These seven categories are not exhaustive, but are ones that did exist within Israel, as well as New Testament believers and churches. Therefore, these provide an overview of the categories of root sins that cause the erosion and imminent demise of churches.

(1) Ethnocentrism

After the fall of man and the creation of different nations at Babel, a major thrust of Scripture is God’s heart for the nations and his heart to utilize his people to reach the nations. However, especially in the Old Testament, Israel struggled with the sin of ethnocentrism (believing in the superiority of one’s own group). Jonah was one who exemplified the ethnocentric prejudices Israel had against other nations. In the New Testament, Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and Great Commission brought a major paradigm shift to God’s people. Rather than being centripetal in their mission, they were to become centrifugal. In other words, they were to go to the Gentiles. This paradigm shift unsettled and confused many Jews. Even those Jewish believers who accepted this major paradigm shift relapsed into the sin of ethnocentrism. Peter, one of the more prominent New Testament figures, relapsed into this sin, which sparked a rebuke from the apostle Paul. Paul in his letter to the Galatians shares about the time he rebuked Peter for his regression. Paul says, “But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he was eating with Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel… “(Gal 2:11-14).

Peter exemplifies the sinful struggle many people have with ethnocentrism. Many who struggle with this sin cannot handle diversity and crossing racial, national, or socio-economic lines. Ethnocentrism can manifest itself as racism, and racism lacerates the heart of the gospel and thwarts the mission of God. Mark DeYmaz articulates, “Couple it [ethnocentrism] with hate, and racism is born…In either case, the problem with racism [is]…it is sin…Before we can rightly pursue-cross-cultural competence, then, we must recognize that both ethnocentrism and racism are concepts foreign to the kingdom of God….”[1] Many have even pointed out the fact that Sundays are the most segregated day during the week. With communities throughout America rapidly changing demographically (ethnically, socially, and financially), churches that fail to deal with the issue and sin of ethnocentrism will be confronted with decline and imminent death.[2]

(2) Legalism

Jesus promised rest from the labor and heavy burden of legalistic religion (Matt 11:28-29). Legalism is a toxin that can eventually choke the life out of a church as well as prevent new life from entering into a church. This became a major issue in the early church, so much so they held a conference in Jerusalem (Acts 15). Jesus came to alleviate religious legalism, and the early church leaders followed suit. Nevertheless, legalism still subtly makes its way into churches. Mark Dever states, “The Christian life is not a life of legalism. Neither is it a life of licentious self-indulgence. It is a Christlike life.”[3] Bob Russell in his book, When God Builds a Church, writes, “Nothing stifles a church quite like legalism.”[4] Warren Wiersbe comments regarding Romans 7:10-11, “This explains why legalistic Christians and churches do not grow and bear spiritual fruit. They are living by Law, and the Law always kills. Few things are more dead than an orthodox church that is proud of its ‘high standards’ and tries to live up to them in its own energy.”[5]

In their book, UnChristian, David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons write about the perceptions that those outside the church have on those inside the church. These perceptions include how the church is full of hypocritical, unkind, and legalistic people. They express that, “Embracing truth without holding grace in tension leads to harsh legalism, just as grace without truth devolves to compromise.”[6] These authors quote Jeff, a 25 year old, who perceives that, “Christians talk about hating sin and loving sinners, but the way they go about things, they might as well call it what it is. They hate the sin and the sinner.”[7] Also, Kinnaman and Lyons write, “Being judgmental pushes people away from God’s purposes, and people become repulsed by an image of Jesus that is not at all like the real things.”[8] Twenty-first century legalism can range from dress code and varying preferences of moral behavior, to strict denominational adherence and harsh judgment without grace. Harsh strict legalism in churches prevents and detours outsiders from coming into the church. If people are prohibited from coming and assimilating into church, eventually the church will die because of the repulsion of legalism.

