By Eddie Pipkin

May 26, 2016

One of the most interesting aspects of being part of the EMC3 team while also holding down a day job in local ministry, is spending so much time thinking and writing about the latest approaches to community engagement while slogging through the practical, real world considerations of helping a local congregation embrace these concepts and bring them to life. Most of us on the EMC3 team are working actively with local congregations (no ivory towers of highfalutin’ ministry intellectualism here—we understand the practical implications of everything we write and teach). We are continually energized by discussing the “new evangelism” discipleship of Phil’s books, Shift and Membership to Discipleship (and the soon to be published Connect), and we love to hear the exciting stories of churches around the country that are moving from being isolated outposts in their neighborhoods to full-on community partners. It is not uncommon, however, that even as we are jazzed up on these spirited witnesses to success, we head off to a meeting of our local leadership where we face the same challenges that many of you do, trying to help other staff and lay leaders catch the vision for how God is calling us to meet the needs of the communities where we live.

Let’s face it: it’s hard work. The challenges can be daunting. Changing up the way we do things can be a little scary. Results (in the ways we are used to measuring them) can take a while.

I got a call from a guy in my congregation a couple of weeks ago. He and his wife and kids would definitely tell you they are part of our church family—probably even that they attend worship regularly (if you are willing to define regularly as once every six to eight weeks, which, in technical terms, is in fact regularly—and in practical terms is an increasingly normal definition). He had been in a meeting with the Recreation Director for the massive and famously prickly homeowner’s association in which our church happens to be located. They were meeting about a local Relay for Life event, nothing to do with our church at all, except tangentially the strong support we have given Relay in the past. But as they talked, this Recreation Director mentioned how he had been wanting to partner with one of the churches in the community to do a Teen Night Out periodically.

Now, regular-guy thought this was a great idea. He called me. I thought it was a great idea. In fact, it aligned with every principle of community engagement and relationship building in every book published by EMC3. It would be a partnership which met a community need. It would build relationships with local teens and their parents. It would foster a bond with the hard-to-crack community leaders. It wasn’t even a difficult event to envision in terms of resources and volunteers. It felt like a no-brainer.

Unexpectedly, however, when I went to my next staff meeting and pitched it, the reception was chilly. Actually, that’s making it sound more positive than it was. The reception was downright frigid. The children’s and youth ministry folks explained that they had made some attempts to partner with the community like this before. These had not been experiences that enhanced their ministries in tangible ways. They had concerns:

• We don’t want to own this new thing—our plates are full with current commitments.
• Our facility is probably not available. It’s going to be very hard to schedule.
• We’re worried they are talking about a partnership, but they are really wanting us to do all the work while they sit back and take the credit.
• It doesn’t seem like this would be a thing that people would directly associate with our regular ministries.
• Our resources are limited (see bullet point above).

These were all legitimate concerns. They weren’t just excuses. But they also seemed locked in old-school thinking, a model that too often limits how we think ministry should look. All too often we reasonably respond to out-of-left-field opportunities with “no,”Yes but deep community connection involves a counter-intuitive “yes.” (I encourage you to read Robert Schanese’s book, Just Say Yes, which gets at the heart of this institutional change from a culture of “we can’t” to a culture of “why not.”)

Tony Schwartz, in an excellent recent post in The New York Times, called “The Power of Starting with Yes,” notes that our “no” reflex is a very natural response that has kept us safe as a species from all manner of danger (the very thing we holler at toddlers near hot stoves and teenagers near the hedges of cliffs, he argues). But this negative reflex has a chilling effect on creativity and possibility:

There is a difference, however, between surviving and thriving. Because our survival is no longer under constant threat, many more of us have the opportunity to focus on thriving. The problem with “no” as a starting place is that it polarizes, prompts defensiveness and shuts down innovation, collaboration and connection.

And it’s not just individuals and institutional ministries that are thwarted by this defensive instinct. I am a big fan of Windows phones—you can stop laughing anytime now—but the good folks at Microsoft, having said “no” to innovation again and again, have utterly abandoned me as a fan and consumer. I’ll be reluctantly moving on to an Android phone. (If you are a real geek about such things, read about Microsoft’s failure to embrace mobile here. It’s unfortunate, because the age of the connected smart gadget is upon us—gadget geeks check out the state of gadgetry here!).

A failure to embrace the realities of the changing world means passionate individuals will go where they feel valued and engaged. This is true in business. It’s true in technology. It’s true in ministry.
And the key to engagement—the Gospel-inspired key, I might add—is saying, “Yes!” Yes to God, yes to people, yes to communities. It can be messy, this saying of “yes.” It can be challenging. But it sure to keep us on our toes and at our best.

Imagine the scenario introduced above if the bullet-pointed objections were turned on their heads:

We don’t want to own this new thing—our plates are full with current commitments.

BUT maybe that’s old school thinking, that we have to be in charge of everything ourselves. What if this is a great opportunity to get some new people involved to put their own skills and passions to work (maybe like regular-guy, generator of the phone call that started it all)?

Our facility is probably not available. It’s going to be very hard to schedule.

Sure, this is complex logistically, but what if our obsessive goal becomes having somebody in our facility (from our own ministry or from the community) during every single available hour? We might have to get very creative with space. But think of the connections that might be made and the reputation as a kind of community center we might foster.

We’re worried they are talking about a partnership, but they are really wanting us to do all the work while they sit back and take the credit.

What if we decided we didn’t care who got the credit as long as kids from the community had a positive experience and we had an opportunity to meet a community need?

It doesn’t seem like this would be a thing that people would directly associate with our regular ministries.

What if we are less focused on our branded ministries and programs and more focused on building individual relationships? What if this event turned out to be even cooler than what we are currently doing in our branded ministry?

Our resources are limited (see bullet point above).

What if accepting this challenge forced us to develop new community connections with local business to help support this initiative? What if it made us take a hard look at exactly how we allocate our current resources? Or it prompted us to ask our own folks to dig deeper in support of a community outreach?

All of these could be worthwhile outcomes. And even if the whole thing fizzles or never really works out, the process will produce new relationships, ideas, and perspectives that God will put to good use down the road.

What are your stories of the surprising things that have happened when you and your ministries have said “yes”? What are the missed opportunities you grieve that have been the result of an automatic “no”? Share your experiences in the comments section.