7 Dangerous Signs Your Church Has Become an Insider Church

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You may have noticed something.

Over the last few years, church leaders have incessantly focused on “getting people back in the building.”

That’s completely understandable, especially given how hard it was to rebuild churches after COVID. No one likes to preach to an empty room or watch the mission sputter and falter. 

Now, what’s somewhat understandable, is that the buzzword that’s emerged from this is discipleship.

You can’t talk to a church leader for more than five minutes without someone bringing up discipleship, or more precisely the seeming crisis in discipleship we’re experiencing. After all, there’s been some kind of ‘crazy’ unleashed among radical Christians. One that we haven’t seen in our lifetime. 

Granted, healthy discipleship is critical to a healthy future

But what doesn’t get noticed is that very few people are talking about evangelism anymore.  It’s almost dropped out of every leader’s vocabulary. Sure, Evangelicalism has fallen on hard times, but evangelism should never be in question when you’re talking about the mission of the local church. If churches stop trying to reach new people with the hope and love of Christ, they function more like clubs than they do like churches. SHARE ON X

A full room is one thing. A fulfilled mission is quite another. 

I worry that over the last few years, churches have begun to suffer from another round of insider church—church that’s about gathering the already-convinced, discipling them, and calling it a day, rather than trying to reach a community that desperately needs the Gospel.

So what are the warning signs that your church might be part of the rise of the insider church? Here are seven:

1. You Can’t Win at Evangelism, So You Grow By Consolidating Christians

If you look at a lot of church growth today, it’s not growth nearly as much as it is consolidation. SHARE ON X

What I mean by consolidation is that it’s simply moving existing Christians from various churches into a growing church.

That’s not always done intentionally, but if you look at the data, there are fewer churches every year, and often people who attended dying or stuck churches change churches to join the one church that’s growing in town.

Consolidation has happened in many sectors in the recent past, and it’s happening in the church today. 

Main streets were ravaged in the 1980s and 1990s when Walmart and other big box retailers set up shop on the edge of town.

Similarly, the book market consolidated in the 1990s and early 2000s when Barnes and Noble and Amazon emerged. Many small, independent bookstores just couldn’t make it in the face of stiff competition from multinationals and shut their doors. 

While Walmart, big box retailers, Barnes and Noble, and Amazon experienced massive growth, the raw number of shoppers didn’t double or triple overnight. People just shifted their loyalty from smaller shops to the big titans. That’s what market consolidation does. 

Fast-forward to what’s happening in the church today, and you might see a similar phenomenon.

A growing number of church leaders are experiencing rapid growth, but the real question is, ‘How’? 

Is it because they’re truly reaching unreached people, or because the other churches in town aren’t doing as well or shutting their doors?Church growth isn’t always the result of evangelism. Often, it’s the result of market consolidation. Take a careful look at your growth. What does it tell you?SHARE ON X

If you take a careful look at your growth, what story does it tell you? 

2. There’s Collateral Damage to Your Church’s Stand on Culture Wars… The Cost Is Non-Christians

There’s undoubtedly a culture war happening these days in the West. 

There are at least three ways to tell if your church is engaged in the culture wars:

  1. Ideology is almost more important than theology.
  2. The local headlines of any anti-woke rallying cry are indistinguishable from your theology. 
  3. Anyone who disagrees with your stand on issue ‘X’ is no longer welcome. 

The culture wars are producing some growth in churches. In fact, some of the fastest-growing churches in America right now (some, not all) are anti-woke churches. 

But here’s the problem: If God has all the same opinions your political party does, you’re probably not worshiping God.If God has all the same opinions your political party does, you’re probably not worshiping God.SHARE ON X

Sadly, the collateral damage of many churches engaged in the culture wars is spiritually open unchurched people. 

3. Your Church’s Working Definition of Christian Maturity Centers Around Knowledge

If you study the functional definition of ‘spiritual maturity’ in the North American church, it usually focuses on how much people know about the Christian faith.

If you know the Bible inside out, you’re a mature Christian. That pretty much sums it up, right?

Well, there are two challenges with that.

First, Jesus said that’s the wrong definition. He set love as the mark of an authentic follower, not knowledge. After all, the most knowledgeable religious people of Jesus’ day nailed him to a cross.

Second, the Apostle Paul pointed out that knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. 

The problem with many Christians these days is that we pretend to know everything, but we love no one, with the possible exception of those who believe exactly what we do and act exactly like we do. That’s about as far away from the enemy-love Jesus taught as it gets. The problem with many Christians these days is that we pretend to know everything, but we love no one, with the possible exception of those who believe exactly what we do and act exactly like we do.SHARE ON X

What might happen to the church if love became the standard of our maturity? 