(3) Traditionalism

Standing in opposition to the gospel and reaching a fluid transitioning culture is traditionalism. Although change is imminent, many people cling to what has always been rather than adapting to change. An example of this difficulty and sinful ploy to cling to tradition rather than adapting to and contextualizing the gospel, is found in the early church. Jewish believers wanted Gentile believers to be good practicing Jews as well as good Christians. They wanted them to observe Jewish traditions in their festivals and feasts (Gal 4:8-11). Traditionalism can encompass anything from observing days, erecting architecture, style of music, strict polity, ministry programs, and antiquated evangelistic methods. In other words, traditionalism typically can be people’s preferences. Stephen Hasbrouck in the early 20th Century wrote, “Now, when so few pretend to believe in dogma and to follow tradition, when creed and dogma and traditionalism in the church are fast forcing the best men out, and as a prominent theologian has well said, are fast making the church ‘an asylum for drones and imbeciles,’ what lesson has all this for a decadent Christianity which misinterprets the spirit and truth of its great founder? In an age when the rich are in the churches and nearly all the poor are outside,–when organized Christianity has no message for the common people, no vision of social justice, no faith in the healing gospel of Christ,–is it any wonder that the church is fast losing its power to maintain the allegiance of its followers”[9].

In a study conducted among unchristian 16-29 year olds, 78 percent of them viewed the church as ‘old-fashioned.[10] Typically, when churches cling to tradition, they may fail in properly contextualizing the gospel to those they are trying to and to whom they are called to reach.[11] Frank Page writes, “Much of what church had traditionally symbolized suddenly seemed quaint and confining and irrelevant…I have often said that the early church was met with persecution, while the modern-day church is met with a yawn.”[12] Page goes on to articulate, “The institutional church has taken some heavy flak in recent years…But, cultural trends and other outside forces aren’t the true villain here. Yes, the world has not been a welcoming place for the traditional church lately…These challenges give us no excuse for the fact that churches have in too many cases become lifeless, boring, and emotionally hollow. They have spiritually sputtered to the point where they have nothing left to offer…It’s no wonder that church attendance is shrinking and congregations across the country are panicked over what to do about it”[13].

Clinging to non-biblical warranted tradition is sin, whether of omission or commission.[14] As a result of this clinging, churches fail to properly and biblically contextualize the gospel. Rarely, if ever, has failure to contextualize been referred to as a sin. But it is sin, if believers fail to do their due diligence in (properly) contextualizing the gospel to the culture, society, and people they are called to reach. In order to properly contextualize the gospel, churches must exegete the culture surrounding them. They will need to become familiar to any demographic change and community change that may have taken place. Page believes that if the 1950’s came roaring back many churches today would be ready.[15] Churches failing to adapt in a contextual way to the host culture in pursuit of sharing the unchanging universal message of the gospel, fall short of the missional calling placed upon them. Without attempting to change or adapt to the culture around them, churches seal their own gloomy fate by clinging to their tradition and past.

(4) Liberal and Unsound Theology

A lack of sound, biblical, theological, Christo-centric, and gospel-centered teaching can cause churches to deteriorate, decline, and die. Hosea prophesies, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge; because you have rejected knowledge, I reject you from being a priest to me. And since you have forgotten the law of God, I will forget your children” (Hosea 4:6). Paul, throughout his ministry, exhorts elders, leaders, and churches to guard their doctrine and teaching (Acts 20:26-32; 1 Tim 1:10-11; 6:3; 2 Tim 1:13; Titus 1:13; 2:1). Paul’s frustration with the Corinthians immaturity, as well as the author of Hebrews frustration with his recipients, point to the desire for a robust teaching of God’s word that results in healthy churches.

Ergun Caner and Mac Brunson in their book, Why Churches Die, espouse how spiritual bulimia and anorexia, which is a lack of biblical and theological teaching, eventually culminates in the death of a church.[16] Michael Horton asserts, “The external word of the gospel not only definitively creates but progressively disrupts, reorients, and renews the church.”[17] Embracing the Scriptures and sound doctrine prevents churches from being “tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (Eph 4:14). Barna, in a research project, concludes how biblical literacy for believers in the United States is neither a current reality nor goal.[18] Also, Barna notes in a 2010 group research project how the Christian Church is becoming less theologically literate.[19] Barna accentuates, “The theological free-for-all that is encroaching in Protestant churches nationwide suggests the coming decade will be a time of unparalleled theological diversity and inconsistency.”[20] The lack of theological depth today is an indictment on the lack of theological depth of yesteryear. When churches lose sight of the living, breathing, changing, convicting, and conforming word of God, they lose the bridle that controls and directs their movement. This loss becomes the epitaphs of local churches.

