How can one person do so much damage? So many of the church leaders I’ve spoken with over the years have shared that their church is going through a tumultuous time and, often, it seems that just one dissatisfied person is at the heart of the problem. 

And whether the church is in Borneo or Balham, there are some characteristics of this ‘one person’ that are repeated over and over again.

Firstly, they have often come from another church where they were also dissatisfied. One church leader put it like this: “When they joined us, they said, ‘Oh, this church is a breath of fresh air. The worship in our old church was so stilted.’ But they hadn’t been with us more than a year before they were pining for Egypt!” The truth is that if somebody has a couple of churches behind them where they have been unhappy, the chance of yours pleasing them is slight. It might be best not to be taken in by their initial flattery, and to encourage them back to their old church immediately! Secondly, they may dress it up as healthy discussion, but often they are simply involved in old-fashioned gossip. Typically, they will say to the leader: “Lots of us are worried about X or Y.” The leader will ask: “Who else feels like this?” “Ah,” comes the reply, “I can’t give you names.”

Another characteristic is that the issues they articulate as troubling them are often not the real ones. A member complained to a church leader: “The teaching at this church is too shallow – people are not being fed.” Really? Of course, if the teaching is poor it has to be addressed, but even if it is the worst on the planet, we live in a culture where, thanks to modern technology, we can listen to some of the finest Bible teaching from around the world.

Sometimes it seems as if the last thing they really want is for their concerns to be genuinely addressed. I remember a young vicar breaking down in tears because of a woman in his church who had gathered a small group around her and was driving him crazy. He said: “She’s just sent me a list of 30 things that are wrong with this church. I wrote back and answered each of them.” “That wasn’t a good idea,” I said. “Why not?” he replied. “Because she wasn’t happy, was she?” His mouth dropped open: “No – she’s just sent me a note listing another ten things.” “You will never please her,” I replied. “Let her go.”

Churches argue over four things: the style of worship, the building, the youth work and the style of leadership. When the New Testament writers gave advice to local churches, they knew there would be relationship conflicts – that’s normal. We can be robust in our discussions, but we also have to treat each other with respect and grace. However, they also talked of situations which should not be tolerated as normal.

Paul said that when people are “divisive”, and if they won’t change their ways, “have nothing to do with them” (Titus 3:10). James put it like this: “Don’t bad-mouth each other, friends...You’re supposed to be honoring the Message, not writing graffiti all over it” (James 4:11, The Message).

The final characteristic of the ‘one person’ is that often they leave to start a church of their own. And all goes well for a while until, one Sunday, someone in their congregation says to them: “Lots of us are worried about...”

Rob Parsons is founder and chairman of Care for the Family. His latest book Let Me Tell You a Story (Hodder & Stoughton) is available now. He writes a bi-monthly column for Premier Christianity - click here to view our latest subscription offers