grow … but not change
  • 5 essentials for church growth
  • 5 disruptive church trends to watch—and how to respond
  • How to increase church attendance by increasing engagement.

You can learn more and gain instant access to the course today.

Really hoping 2020 is a year of growth and impact for you and your church!

Want More?

Want more?

Craig Groeschel has a fantastic podcast episode on culture you can listen to here.

In the meantime, what are some signs of a toxic culture you see?

How would you make it better?


  1. Mark D on November 27, 2019 at 8:41 am

    I have been directed by God to tell my testimony to the congregation in church, which involves true healing of long term illness, and also speak on Grace. I am not being allowed to do this by the Pastor. The Pastor has told me that people would find it hard to believe I have been healed, and giving such a testimony, is not done in his church. This is weird coming from someone from a pentecostal background. I asked the pastor if his church is a Bible teaching church? If so healing is prevalent in the Bible, we are to rejoice this, and tell many, often.
    The pastor has offered to help me find a church where i would fit in, I asked him if he was saying i was not welcome in his church any more, but he avoided the question. I asked him to be honest, and tell me if I were no longer welcome, but the question was avoided.
    Given that this church believes in the Trinity, i asked if the Pastor believed in the Holy spirit himself.
    Not all Pastors are Christian, some merely have a piece of paper.
    A church cannot grow properly without proper leadership, it is more than just a numbers game.
    Do you think this is a spiritually dead church?
    Or is it a bit toxic?

  2. Ribael Otaki on April 8, 2017 at 5:15 am

    Talk about self examination. Right off the bat, I see myself as a politician. Trying to figure out the best response to people’s questions or even when getting stuff done.
    I always try to come off as a nice rather then just being nice.
    Definitely need to work on myself a lot more.

    My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment.
    James 3:1 NKJV

    Scary thought.
    Thank you for this article

  3. RADHINK on March 29, 2016 at 10:02 am

    Carey, I appreciate so much of what God shares through you! Thanks brother! I am a pastor in a very small town, rural, country type church & have been blessed & challenged by many of your blogs.
    I subscribed to the e-mail list, is it still possible to receive the PDF of your mission, vision and cultural values?

  4. A Amos Love on March 25, 2016 at 8:45 am


    Thanks for the response.

    And, I agree when you write…
    “We don’t get to pick and choose the scriptures that we like….
    We kinda need to be in submission to the entirety of scripture.”

    Seems, in the Bible…
    Jesus has a unique take on leaders for His Disciples – “ONE”

    Haven’t you ever wondered why? In the Bible?
    Jesus taught His Disciples NOT to be called “Leaders?”
    For you have “ONE” leader – the Christ. And NONE did… 😉

    Mat 23:10-12 NASB – New American Standard Bible.
    Do NOT be called leaders; for “ONE” is your Leader, that is, Christ.
    But the greatest among you shall be your “Servant.”
    Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled;
    and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.

    Humble = having a modest or low estimate of ones own importance.

    Do you know many “pastor/leaders?” or “church leaders?”
    Who have a low estimate of their own importance? 😉

    Jesus, in the Bible, taught **His Disciples**
    NOT to be called **Leaders** and NONE did.

    Rom 1:1 Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ,
    Php 1:1 Paul and Timotheus, the servants of Jesus Christ,
    Col 4:12 Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ,
    Tit 1:1 Paul, a servant of God,
    Jas 1:1 James, a servant of God
    2Pe 1:1 Simon Peter, a servant

    **His Disciples** all called themselves **Servants.**
    None called themselves “Leaders.” None? None.
    None called themselves “Servant-Leader.” None.

    If Jesus instructed *His Disciples* NOT to call themselves “leaders?”
    And someone calls them self a “leader?”
    Allows others to call them “leader?”

    Are they one of “His Disciples?”