(5) Worldliness: Works of the Flesh

Charles Spurgeon writing over 150 years ago about the flaccid condition of the church, asserts, “One reason why the church of God at this present moment has so little influence over the world is because the world has so much influence over the church.”[21] Worldliness in the church manifests itself in different forms, such as, immorality, carnality, hatred, covetousness, or materialism. Paul in three different places, to three different recipients, warns the church not to partake in the works of the flesh (Gal 5:19-21), not to have hints of sexual immorality, impurity, crude joking, and coveting (Eph 5:3-6), and to put away the old self which included previous vices as well as anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk (Col 3:5-9). In each of these passages Paul relates how these worldly and fleshly people will not inherit the kingdom of God, but will face the wrath of God. Although Christians will not be perfect, they are called to be pure and holy. Paul warns and exhorts these believers and churches not to habitually engage in sinful behavior, which warrants God’s wrath. Therefore, churches and believers need to reject living as agents of the kingdom of darkness, and live as agents of the kingdom of God.

Also, some churches may have the unsettling experience of their leadership or membership who succumbed to sexual promiscuity, immorality, or worldliness, which leads to splits, dissensions, and divisions. Churches which have experienced fights, disputes, divisions, and dissensions have been tainted with the paralyzing affects of sin. Many times these paralyzing affects of sin have also involved and been coupled with the sins of slander, malice, bitterness, anger, resentment, and hatred. Unresolved sins of carnality and immorality can erode the health and vitality of a church. Dever notes in his work, Twelve Challenges Churches Face, that Paul, in reference to the situation of 1 Corinthians 5, was highlighting that the entire church community is endangered by continued unrepentant sin.[22] Constantly examining the internal leadership and membership of the church is tantamount, because it will confront unbridled and unconfessed sins of immorality and carnality. These sins are cancers that eat away at the effectiveness, fruitfulness, and vibrancy of congregations to the point they become empty white-washed tombs.

(6) Loss of Passion for the Gospel and Lost

The loss of fervor and zeal for Christ, his gospel, and people are also sins that will eventually deteriorate a church to the point they become unfruitful, leading to decline and possible death. There are a few reasons why churches lose their missional and evangelistic zeal and fervor. First, when a church possesses the attitude ‘us four and no more’ the gospel and lost people fade into the background. Outsiders who attend a church with this mentality feel uncomfortable, as do the members. Churches seeking to retain sweet fellowship neglect assimilating new people into the body of the church.[23]

Another reason why churches lose their zeal and fervor for the gospel and unbelievers is their rejection of the culture outside the church. Once converted and immersed into the church, many tend to gravitate towards a Christian subculture. John Stott argues against Christian immersion into a subculture, even though some view conversion to Christianity as a removal from the culture, never to enter again for fear of contamination.[24] This antagonist perception of culture prohibits churches from contextualizing the gospel and engaging culture for community transformation.[25] In order to engage people with the gospel, churches must become centrifugal in their mission rather than solely centripetal. This will require more of a missionary posture rather than a Christendom one.[26]

Third, internal maintenance and focus of a church attributes to a loss of evangelistic zeal. Churches have the tendency to regress into functioning as a stale institution rather than a living organism meant to reproduce. Barna states,

Many of the declining congregations were virtually unknown within their community. Because they had committed all of their resources to internal service, people outside the walls of the church were unaware that the church existed. The prospects for numerical growth, much less spiritual growth, are virtually nil in such a climate of self-contemplation and selfishness.”[27]

Barna also explains, “In declining churches, you find a lack of passion for ministry. Ministry becomes a job or a series of routine activities that are to be performed at the prescribed time by the usual cast of characters like a Broadway play.”[28] The mundane of ministry maintenance dissipates passion in people, leading to spiritual lethargy, which robs churches of the joy of serving, ministry, and mission.

