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8 Lame Excuses Church Leaders Make

There’s no question that ministry is hard.

You know that. You feel it every day. So do I.

But sometimes we make it harder than it needs to be.

I love talking to church leaders about their ministry and the opportunities and obstacles they see. But time and again, I hear leaders make excuses as to why they aren’t making more progress.

Being a bit addicted to progress myself, I can relate. I tend to generate excuses whenever I’m not satisfied. It’s such a bad habit. And it helps no one.

The human brain is pretty much an excuse-making factory. Kill one excuse and two more pop up to replace it.

In this post a few years ago, I outlined the top 5 excuses ministry leaders make.  Why did I outline them? Because I’m more convinced than ever that you can make excuses or you can make progress, but you can’t make both.

Below, I outline 8 (more) lame excuses church leaders make that we’d all be better off without. And as hard as it is to admit, I’ve used all of them at some point.

I just absolutely need to stop. Because I want to continue making progress.

My guess is so do you.

One of the best practices you can develop as a leader is to identify your excuses and eliminate them. Start thinking and talking a different game.

If you stop making excuses you’ll start making progress.

lame excuses

1. The soil is harder here

I have heard this excuse so often I’m no longer sure the soil is soft anywhere.

Look, I get that sometimes the soil is hard. I live north of Toronto, Canada, where according to our estimates 96% of the people in our region aren’t in church on any given Sunday.

You can use that reality as an explanation or a justification.

If you use the hard soil as an explanation, you’ll make progress. An explanation explains why it’s hard and seeks to solve it. By God’s grace, we’re reaching almost 1200 people every weekend, most of whom are unchurched.

If you use your reality as a justification, you’re doomed. You’ll never make progress, because you’ve already explained why you can’t make progress. If you think you can’t, you won’t.

So what do you do?

If the soil is hard where you are, grab a shovel.

2. Well, they’re the exception to the rule

If you’re thinking your situation is tough and someone points out a different example, you’ll be tempted to dismiss the example as an exception.

You might say, “Look, no one can develop a strong church here.”

Well, Hillsong is growing a church in New York City.

Oh well, you say. That’s Hillsong.

Tim Keller is growing a church in New York City.

Oh well, you say. That’s Tim Keller.

Mars Hill grew a church in Seattle.

Oh well, you say. That was Mark Driscoll and look how that turned out. (Yes, but don’t ignore the good that happened either.)

John Gagnon is growing a church in New England (of all places). 

Oh well, you say. That’s Josh Gagnon. (You can listen to Josh’s story on Episode 17 of my Leadership Podcast via iTunes or below.)

I could go on and on (and on). Bottom line: if you’re making excuses, you’ll have a thousand reasons why they have made progress and you haven’t.

You’ll also have a thousand reasons why they’re an exception to the rule.

If you think that progress is an exception to the rule, get a new rule.

3. The culture has changed too much

Culture is changing rapidly. And that actually does mean that even people who attend church are attending less often.

Sure, the culture has changed.

And the culture will continue to change.

The problem occurs when you don’t.

The gap that opens between you and the culture creates irrelevance.

When that happens, church leaders start pointing fingers at sports teams that play Sundays, at stores that are open 24/7, at pro football, dance, cheer and anything else that’s luring people away.

The reason people are choosing other options is because they think they’re more interesting than yours is.

Yet you have the Gospel. You should be far more interesting. Far more passionate. Far more on fire.

Make your ministry so compelling that the local sports teams say “I wish church would shut down. Nobody plays here anymore.”

4. It’s too sunny

Apparently the weather is keeping a lot of people out of heaven.

I regularly hear “The reason people aren’t here is because it’s too sunny/rainy/snowy/foggy/nice/miserable/hot/cold/windy out. (Yes, I’ve actually heard someone say the wind impacts church attendance.)

It appears we can actually have no weather if church is going to thrive.

Look, I’m from Canada. We have weather. Our church was launched in a blizzard. We get three feet of snow sometimes and we still have church.

Plus, we actually get all four seasons here. In the summer, it hits 90ºF and people flock to the beach.

