When churches say no

May 26th, 2015

Why have people come to expect that the answer to anything new in the church is No? Perhaps it’s because the church sends a thousand subtle messages of being closed to new people, new ideas, and new experiences without even realizing it. Not only are some churches saying No to new ideas, they are also saying No to new people without being aware they are doing so. Most congregations think of themselves as friendly, welcoming communities, open to ideas and new people. But in reality outsiders and newcomers often feel closed out and shut down. The church thinks it’s saying Yes, when in fact it is saying No. The following are some ways churches say No without even realizing it:

The Middle Doors. A midsize congregation noticed that while they received many new visitors, and a high percentage of those visitors were joining, nevertheless attendance remained steady month after month. Why was attendance leveling off? The church practiced hospitality with excellence, with visitors and new members feeling welcomed at worship. But then after a few months, visitors and new members would become less consistent in attendance and then discontinue altogether. To better understand, the pastor visited with some members who had recently joined.

The pastor discovered that people felt welcomed and supported when they first visited the church and continued to feel a sense of belonging in worship. But when they tried to become part of Sunday school classes, men’s organizations, choirs, and Bible studies, they found the groups cliquish, uninterested in welcoming new people. Even after months of trying, they felt at the margins in these smaller groups and ministries. One woman said, “Before I moved here, I was the lead usher in my old church. I didn’t expect to do that again here, but I hoped to join in somehow. When I showed up to help, everyone talked only to the people they already knew, and I felt invisible. I stood by myself. Insider jokes left me feeling isolated. I felt like they didn’t need me or want me.”

“The front door” was working well, as people felt invited and welcomed. But they were slipping out “the back door” because they were discovering too many of “the middle doors” were closed tight. The church was saying Yes to visitors in worship while saying No in small groups.

Leaders began a series of teaching events in the adult classes, mission teams, service organizations, choirs, and Bible studies to move the culture of hospitality deeper into the life of the church. As the small groups of the church began to grow, the worship attendance began to increase. New members seldom feel they belong to the church until they find meaningful connections in small groups beyond
worship, and so churches must open the middle doors.

Underutilizing People. Sarah moved into the community and joined the church after retiring as vice president of a midsize corporation. She had enjoyed a long history of engagement with community service projects and leadership in her previous church and had served on the school board for a decade. In her mid-fifties, she now wanted to dedicate herself to service and ministry, and so she offered to volunteer in her new church in any way that was helpful.

She was invited to help with the team working on a church-wide dinner. She arrived early, was handed a package of napkins, and was asked to distribute them at all the place settings. When she finished, she returned to the kitchen to discover that most of the other work was already being done. She found herself on the outside looking in at a tight-knit group of friends. She felt out of place, as no effort was made to include her.

After offering again to help, Sarah was invited to a Saturday work day to clean out a closet of old children’s ministry materials. A week later, the secretary phoned to ask her help for folding newsletters.

These simple tasks were fine with Sarah; she was not averse to helping in any way. But her yearning to make a difference by using her talents in retirement was not going to be fulfilled through her church. Her executive experience, community service, insight into organizations, and ability to mobilize people were gifts the church seemed unable or unprepared to use. Except for attending worship, she drifted away from active involvement and searched for community organizations that could channel her impulses to make a positive difference in the lives of people.

When churches underutilize people, they dampen the callings and spiritual aspirations of volunteers. Many laity yearn to make a difference and want to express their faith through ministries that change lives, but the church doesn’t know how to use their gifts.

Churches that provide no channels for service that are intellectually stimulating, spiritually renewing, and life-changing limit members to an entry-level faith with little hope of maturing or advancing in discipleship. Volunteer service that only involves simple tasks and mundane work doesn’t support the development of courage, service, love, and sacrifice. Under these circumstances, members never feel competent or effective in living out their faith.

Many followers of Christ help with small projects at the church occasionally because that’s the only opportunity the church provides. They set up tables, direct parking, put canned goods in boxes,
or paint the youth room. They tutor children for a few weeks, and then later they’re asked to deliver lunches to teams building wheelchair ramps for disabled persons. Each of these projects is good and worthy work. Yet the serving opportunities are sporadic, infrequent, and inconsistent. Volunteers dabble in doing good rather than fulfilling a calling that uses their best and highest gifts. Without focus, consistency, and persistence, volunteers feel frustrated, awkward, and ineffective. They’re like students signing up for one tennis lesson, one piano lesson, one dance lesson, and one swimming
lesson: when they look back, they wonder why they’ve never mastered any of them. They never learn and grow and mature in the art of serving.

