3 Ways to Grow the “Yes!” in Your Church

This second half of an interview with author and United Methodist Church Bishop Robert Schnase on his book Just Say Yes! Unleashing People for Ministry, identifies three ways for local church leaders to foster creativity and innovation. Click here for part one of the interview.

In your book Just Say Yes!, you give a wonderful image of concentric circles to describe the layers of influence in a local congregation. Your description of the circles suggests that while power lies in the center, the mission is toward the edges, and innovation often enters from the edges. These are related phenomena. What is one way leaders can break out of their confining walls of daily life in the “holy of holies” – the inner circle – and find opportunities out on the edge?

Sometimes church leaders lose touch with the larger community, become inward focused and consumed by the inner workings of the congregation. People don’t think outside of the box because there is so much inside the box to keep them busy!  Pastors and active lay leaders can spend their entire their lives interacting only with other church people. They hold meetings and studies and services every night of the week and fill the weekends with events and worship. I sometimes ask pastors how much time they spend each week outside the church, forming relationships in the community, affiliating with folks who know nothing about the church but who share a common interest, hobby, or avocation. When all of a leader’s primary and secondary relationships are within the church, isolation from the culture becomes a real risk.

When I served as pastor of a local church, it required great intentionality for me to form and sustain relationships with people unaffiliated with the church. But doing so widened my vision about the community, helped me identify unmet needs and to learn about the perceptions the community held of the church.

1) To foster innovative thinking, look for new people. They are the creative pastor’s greatest collaborators for change.

I suggest that pastors and leaders especially invest time with visitors and newcomers to the church. They see the church through fresh eyes, and notice ministry opportunities that longstanding members can no longer see. New people and young people see everything differently than insiders do–the facility, the worship experience, the attitudes of members, how systems and processes work (or don’t work!). They bring fresh perspectives and fresh expressions of ministries. They bring the outside culture into the church and help the church cross borders into the community. New people are the creative pastor’s greatest collaborators for change.

And immerse yourselves in the lives of younger people. Notice their yearnings for the spiritual life, their varying expressions of desire for community, their impulse to make a difference in the world.  Go where they go and do what they do rather than waiting for them to come appreciate our way of doing things.

Consultant Reggie McNeal has stated that to change a church’s culture, the first step is to change the language. Your third chapter address language several times. I constantly find “no” signs and symbols in our church conversations (e.g., the use of acronyms), in our communication (unintentionally addressing the insider, not the outsider), and in our campus (e.g., our signage and external marketing). What strategies might you suggest for being more intentional about our language?

Some church facilities scream No! Steel burglar bars on every window, playgrounds with locked gates, signs that read no skateboards, no loitering, no parking.  One church secretary had a prominent sign on her desk that said, “What part of No did you not understand!”  Sadly, it matched her attitude as reflected in nearly every interaction with visitors and members. Impenetrable acronyms, announcements for ministries that have names that give no indication of what they do, densely written liturgies that presume a depth of experience with worship—these shut people out.  Just Say Yes includes a chapter on how churches say No without even knowing.

Addressing these symbols of No begins with awareness and intentionality. Walk through the building, look through the bulletin, review the signage, evaluate the worship experience. Be honest. Make a list. Try to look at the facility and worship service and operations through the eyes of newcomers or of people unacquainted with church life. How do things look to young adults?  Through the eyes of children?  From the perspective of people with disabilities or who speak another language? Even better, ask a few honest and observant newcomers to help you with the task.  They see things and smell things we no longer notice.  Interview them about their first impressions, about what made them feel welcome and what obstacles they faced.

2) To identify yes language, interview new people about first impressions: what made them feel welcome and what created obstacles.