Fourth, churches lose fervor for Christ, the gospel, and his mission when they have a loss of affection for the gospel and how it once impacted their life. In other words, they lose gospel centrality. Jerry Bridges in his book, The Discipline of Grace, encourages believers to preach the gospel everyday to themselves.[29] Not only should believers constantly remind themselves of the gospel, but churches should as well. Churches that are severely in decline and near death must have the propensity to recapture the power and centrality of the gospel, as well as a passion for Christ’s mission if they are to make a turnaround.[30] Thom Rainer commented, “When the preferences of the church members are greater than their passion for the gospel, the church is dying.”[31] Dying and decaying churches need a rebirth of evangelistic fervor and missional zeal.

(7) Idolatry

Eclipsing the preeminence of Christ in the life of a church and believer is ultimately idolatry. Idolatry occurs when we turn our backs on God and turn our whole selves toward sin.[32] Many of the other root sins described result from idolatry, which originates in the heart. The church today, especially in the West, faces the same addiction to idolatry as the nation of Israel. God commanded Israel, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exod 20:3). God demanded utter preeminence in the nation of Israel; nothing was to take his place of unadulterated worship. Although God demanded sole allegiance and worship of him, Israel struggled throughout its history to obey this command. Idolatry and syncretistic worship led to the end of Israel’s hegemony.

Also expulsion and exile from the land were consequences Israel faced as a result of their idolatry. G.K. Beale commented regarding Israel’s idolatry stating, “When they failed to function as divine image-bearers in this way, they, like Adam and Eve, were exiled from their garden-like land and from God’s special revelatory presence.”[33] Although idolatry seems to take on different forms from the Old Testament to the New[34], it still existed and had the same potential to gravely affect the new covenanted community. This is the reason why New Testament authors warned about idolatry (Acts 15:20; 1 Cor 10:1-14; Col 3:5; 1 John 5:21).

What may be considered idol worship in churches today, which may lead to their deterioration, decline, and death? Traditions, buildings, land, programs, local church historical relics, and personal preferences are all things that could potentially become idols to a church. Clinging to tradition, buildings, land, programs, relics, and preferences become factors that prohibit churches from changing, contextualizing the gospel, and making disciples. David Wells believes the evangelical church today is captivated by the idolatry of self and this idolatry is “as pervasive and as spiritually debilitating as were many of the entanglements with pagan religions recounted for us in the Old Testament.”[35] Idolatry greatly affects the heart and identity of churches where they no longer cling to and identify with Christ, the gospel, and the Great Commission, but rather they cling to and identify with materials, traditions, locations, programs, people, and relics.[36] Identifying and attaching to anything other than Christ and his gospel erodes a heart for the gospel, dismantles the preeminence of Christ, and paralyzes churches from participating in the Great Commission.


[1] Mark DeYmaz, Building a Healthy Multi-Ethnic Church: Mandate, Commitments, and Practices of a Diverse Congregation (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2007), 102.

[2] The population of America is projected to drastically increase as well as become more diverse by race and Hispanic origin. This information can be found at: http://www.census.gov/population/www/pop-profile/natproj.html.

[3] Mark Dever, Twelve Challenges Churches Face (Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Books, 2008), 98.

[4] Bob Russell, When God Builds a Church: 10 Principles for Growing a Dynamic Church (West Monroe, LA: Howard Publishing Co, 2000), 83.

[5] Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary, ed. , (Wheaton, Ill: Victor Books, 1989), 536.

[6] David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007), 36.

[7] Ibid, 181.

[8] Ibid, 184.

[9] Stephen Hasbrouck, Altar Fires Relighted: A Study From a Non-Partisan Standpoint of Movements and Tendencies at Work in the Religious Life of To-Day (New York: Burnett Publishing Co, 1912), 65.

[10] Kinnaman, UnChristian, 28. Also, in this study 1/3 of Christians believe their faith is old-fashioned and out of touch with reality; and one-quarter of young Christians believe their faith is boring and insensitive to others (UnChristian, 34).