Many volunteers are fine with light chores and simple tasks, and the church couldn’t fulfill its mission without considerable numbers of people helping in such ways. But others are searching for a deeper commitment and wider experience that uses more of their time and talent. They have capacities for bold, significant, and complex ministries, but the church is unable to absorb, channel, or use their gifts.

We Don’t Need You. In one church, members and guests were asked to bring canned goods each week in November to contribute to Thanksgiving baskets, which the church would deliver to families in need. Dozens of large boxes were filled, and a huge shipment of turkeys had been donated. A few thousand dollars had been raised to purchase fruits and vegetables to accompany the canned goods. An announcement was made recruiting people to volunteer to help sort, distribute, and deliver the baskets.

Alan and Amanda decided to help out along with their two elementary-aged children. They arrived on time to find several dozen people milling around. The food had already been gathered, the baskets had already been sorted, and the deliveries were already being made. The planning team had set things up the night before and then decided to work longer to get things going and had eventually completed the project before other volunteers ever arrived. The dozens of people who showed up to help were fed doughnuts and sent home.

Leaders sometimes invite people to help with a project but then do the work themselves before anyone else can help, leaving volunteers feeling like they’ve wasted their time. This happens with volunteer construction projects, clean up days, hanging of the greens, cooking teams, painting projects, clothes distribution, and rummage sales. People sign up to help, but two or three leaders do all the work before others have a chance. Leaders are saying No to the volunteer impulses of people when they leave them with nothing meaningful to do.

Blurry Messages. Week after week, the pastor preached sermons full of high rhetoric about the care for the poor, the concern for the oppressed, the fight for justice, the longing for community, and the love of all people. The sermons included admonitions to make disciples, heal the sick, serve the world. These high-sounding, noble generalizations were inevitably sprinkled with phrases like “you ought” and “you should” and “you must.”

The sermons, however, lack specificity, clarity, originality, or practicality. Shallow platitudes, even those interspersed with scriptural references and communicated with sincerity, never give anyone direction on how to assimilate spiritual truths into daily life. While no one disagrees with the general themes, such blurry and unfocused messages lack any quality of incarnation. Generalized admonitions, divorced from specific context or tangible action, are heard as judgmental diatribes that leave people feeling beaten and without hope. Rather than encouraging, emboldening, and inviting people to greater ministry, the sermons leave listeners feeling unable to effect any change in themselves or the world. Rather than mobilizing people to act or inspiring them to think differently, platitudes neither connect nor motivate, and they diminish the impulse to act.

Conflict. A palpable sense of conflict between the pastor and the church leaders, within the staff or among the laity, can squeeze out new people and shut down any chance of new ideas emerging.
Internal conflict takes attention away from what the church should be doing. Like a magnet beside a compass, conflict draws congregations off course.

Bickering, blaming, backbiting, and griping make participation and leadership uninviting. With conflict and mistrust, the church resorts to greater legalism through rules, controls, and steps for withholding permission. People who don’t get along with one another make it difficult for
everyone else to focus on the mission. Some churches get drawn into larger divisive issues, allowing differences about politics, social issues, or community challenges to sabotage the work of the church.

In a badly conflicted church, ministry is stymied by the attitude that “if it’s your idea, I’m opposed to it.” Initiatives get squeezed out by conflict, fear, reactivity, and control issues in the same way the seeds in the parable of the sower get strangled by weeds or gobbled by birds.

Conflicted churches attract people who thrive on conflict, and a self-reinforcing pattern begins with people struggling for control, insisting on their own way, and discounting anyone who disagrees.

Congregations that live with a constant sense of threat can’t provide space for creative conversation and for the prayerful cultivation of new ministries. Fear of financial collapse, the threat of closing, the discovery of misconduct accusations—any of these can paralyze a church.

Many churches operate with attitudes and systems that are no longer conducive to our mission, that shut down new ideas and restrain the capacities for ministry. They operate with a culture of No. Congregations have been lying paralyzed for decades, waiting and hoping for something to change.
Saying Yes means refashioning how we see ourselves and how we do our work. Creating a culture of Yes requires a leap of faith and a willingness to do things differently. It means letting ourselves be changed by the Spirit of God, so that we can move forward to a new future.

Gather your leaders and learn how to become a permission-giving church with Just Say Yes! Here’s a look at the table of contents:

You Can’t Do It That Way:
People Who Say No

Committees, Rules, and Policies:
Systems That Say No

Buildings, Bulletins, and Attitudes:
Churches That Say No

Churches That Say Yes! Changing
Fundamental Assumptions

Systems That Say Yes! Becoming a
Permission-Giving Church

Leaders Who Say Yes! Changing
Attitudes and Behaviors

This article is adapted from Robert’s new book Just Say Yes! Unleashing People for
Ministry (Abingdon Press, 2015).

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