Naturally, it would be a love deeply embedded in truth, but it would be unmistakably a 1 Corinthians 13 love. (1 Corinthians 13 was never a wedding text but the way. It was directed at a church that had forgotten how to love.)

4. You Judge People Who Are Different From You 

Guess what? Unchurched people are different—they should be. Their lives and lifestyles will not reflect your principles or preferences as a follower of Jesus. 

Insider churches have a uniform culture code, down to the dress code, hairstyles, absence of tattoos, jewelry, smells, and skin color of who’s allowed and who’s not. Jesus, of course, is anything but a straight-laced suburban white guy, but often, you’d never know it from our churches. SHARE ON X

Judging someone usually involves feeling superior to them. 

I did a year long devotion on Proverbs from Tim Keller. Throughout the year, Keller emphasized again and again how Proverbs cautions us against sensing ourselves to be superior to other people. 

That convicted me deeply, and I still struggle not to judge the person who dresses differently than me, has more emotional ‘problems’ than me, or doesn’t possess the savvy I think he or she should possess. It’s ugly to admit that in public, but I’m a work in progress on that. 

And I think churches often have no category for people who are from the other side of the track or any spectrum of choice. 

I’m reminded that you can’t judge someone and love them at the same time. And Jesus also had something to say about judging others. You can’t judge someone and love them at the same time.SHARE ON X

If you judge people who are different than you, you’ll forever struggle to reach new people. 

5. You Keep Singing Insider Songs

All right, let’s move on to some more peripheral but still important signs that your church might be an insider church: Music

Worship music evolves every decade, but some of the most popular worship songs of this decade are almost incomprehensible to new people.

Without pointing fingers at particular artists, are you really creating a welcoming environment for unchurched people when the first three songs you sing require a degree in Biblical Hebrew to understand the 17 names of God you cover in 3 verses or theological concepts so niche that even seminary grads are left asking, “What?”  Let’s face it, pastors, thanks to certain music choices, often even most of your believers have no idea what they’re singing. SHARE ON X

Similarly, emotional language is all the rage again, with tons of lyrics about the emotional experience singers are theoretically having with God. Again, maybe that’s cool for a night of worship, but what if half your church is new to the faith? 

You think differently when you’re actually reaching post-Christian, unchurched people. 

6. You Have No Real First Step for People New To Faith

There’s a world of difference between having a first step for people who are new to your church and having a first step for people who are new to faith.SHARE ON X

New to your church means you simply need to integrate people into the community and/or invite them to serve and give. All of that is great.

But when someone’s new to faith, where do they go? 

If your step points them to a group where people with well-worn leather bibles have no idea how to have a conversation with someone who doesn’t even own a Bible, that’s not a good enough answer. 

Judgment and conversations that shut down the spiritually open are the best way to make sure they never come back again — not just to your church, but to any church. 

Probably the best forum I’ve seen for helping non-Christians interact with the Christian faith these days is Alpha (not a paid endorsement).

The dialogue that’s fostered through Alpha not only helps lead non-believers to faith, it opens the eyes of believers on how to have conversations with people who are just starting out. Everyone wins. 

7. You Have No Heart For Your City

It’s so easy to make church a club. Even fast-growing churches that are consolidating Christians from other churches can easily become a type of ‘club.’ The church should be the only organization that exists for the sake of its non-members. SHARE ON X

One of the best ways to express this is by showing compassion, love, and support for the community you’re part of. And it’s best expressed without strings attached.

Fortunately, there are thousands of churches that love on the unhoused, support schools and children in tough neighborhoods, care for women in crisis, work to end human trafficking, and support causes in their community that would otherwise go unheeded and unfunded. 

One of the principle ways the early church advanced so rapidly was its exceptional heart to care for others, for people that society deemed unworthy, unwelcome, and unacceptable 

If that’s absent in your church, it’s one more sign that you’ve succumbed to being an insider church.

The Best Way to Tell If Your Church is An Insider Church Is ________

The good news is that churches that resist the gravitational pull to become an insider church have a remarkable future, not just in terms of potential growth, but in terms of potential impact and the ability to truly fulfill its mission. 

Want to know whether you’re really reaching unchurched people or just recycling saints?

On your welcome card, ask one simple question.

I attend church:

  • Never
  • Once a year
  • Once a month
  • Most weeks

Count those who answer “never” or “once a year” as unchurched. Count those who answer “Once a month” or “most weeks” as churched.

My rule for a church that’s really reaching unchurched people is that 50% of its first-time attendees should self-describe as unchurched (as defined above).

Below that, you’ve got work to do.  But the good news is that we live in a spiritually open generation. Church leaders who understand and are ready to embrace those far from God have a bright future.