But I’ve also discovered that people will drive through almost anything for something they value.

Parents get up at 5:00 a.m. and drive through blizzards to get their kids to hockey. They will spend thousands of dollars they don’t have to make sure their kids get top soccer training and spend five nights a week at the field.

So what’s the lesson?

The best way to battle the weather is to have something so compelling people don’t want to miss it.

When they don’t want to miss it, they won’t. Unless their life is danger. And even then, that doesn’t stop hockey in Canada or football in the US.

Again, we have the Gospel. When we present it well, that should be a mission worth everything.

5. There are so many online options

It’s true. 15 years ago you had to travel to a church to hear a speaker, or buy a CD (or tape) and have it mailed to you.

Now it’s all on your phone. For free.

Too many leaders see it as a significant loss that their church is listening to their favourite mega-church pastor or conference speaker or watching another church online.

What if it’s a gain?

What if your people develop faster as a result, both as followers of Jesus and as leaders?

Besides, a podcast doesn’t create community. Or real relationship.

And you can’t really invite your friend to a podcast.

Listening to or watching ministry doesn’t engage people in the mission the way participation does.

See online options as supplements to what you’re doing, not a replacement for it.

And make what you’re doing so engaging people can’t wait to be a part of it.

Want to drive more engagement in the mission at your church? Here are 7 ways to do it.

6. We can’t find the right team

You’re tempted to say “If I had their people, I’d be as successful as they are.”

Where do you think they got their people?

I think at some point we believe that some leaders were just blessed or got lucky or had great people magically appear.

Occasionally, you find great people.

But you know how most great teams emerge?

You don’t find them. You develop them.

Don’t miss this: great people aren’t found. They’re developed.

7. The big church down the road took all the people

Well, there may actually be a big church down the road.

But did they really take all the people?

If you live in a town of 10,000 people and 10,000 people attend the big church, then chances are they actually do have all the people.

But I’ve never seen that happen.

It’s more likely that there’s a church of 1000 in a town of 25,000, which pretty much leaves 24,000 people left over. And even if 4,000 of them attend other churches, that still leaves 20,000.

Seems like lots of opportunity when you look at it that way.

God makes far more people than any big church has ever reached. So reach them.

8. Every other church is experiencing this too

Misery loves company.

And, sure, the vast majority of churches are stuck or declining.

But to use that as a justification helps no one.

It doesn’t help you. It doesn’t help other churches. And it doesn’t help the people you’re trying to reach.

And secondly, it’s not true. Every single other church is not experiencing stagnation or decline. Or struggle.

What should you do? Figure out what’s connecting with people and adopt it.

In this post I outline 5 characteristics of churches that are actually reaching the next generation of young adults.

Guess what? All 5 characteristics cost zero money. You can start today.

Any Other Excuses?

If you want more strategies, tips and insights on how to turn your church around, they’re in my new book, Lasting Impact: 7 Powerful Conversations That Can Help Your Church Grow. You can get a copy here and check out reader reviews here.

In the meantime, got any other excuses you’ve adopted or heard?

List them in the comment section and then banish them from your vocabulary. I’ll banish them from mine too.

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  • Jessica Fox

    Okay . . . I am definitely confessing that I have used these excuses and I know that I want to change . . . where do I and everyone else start? The patterns of behavior are so entrenched that it’s hard – but I am so done with the excuses, I just don’t know where to go from here.

    • Appreciate that Jessica. I would use the excuses as explanations instead of justifications and get working on what will help you make progress.

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  • Brad Quiring

    Excuse: But people listen to Carey Nieuwhof/Andy Stanley/Bill Hybels/_______ ________ because they are more interesting. Then….work on preaching better!

    • Ha ha. Sometimes I’m still deeply boring. There’s not nearly as much of a gap as people think there is. True story.

  • Seth Lindberg

    That’s the way we’ve always done it. It worked then, why can’t it work now? That’s what we hired the staff to do. That’s not who we are.

  • David Lindner

    Sheesh Carey, you took all the good excuses! Now I guess we just have to get to work! (By the way, sometimes you have to use a pick axe before you can use a shovel.)