This is a part of my semi-regular “Christian Problems” series, where I tackle everyday issues that believers often face.
It is hard to say “no.”
It is even harder to say “no” when the “no” is to a God-centered Christian activity that everyone and their mother seems to be doing and deeply enjoying, when really you want absolutely no part of it and dread the very idea.
I experienced this myself when, at my then-new church – mere weeks after I’d sworn off the idea of small groups for the next six months – the guy in the pew beside me gave me a hug and thumped me on the back. “Got to get you in a small group,” he said cheerfully. “Why don’t you come to ours?”
I couldn’t say no. I didn’t know how. “Oh,” I fumbled. “Well, I teach college classes–and my schedule–”
“We meet on Saturdays!”
I don’t even remember what I said. It wasn’t “no.” It was something about yes, I’d definitely check the schedule, and yay for small groups, and that sounded wonderful, uh huh, and I’d look into it. Perhaps he sensed my panic and noticed my obvious dissembling, because although he is friendly as ever, he has also never asked again. A perceptive man! I’ve been grateful for his attitude.
The truth is, I was afraid to say “no” to a small group (or to say “Let me tell you about my past experiences with small groups and why I’m taking a brief hiatus.”) That’s mostly because I was afraid saying, “Thanks, but I’m not looking to join a small group right now” would translate to him as “She’s not a Christian!” or “She’s a Christian who isn’t growing!” or “She’s a barely-committed Christian!” or anything of a hundred other inaccurate labels. That’s the problem that crops up when we unthinkingly equate “amount of church activities” with “level of Christian maturity or development”: we create false assumptions that don’t match up to reality.
So when I look at the search terms on my blog and see that poor souls out there have found me by typing in things like “don’t want to sing in church any more” or “how do I say no to small group” or “don’t want to lead group any more,” my heart breaks a little bit. There are people out there, working away at church activities, beaming on the outside and miserable on the inside – because they don’t want to seem as though they don’t love Jesus, or their churches.
I’m here to help. Let’s do this.
First, I need you to get uncomfortably real with yourself. I truly do sympathize with people who worry that turning down an activity or two will result in them being labeled as “surface-level believers.” I also believe that, all too often, we use “amount of church involvement” as our metric to assess the state of believer’s spiritual lives. It’s unfair, and it’s inaccurate. But I also have to ask: are you a just-on-Sundays believer? Are you really engaging with God about what He wants you to do and what you need to be doing, and in this specific case or instance? Do you only ever attend Sunday services without ever doing anything else, individually or otherwise, related to your spiritual walk? Do you engage in Bible study? Do you have a prayer life? Are there any areas (even outside the church) of ministry or service in your life?
If you attend church twice a month on Sundays, never think about God the rest of the time, have no interest in any service or giving to others, have no prayer life or Scriptural engagement going on – if “going to church” is about as spiritually meaningful for you as “going to Pilates class” – then you need to have some serious conversations with yourself not about how to say “no” to church activities, but how to say “yes” to Jesus in any capacity. A relationship with Christ is not an accessory. It will demand engagement from you. The whole “dying to self” thing is pretty integral to the “being-a-Christian” thing. We have to learn not to be selfish. To give of ourselves. To sacrifice. And if we’re hiding from that or resisting that in any way, then that’s worth interrogating. Go to Scripture, go to God in prayer, and go to some godly friends over whether you need to reconsider a “no.”
But let’s assume that’s not your problem. Let’s assume that you’re a mature and committed believer, there are places in your life where you give and serve or grow with the Lord, and you’re committed to spiritual growth through study and prayer. You sacrifice for Christ, and you’re willing to die to self. It’s just that it doesn’t seem necessary here, and you either can’t or don’t want to do…well, whatever the activity it is that you’re dreading. You want so desperately to say no to something. Maybe you don’t feel led. You’re burnt out. Or you would feel led if you weren’t so busy with 700 other church activities. Or you tried it and it just didn’t click. Or you found something else you’d prefer instead. What to do?
You have a few options, from the small to the nuclear.