Some churches go further than merely minimizing the symbols that say No. Instead, they craft an intentional atmosphere of Yes. The logo of First UMC, Sedalia, Missouri is “Say Yes!—to Life, to Love, to God.”  Others develop a common language to reinforce practices and habits expected throughout the congregation’s life—Radical Hospitality and Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors. A common language really does form identity and shape practice if repeated and accepted deep into congregational culture. On the other hand, if these are merely words on posters that are contradicted by practice, they do more harm than good.

The last topic I’d like to address is creativity, which is of high interest to my readers. I love your two “missional assumptions” that a) everyone is creative, or gifted, to do a set of good things with their lives and b) everyone is called to use these gifts in ministry to advance God’s kingdom. You write that the goal of your book it is “for people whose passion has been simmering for years, who yearn to be told ‘yes!’” 

This means it’s actually for the one, as you describe, on the outer ring of influence in your circle – the layperson or one with an idea to pitch, who is looking for a “yes”. When you speak to a person on the outer ring, not a leader in a center circle, what first thing do you suggest to this person? Should they build a prototype on their own? Collect human and material capital? Focus on clearing a political path? How do they overcome the “no”?

When I was a child, our family had a vegetable garden. After planting the seeds and tending the soil, my mother would invest enormous energy in protecting the vulnerable seedlings. Just as a single pale leaf would begin to push the smallest smudge of dirt as it broke the surface of the ground, my mother would place a coffee can over it with the top and bottom cut out to protect the plant from birds and bugs.  As the stem grew stronger and sprouted more leaves, she’d fashion chicken wire into an upside down basket to keep rabbits and armadillos away.

3) Protect newcomer ideas and give them space to grow. While they offer no guarantees, fresh impressions, creative experiments and bold initiatives are seeds for possible growth.

Similarly, leaders have to protect new ideas, creative experiments, bold initiatives, and the people who bring them. We provide a buffer that gives space for them to grow without the daunting threat of criticism, restraint, and resistance. We shield them, if necessary, from the stranglehold of committees and death by complexity. We provide the proper conditions for creative people and new initiatives to thrive. But as with gardening, there are no guarantees. If we fail to provide the cover that new ideas need, nothing will survive. On the other hand, we can do everything right, and still sometimes see little fruit.

Providing the proper conditions involves a ministry of encouragement, a posture of listening, a practice of connecting passionate people to others who are interested in initiative.  And it involves using the rich spiritual language we have inherited for naming what is happening in their lives—a calling from God to use their spiritual gifts for the fulfillment of the mission given us in Christ.

What have you learned about this subject since writing the book that you’d like readers to know?

First, I’ve been surprised and humbled by how the ideas in Just Say Yes resonate for leaders of all types of churches–rural, urban, suburban, small, medium, large, and from an array of ethnicities and language groups. I’ve led workshops for pastors and laity in large diverse urban settings and in small rural communities, and I hear people say, “That’s about us. That’s what we’re experiencing.” Churches are burdened by systems that make initiative difficult and they are restrained by leaders and group dynamics that stifle creativity.

Honestly, Len, while I was writing the book, I almost set the topic aside, thinking the ideas were too self-evident and needed no expression or elaboration. But I’m glad I finished it because it seems to offer a language to address the need for change that isn’t too threatening for people to engage.

Second, I’ve been surprised at how many times I’ve caught myself in an unconscious default of No. Among those I work with most closely on a daily basis, we find ourselves reminding one another to get out of the way, to give permission to ministry, and to Just Say Yes!

Thank you, Len, for the conversation and for the excellent and insightful questions.  And thank you for your support of Just Say Yes!  Unleashing People for Ministry.

Additional downloadable resources are now available to help local congregations “Just Say Yes!” and unleash people for ministry, including supplemental videos, invitational postcards, a leader retreat guide and a 7-session devotional guide. Check out www.SayYesToMinistry.org.


Full disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of the book. 


About the Author

Len Wilson

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Christ follower. Storyteller. Strategist. Writer. Creative Director at St Andrew. Tickle monster. Author, Think Like a Five Year Old (Abingdon).