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Leading Through Skepticism: A-P-A Approach for Uniting Communities

Every leader will have “skeptics” in their congregation or business. Skeptics are unsure, unconvinced, change averse, questioning, pestering, and–we’d likely never say this, but we certainly think it—annoying. 




You have three choices in “dealing” with skeptics. 


1. Ignore them. 


This is not a good choice. When skeptics feel unheard or unseen they only become louder. They create dysfunctional relational triangles, and “tribes” will begin to form. Neutrality and “fence sitting” is not an option, or at least it shouldn't be. Ignoring skeptics is like putting your “head in the sand” and pretending down is up. Ignoring skeptics is an ignorant move. 


2. Fight them. 


This isn’t a good choice, either, but it is less harmful than the first choice. Why? At least you’re striving to refute the skeptics’ argument. You’re acknowledging they exist. Unfortunately, most people do not “fight fair.” The fight will likely include gossip and villainization of the skeptics. Leaders may even conjure up even grander nefarious narratives in the dark recesses of their minds. Humans are quite creative. 


You can fight, but you may lose…especially if you’re a newer pastor in an established congregation. The skeptical tenured congregational opinion leader likely thinks, “I was here before you, pastor, and by golly, I’ll be here after you leave. You picked a power fight with the wrong hombre, amigo!” (Unsure where the Spanish came from. Must be from my Duolingo lessons.)


3. Win them over!

Get to know the skeptic. Become curious rather than condemning. Try to figure out the deeper why? behind their skepticism. Figure out what makes them tick and encourage the gifts you see in them. Be genuinely interested in them. Ask questions that get them to talk about themselves. Everyone wants to talk about themselves. 

Who knows? A skeptical enemy may become an ally. 


Yet, here is where leadership gets even more complex. What do you do if you inherit a skeptical community or church? Instead of just one person, you encounter a large group of people who are skeptical, especially to any change that could steal their significance or power, as small as that power may be. Changing a culture of skepticism is harder than turning a skeptical enemy into an ally, but it is not impossible. Nothing is impossible with God. 


Here is a helpful communication strategy I recently heard from LCMS Texas District mission executive, Jon Braunersreuther. He probably got it from someone else, and now I’m sharing it with you. 


When speaking or writing to skeptical audiences, especially audiences averse to change, remember the acronym A-P-A. Eat the A-P-A! (That’s a stretch. Sorry.)


Avoid 


Tell your skeptical audience what you promise to avoid. To do something you promise not to do is the sin of commission. Assure them that boundaries exist which tell us what is out of bounds. You’re not going to go out of bounds. (Just a note: These boundaries are often negotiated relationally, unless you’re blessed enough to have these boundaries articulated in written policy. Written is to be desired, and will likely require a governance adjustment of some sort.)  Let the skeptical audience know what you agree to avoid. The anxiety in the group will begin to ease, and reduced anxiety opens up possibilities for creative suggestions. 


Let’s use drums in worship as an example. (Let the record show—I am a fan of percussion. This is just an example.) The pastor and the congregation agree to forbid drums in worship. Imagine they actually voted as a congregation to include an anti-drum ruling into their by-laws. The pastor knew of the anti-drum policy when he accepted the call. Yet, one Sunday morning, he had the hair-brained idea to put up a drum set on the altar. He didn’t think it would be a big deal. Oh my! He was radically under-prepared for how his sin of commission would upset the equilibrium of the congregation. 


Preserve


Tell your skeptical audience what you promise to keep doing. To not do what you promise to do is the sin of omission. Assure the congregation that you know the boundaries and are committed to upholding them. Assure your team that you’re committed to the same values, both articulated and not. Let them know what you plan to continue doing. Some may call this “buttering up” the skeptic. I do not see it that way. Clearly identifying what is avoided and preserved is wise. Period. To do otherwise is unwise. 


Back to the drums-in-worship example. The pastor really wants some element of percussion in worship. He shares this desire with active skeptical-opinion leaders by starting with what he will preserve in the Divine Service. He assures them that the Invocation through Benediction (normal) order of service will be maintained and that hymns on the organ will still be the norm. He then assures them that he will avoid choosing music that is overly repetitive and theologically shallow. Heads are beginning to nod. Buy-in is coming. The Holy Spirit is uniting the congregation to their pastor. 


Finally…


Achieve 


Pastor or business leader, this is why you get paid the “big bucks.” This is your moment to cast vision. Talk about a preferred future where heresy is avoided, the liturgy is valued, and creative solutions are offered to reach more people with the Gospel. A-P-A embraces the value of “both/and” thinking rather than leading with fear and an “either/or” mindset. 

Leaders too often lead out of scarcity, with a defeatist attitude toward skeptics. I pray this is not true for you. 


The fearful pull of internally focused ministry is so strong. Serve me/us, pastor. Don’t change, pastor. Don’t forget about us, pastor, in your pursuits to reach more people with the Gospel. I have even heard church members sinfully say, “I don’t want to grow. I like our congregation small. At least I can know everyone.” This protective mentality must kindly and clearly be confronted by courageous congregational leaders. This mentality grieves the heart of our God who loved us enough to send us His Son! The local church is now sent to achieve—by the Holy Spirit’s power—the depopulation of hell. The days are too short for leaders to live in fear, hampered from their unique God-sized mission to reach people with the Gospel in their community!


Drums in worship are adiaphora—neither commanded nor forbidden in Scripture. (I’d love to hear the biblical and confessional argument against percussion in worship.) Are drums in worship a “felt need” for some in your church and surrounding community? If so, remember A-P-A…and make sure you develop a good drummer.  If not, by all means, avoid using percussion in worship. 


To close, I believe if leaders in the LCMS used A-P-A, our divisive skepticism would erode under the glorious banner of a church body united in the common confession of making Christ known. Just sayin’.


 



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