Here’s the first and best one, and also the most difficult: say no. I do not mean that you should cackle and say “No way,”then walk down the aisle shaking your head, chuckling to yourself and saying “Whew, dodged a bullet there.” Please do not do this. What I am saying is that politely, and firmly, and even without apologizing (unless you really are sorry about it) you can say “no.” Here are some scripts:
“Oh, I’d rather not, but I appreciate you asking me!”
“Thanks, but no thanks. I’m glad you asked me, though.”
“You’re so kind to ask! But I can’t right now.”
These “no”s are polite, they are kind, and they’re also appreciative. People want you to join stuff! They care about having you there! That’s good, and you want to acknowledge it. Tone matters a lot here, too. A look of fear and dread and a stammered “no” is going to throw people off. Be confident and kind and your normal self. You don’t have to explain your justifications or spell it out. Don’t fall into the trap of giving people a master’s thesis on why this won’t work for you. Lightning is not going to fall. Just say no.
But some people can’t say no, or they’re in the process of learning how to say no and can’t quite manage it right now. Sometimes if they have said no, or tried, they’ve been guilted to death or shamed for it. This is when you reach for an honest excuse, if you have one. If you’re already too busy, say that you’re too busy. If you just got a new workload and you need time to figure that out, be real about that. If you’d rather focus on children’s ministry, confess that. If you just miss seeing your spouse and your kids, say that. What you should not do is a) lie or b) reach for a flimsy excuse that is clearly obvious as nothing more than a sham. In fact, a clue that you might need to rethink your response is if you find yourself inventing reasons or engaging in deception to avoid something. No one is served by deception or pandering. Saying “no” outright is better and far more honest than dissembling or making something up. But if there’s a reason that you can’t do something – regardless of whether or not you think that reason might suffice for other people – then share it.
Finally – and this is truly the nuclear option – you can do what my husband and I unintentionally did, which is join a pretty low-pressure church. At our previous congregation, we were subjected to what I began to refer to as constant small group interrogation. It wasn’t enough to join one small group when you could join several! Or why not lead one? Or why not help start one? And what about pizza Tuesdays, and…? Imagine my surprise after that when we attended a church where, yes, a congregant asked us about joining a small group, but activities otherwise were offered with the philosophy that interested people would take the initiative to sign up if they chose to do so. Suddenly, instead of being told we just had to eat a feast every Sunday (and Tuesday, and Thursday), we were presented with a buffet of options and told to choose from what appealed to us. It was such a relief! And we’ve actually participated in quite a bit at this church precisely because the pressure to participate is missing. Strange how that works.
Again, this is the nuclear option. If you have a church you otherwise love, I’d really advise you to learn to say “no,” or, if it’s available, take the honest excuse option. But if you’re in the position of hunting for a new church already, then keep the option of a low-pressure one in the back of your head: observe congregations, and see how they handle their members’ participation in activities. An ounce of prevention really is worth a pound of cure.
And there you have it: the honest and godly way to exclude yourself out when it’s appropriate to do so.
5 thoughts on “Christian Problems: “I Don’t Want To Be A Part Of This Church Activity!””
I wish I’d read this post years ago!
Shortly after my second child was born, I received a phone call from a woman at our large (1000+ members) church. There was an upcoming marriage conference and she was leading a team of couples who would be praying for it every Sunday until that weekend. Could my husband and I do it?
I said, “Well, I just had a baby and things are kind of hectic right now.”
She said, “Oh, but so-and-so said that she just KNEW you’d want to do it, you’re such a prayer warrior!” So-and-so was the women’s ministry leader, who certainly should’ve known that I had had a baby. And I’ve never considered myself a prayer warrior, then or now.
I said, “Well, we’d have my older daughter with us and she’s too old for nursery, so I don’t know where she’d go . . .”
She said, “Oh, she can just come in the room, too!”
Long story short, I felt guilt tripped into doing it. Because what “prayer warrior” wouldn’t do it?! Mind you, my husband and I weren’t going to the conference.
That first Sunday, when I walked in the room, carrying my 4-6 week old baby, this woman said, “Oh, I didn’t realize that when you said you’d just had a baby, you’d JUST HAD a baby!”
