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.