    Why isn’t what Jesus said important? 😉

    And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold:
    them also I must bring, and they shall **hear MY voice;**
    and there shall be “ONE” fold, and “ONE” shepherd.
    John 10:16

    One Fold – One Shepherd – One Voice – One Leader

    {{{{{{ Jesus }}}}}}

  5. […] you want to drill down further, I outline 6 warning signs that your church culture is toxic in this post. And I outline 6 early warning signs that a person is toxic in this […]

  6. A Amos Love on March 21, 2016 at 10:55 am

    “6 Warning Signs Your Church Culture is Toxic”

    Wouldn’t one of the “signs of a toxic culture” be…
    When a “Titled” pastor/leader/reverend…
    Thinks, and calls The Church of God, “My Church?”

    When WE, His Ekklesia, His Called Out Ones, His Church…
    His Sheep, His Disciples, His Servants… Belong to…

    The “ONE” who purchased WE, His Church, with His Blood…

    The “ONE” Shepherd – The “ONE” Leader…

    {{{{{{ Jesus }}}}}}

  7. A Amos Love on March 21, 2016 at 10:53 am

    “6 Warning Signs Your Church Culture is Toxic”

    Wouldn’t one of the “signs of a toxic culture” be…
    When someone misappropriates the “Title/Position”…
    NOT found in the Bible for one of His Disciples…

    Let me NOT, I pray you, accept any man’s person,
    neither let me give “Flattering Titles” unto man.
    For I know NOT to give “Flattering Titles”;
    in so doing my maker would soon take me away.
    Job 32:21 KJV

    In my experience…
    With those who had the “Title/Position” pastor/leader/reverend…
    And the “signs of a toxic culture.”

    “Titles” become “Idols” ……….“Idols” of the heart – Ezek14:1-11 KJV
    “Pastors” become “Masters”…..A No, No. Mat 23:10 KJV, Mat 6:24 KJV
    “Leaders” become “Deceivers”… Isa 3:12 KJV, Isa 9:16 KJV

    • RWilliams on March 24, 2016 at 10:49 am

      You should really read the rest of the New Testament…. Structure was created so that the church could grow and become more like Christ… Bishop, overseer, pastor, elder, deacon…. All terms that the epistles coined for those who oversaw local ministry. If a pastor or leader becomes a “master” or “deceiver” as you say, then they are simply bad pastors or leaders. That doesn’t mean that the Bible doesn’t clearly call for leadership in the church. Those leaders are to be servant leaders as Christ called his disciples to be, but they are called to lead nonetheless.

      Sounds like you have either been burned by a leader(s) in the past, or you don’t want to be led by anyone…. To the first I would say I’m sorry you’ve had such an experience. To the latter I would say disciple making is about both being led and leading. Find someone who you could learn and grow under and also seek to lead someone else in their walk with Christ, pointing them to the Head of the Church all the while.

      We don’t get to pick and choose the scriptures that we like…. We kinda need to be in submission to the entirety of scripture.

      • Mary on June 30, 2017 at 2:51 am

        If you read clearly, Bishops, overseers, pastors and deacons are gifts to edify the body. We have one head of the church and that is Christ. We must not have any idols but serve God alone. The “leaders” you talk about are servants that use their gifts to help. Guess what…We all have gifts and we are all functioning parts of the body. We must be dependent on God not prophets, Bishops or teachers. We should be striving, in our own private time, to have a deep relationship with Christ for ourselves. We have seasoned saints to help the newly saved but we must all be striving for maturity, knowing who we ultimately belong to.

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  10. T Chil on March 19, 2016 at 9:46 am

    Great article. Agree, and unfortunately it happens because money, power, ego run the church. Instead we need to constantly remember transparency, information, clarity, and others are more important than “my” agenda. And, God sees everything, pray! pray! pray!, He will grant discernment and peace.

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    […] 6 Warning Signs Your Church Culture is Toxic—Carey Nieuwhof […]

  17. Arlyn Walters on March 17, 2016 at 12:48 am

    Excellent article! Very needed, thank you!

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