What did she think I meant?!
I had postpartum depression. I was sleep deprived. I didn’t give a rip about the conference. The prayer group thing was a disaster, at least for me. I felt guilt-tripped into doing it, which has been a huge problem for me.
I should’ve said no. I certainly wish that woman would’ve taken the unsubtle hints (like the friendly guy at your church) but I KNOW I should’ve said no.
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Oh wow, I cringe because I relate so much to your response! That sounds like an absolutely miserable experience – and what in the world CAN you have meant other than that you very literally just had a baby?! Your experience makes me think, too, that we need to teach people to *hear* no when it’s being said, even if not verbally – because your responses were pretty honest!
“I should’ve said no…I KNOW I should’ve said no” – I have felt this, so much, and I suspect a lot of others have, too. The thing is – at least in my experience – we (and by “we” I especially mean women) are not often taught how to say no, or that it’s okay to say no. And for those that can come out and say it, often “no” isn’t what people hear or want to hear, and they will keep pressing until they get the “yes” they want. It’s so frustrating.
Saying “no” to activities/requests/demands is so often translated as “saying no to Jesus” and…it’s not the same thing. I do understand that in some cases we need to interrogate where a “no” might be coming from or what motivates it, but to act like “no” is a negative across the board leads us to a place where people participate in things from guilt and not from a full and willing heart, or where they literally lose the ability to say “no” to anything.
And the end result is what you express here: a disaster.
I’m so glad you shared this. It really is a difficult skill to learn, and I felt led to write about it primarily because I’ve struggled with it myself so much both within the church and without.
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I think also that when someone asks you to do something, sometimes one is not totally sure at the time whether or not one wants to or can do it. One has to be given time to consider/pray about it.
I remember years ago, someone asked me if I’d like to do such and such…they were asking a few people. Anyhow, I thought, I’m not sure it’s really my cup of tea and also probably don’t have time..was already involved in church music group and other things and had a family.
So, rather than saying ‘no’ outright, I said I would have to think about it (which I did) and then decided it definitely wasn’t for me.
So I saw the lady again and told her I couldn’t/didn’t want to do it for the various reasons I had realised for sure. The great thing was that though she was a little disappointed, she thanked me very much for letting her know! She was extremely grateful that I had gone to the trouble to actually tell her I wasn’t interested. She said everyone else had said they would think about it..but no-one had bothered to tell her that no they didn’t want to do it, either at the time, or perhaps several days later.
Ohhhhhh wow. Yeah, that’s a wonderful idea – for those willing to follow through! I think a lot of times people say “I’ll think about it” hoping others will interpret it as a “no,” but they often don’t (for good reason!) But thinking and praying about it is a wonderful way to show that you’re willing to consider something, especially if you’re not quite certain one way or the other.
This is also a great argument against putting people on the spot and expecting an immediate yes or no!
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Great article. If a group values you and your presence, they should be understanding and respectful of one’s decisions. I have always felt like I was being put on the spot when people in a church group would ask me to do something. Unfortunately, when I was growing up, part of the problem was that there were some people, including my mother who would always hover over me every time there was an activity. Honestly, I think that she was trying to please and impress some people at my expense. People in the group were even going to my mom to ask me if I was going to go to activity A or B; then she would get on my case about it. So an important rule of thumb that I have adopted, if someone feels that they need to ask someone else on my behalf instead of asking me, then I will need to say NO. People can ask me (not someone else) if I am interested in doing something. It really isn’t anyone else’s business.
I don’t believe that I need to “advertise'” to anyone if I say YES or NO to something.
My experience with some church groups has been negative because some people in the group were manipulative. I prefer that if someone asks me to do something that they call me and leave a voice message with some brief detail so that I can at least think it over and process before giving an answer. Because of my negative experience, I don’t appreciate being put on the spot. One other thing that I still need to work on is that I do not need to give any reasons as to why I don’t want to or can’t do something. From my experience, the relationships that I have come across in churches were pretty much superficial or secondary.