As a lead pastor for more than three decades, I have observed that many people in the church have an orphan spirit. Not only that, but there are organizations and churches that function more like an orphanage than a life giving community. By orphan spirit I am referring to people who have a sense of alienation from their father and/or those who attempt to earn their father’s love through success.

The bible tells us that Christians have received the Spirit of adoption whereby we cry Abba Father (Romans 8:15). Hence, an orphan spirit organization runs counter to the very roots and identity of son-ship that comes from our heavenly Father. I believe that the lack of identity as sons of God is one of the greatest challenges in the local church today. This article is meant to expose it and help ignite a process towards remedying this serious issue.

The following are nine traits of an orphan spirit church/organization

1. The leadership exhibits an orphan spirit

I have been working closely with both church and marketplace leaders for several decades. I have learned to distinguish between leaders who are driven and leaders who are led by God. Driven leaders are those whose main identity is in their work. In their intense desire to succeed, they often act in presumption and run ahead of God. Often, their walk with God is not deep and their Bible knowledge is primarily used to create sermons and enhance their ministry. Sadly, orphan spirit leaders often produce an orphan spirit culture in their church and/or organization (which can produce countless orphan spirit believers). Unfortunately, driven leaders often crash and burn and do not have long-term sustainability (even if they start off strong the first few years).

2. The focus is solely on church growth

There are numerous church models that exist only to attract people into the church. Of course I believe in church growth, as long as it is based on winning new people to Christ and not on church transfer growth, but that is not the only aspect of a true church. A church can actually grow numerically merely with marketing techniques and style. When people come into the church they should have the opportunity to be placed in a small group to grow in community or else they may become just another number to add to the church registry. This kind of church often, unintentionally, promotes an orphan spirit culture.

3. There is no plan to shepherd the people

Whenever a church intentionally grows numerically beyond its capacity to shepherd and care for the people, an orphan spirit can easily arise in its culture.  That is because orphanages typically have more children than they are able to take care of personally, as opposed to children specifically being adopted and placed into a family that loves and provides for them.

4. The focus is on visceral experiences — not people

Unfortunately, some churches put the most time and effort into presenting an amazing Sunday church experience, replete with video, great music, special effects, and preaching, but with very little focus on advancing the individual growth and maturity of their members. There are some people I know who attend megachurches who actually have to go outside their church to get true mentoring.

5. People are not serving unto the Lord

In an orphan spirit church people are serving because they feel obligated to please the leaders. There is a works mentality mindset that can even transcend the biblical injunction of serving the Lord and not men (Colossians 3:23). This is not to say that Christ followers should be “touchy feely” people who only do what they “feel” like doing. Mature people fulfill duties because of obligation even against the will of their flesh, like caring for young children in the middle of the night, getting up every morning to go to school or work. However, mature Christ followers desire to do everything unto the Lord, even when they don’t feel like it.

6. There is no opportunity to build true community

I am convinced that there should be an opportunity to do life together with our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. In our local church, we encourage much community inside and outside of church functions as well as provide small groups for personal discipleship and shepherding. Whatever the mode or methodology, every local church should provide some avenue of personal interaction with other church attendees that build community. When the only interaction between members takes place in big gatherings, a sense of alienation can set in which can harbor an orphan spirit.

7. There is a culture of competition

In an orphan spirit environment, few people really get to know each other intimately and build community. When the only purpose for coming together is to perform a task, then the church culture will only celebrate those who accomplish the most. This will invariably produce a competitive spirit, as people will be jockeying for the most affirmation based on their ministry accomplishments. Affirmation can come in the form of titles, promotions, or public recognition. This competitive ethos will engender an orphan spirit in the church, as people will embark on a never-ending journey to earn love by works.

8. There is a culture of burnout

Organizations and churches that focus only on tasks without a plan to replenish and care for its members will have a high rate of emotional burnout. Of course, in this stress filled world many believers can experience burnout because of the demands of their family and jobs which has nothing to do with the local church.

9. Believers are not being established in the faith

Jesus never told the church to draw crowds, but to make disciples (Matthew 28:19). As a matter of fact, Jesus attempted to diminish the number of His disciples by admonishing them to count the cost before following Him (Luke 14: 25-33). The main focus of Jesus and the apostles was to win people to Christ and then establish them in the faith. Consequently, in evangelism, they never went beyond the leadership and faith capacity of the local church in a particular region (2 Corinthians 10:15, 16). Churches that merely attract crowds without implementing a plan to establish members of their congregation in the faith can lead to an orphan spirit. Without being equipped and released to their Kingdom purpose, people can eventually feel unimportant, and only valued because of their financial giving and ministry involvement.