[11] Contextualization, according to David Hesslegrave, “Has to do with making a message (such as the biblical gospel) meaningful to people who are ‘foreign’ in the ethno-cultural sense or to those who subscribe to a ‘foreign’ worldview” (Paradigms in Conflict, 245-46). Also, Hesslegrave and Edward Rommen in their co-authored book, Contextualization: Meaning, Methods, and Models, writes, “Undergirding this book is a simple thesis: namely, contextualization is more than a neologism, it is a necessity…Third, if the gospel is to be understood, contextualization must be true to the complete authority and unadulterated message of the Bible on the one hand, and it must be related to the cultural, linguistic, and religious background of the respondents on the other” (Contextualization, xi).

[12] Frank Page, The Incredible Shrinking Church, 1.

[13] Frank Page, The Incredible Shrinking Church, 3.

[14] Paul Hiebert in his essay in the book, MissionShift, notes, “Jesus was incarnated in a cultural context, and modern missionaries must communicate the gospel in a particular cultural context” (MissionShift, 101). Also Hiebert states how early pioneer missionaries practiced minimal contextualization, which led to Westernized forms of theology, worship, and church polity (MissionShift, 100). And a lack of contextualization for some churches in the West has led to their domain of decay and imminent death.

[15] Page, The Incredible Shrinking Church, 8.

[16] Mac Brunson and Ergun Caner, Why Churches Die: Diagnosing Lethal Poisons in the Body of Christ (Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2005), 171-83.

[17] Michael S. Horton, People and Place: A Covenant Ecclesiology (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 192.

[18] George Barna, “Barna Studies the Research, Offers A Year-in-review Perspective,” Barna Group, 2009, http://wwwbarna.org/barna-update/article/12-faithspirituality/325-barna-studies-the-research-offers-a-year-in-review-perspective?q=lack+theological+depth/ (accessed February 15, 2011).

[19] George Barna, “Six Megathemes Emerge From Barna Group 2010,” Barna Group, December 13, 2010, http://www.barna.org/culture-articles/462-six-megathemes-emerge-from-2010/ (accessed February 15, 2011).

[20] Ibid. Also, Michael Horton in his book, Christless Christianity, exposes the unhealthy focus churches in the West have on deeds, not creeds. According to Horton, this teaching can become unbiblical because Christ and his gospel becomes a means to an end, rather than the end itself.

[21] C.J. Mahaney, Worldliness: Resisting the Seduction of a Fallen World, ed. C.J. Mahaney (Wheaton, Ill: Crossway, 2008), 23.

[22] Mark Dever, Twelve Challenges Church Face, 53.

[23] Stetzer and Dodson, Comeback Churches, 21.

[24] John Stott, Christian Mission in the Modern World (Downers Grove, Ill: IVP Books, 1975), 181.

[25] Those who are antagonistic against culture fit within the first model (Christ against Culture) proposed by H. Richard Niebuhr in his book, Christ and Culture.

[26] This is a concept Alan Hirsch argues the church must take if it will engage the unchurched and lost of today’s Western Culture. In his book, The Forgotten Ways, Hirsch distinguishes between the church’s perception of the world in a Christendom model to that of an emerging missional model.

[27] Barna, Turn-Around Churches, 37.

[28] Barna, Turn-Around Churches, 38.

[29] Jerry Bridges, The Discipline of Grace: God’s Role and Our Role in the Pursuit of Holiness (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1994), 25-27.

[30] Barna, Turn-Around Churches, 40.

[31] This was posted by Thom Rainer’s twitter account on January 28, 2011 at 5:00p.m. EST.

[32] Darrin Patrick and Mark Driscoll, Church Planter: The Man, the Message, the Mission (Wheaton, Ill: Crossway, 2010), 168.

[33] G.K. Beale, We Become What We Worship (Downers Grove, Ill: IVP Academic, 2008), 51.

[34] Beale, We Become What we Worship, 162.

[35] David F. Wells, Losing Our Virtue: Why the Church Must Recover Its Moral Vision (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998), 203-04.

[36] John Frame in his book, Apologetics to the Glory of God, writes regarding idolatry, “Idolatry is an escape from responsibility to the true God. It seeks freedom and autonomy. Unfortunately, the natural result of it is slavery–bondage to the idol” (196). For many churches suffering from decline and ecclesiastical death, they have clung to something other than Christ and his gospel.