One of the nine Tree of Life Churches that I have planted in the UK in the last decade once had what I wrongly called a church split. We had raised the church up to about forty people, and it was thriving. We saw cancers disappear, broken bones healed in the middle of the service, someone got out of a wheelchair. There were many salvations. It was a glorious place to go.
Then one of the elders starting lying about me. It was vicious, nasty, and just relentless. I took my son Joel one time to the church, to lead worship, and we got there and there were suddenly six people left. And they were all in the same family. Joel said “Dad, what do we do?” I said act like there’s a hundred people there, and he did, and I did, we had some worship and a great sermon like it was a packed out standing room only service. It was great.
At the end someone told me some of the lies that were being told about me, and I said none of that is true. The person said well, I didn’t believe it, and even if I did, I would still come here because God told me to come here, so we are going to keep coming.
I was impressed with that level of maturity. We went home and I was not sure what to do next. So, I called Dave Duell. He was my spiritual father before he went to glory, and was a man full of God’s wisdom. When I called, he was out of the country, he was in Mexico or Brazil or somewhere preaching. But his wife Bonnie answered, and kindly offered to listen and help.
I told her we had just had a church split. She said “oh that’s really sad to hear, I always thought you and Amanda were such a good couple, and were so good together, and I thought you had a great marriage”. I was confused and said so and explained my marriage was doing well. Bonnie laughed and said “I thought you said you had a church split”, she said “Unless you and Amanda break up there is no such thing as a church split, it’s just a few people leaving at once.”
That has always encouraged me. Churches do not split. There will never be another Tree of Life Church started by someone storming out the door in rebellion. It’s just people leaving. And I don’t take it personally, because it is invariably not about me – or Amanda, or any of our other wonderful pastors.
I have found over the years that when someone leaves a church it’s either the Spirit or the flesh leading them to leave, and about 75% of the time it is the flesh. That matches Mark 4, where only one in four people actually produce fruit. If you leave a church in the flesh it will take years for you to be able to bear fruit, if ever. It’s a real tragedy.
There are three signs that someone has left in the flesh. Firstly, they leave very abruptly. Suddenly they are not there. It’s shocking how sudden it is. If someone is genuinely called by God to a new area and a new church, we lay hands on them, we tell people they are off, we bless them, we say goodbye. Someone who disappears like a thief in the night, that is not how the Spirit leads someone to leave. Selah.
The second sign is that they will then badmouth the church when they leave. They were in the church, and the church fed them, helped them, loved them, looked after them for years. But now they have left, they have to justify their carnal decision, and the only way to justify something to the flesh is company. You need some other people to agree you should have left, so you call other people who still go to the church and badmouth it.
I never meet up with people who leave carnally if they ask me to – they only want to badmouth me and others in the church, they only want to tear apart the people who are still being humble, faithful, honest, serving day and night to build the church. No, if they want to come home, they can by attending a family celebration service Sunday morning, and I will kill the fatted calf! That’s happened more than once and we have never failed to give someone who stormed off a royal welcome home.
That’s a massive clue someone left in the flesh – fault-finding and whispering after they left. When people leave in the Spirit it sits right in them that they left, so they move on with grace and love. Even if they move because the church was bad in some way, they left in the Spirit, so they left in love, they shake the dust off their feet so they have no dust on their feet, and they go forward looking forward. Even in the church is Sodom and Gomorrah, leaving in the Spirit means looking forward to the next church. Not turning round to criticize the old church or whisper about it. Don’t become a salty pillar! Listen, it takes little or no effort to criticize a church. It’s that simple. Anyone can do that. What’s impressive is actually loving the people of God as well as the God of the people.
Finally people who leave in the Spirit end up at a better church. Not objectively better or worse, but better for them. They are discipled more, they are happier, they bring their friends more. They are growing in Christ more. It’s a cause for celebration for the whole kingdom. I genuinely love releasing people into a new church or ministry when they are following the Spirit.
When someone leaves a church flowing in the gifts, teaching the Word, standing for grace and faith to go to some dead church, or church where there are no miracles, but just noise and shouting, they have not left in a spiritual way. When people leave churches to “study the Bible on their own”, they did not leave in the Spirit. When people leave a life-changing church to go to a convenient church, they did not leave in the Spirit.