Saying “I Can’t” May Be Your Missing Key to Success

Confused traffic signal“I can’t” may be the two most liberating words missing from your leadership lexicon.

For years I’ve been told by well-meaning preachers and teachers that if I have enough faith, I can do anything I want to do.

But it’s not true. I can’t do anything I want to do. Neither can you. Knowing and embracing the truth of “I can’t” has freed me, my church and my ministry. And it can free you, too.

Sometimes I’m limited by my abilities (or lack of). I’m 6’ 6” tall, but no matter how hard I work at my ball-handling skills, I can’t play in the NBA.

Sometimes I’m limited by physics. I can’t flap my arms and float up into the sky like a bird.

Sometimes I’m limited by my choices. I can’t walk and not walk at the same time (as the confused traffic signal at the start of this post seems to be saying).

Saying “I can” in those situations isn’t faith, it’s schizophrenia.

It’s a simple fact of life, built into the fabric of how God created a logical world. When we choose one option, it almost always means saying no to another option – sometimes to several other options. And no amount of prayer or faith is going to change that reality. 

So why am I telling you this? Because it’s not bad news. It’s good news.

The truth is always good news, even when we don’t like it. Because it’s real. And acknowledging reality is always the best first step to accomplishing anything of lasting value.


The Value of “I Can’t”

Today’s entire post could probably be summed up in one big, tweetable truth. And maybe it should have been. But I can’t go back on it now, since I’ve already hit the “publish” button. (See how that works?)


“I can’t” isn’t always a lack of faith.

Sometimes it’s a necessary first step in narrowing our focus.


Yep, that’s it.

OK, so maybe “I can’t” isn’t the phrase that works best for you. Try one that does.

  • I won’t
  • I choose not to
  • I refuse to
  • I’m narrowing my options
  • I’m saying “no” to that

However you phrase it, at its root is one undeniable truth. I can’t say a full “yes” to what I’m called to do until I say “no” to what I’m not called to do. (Hey! I got two big tweetable truths out of this one! Sometimes you can have it all!)

But, however you choose to phrase it, they all mean the same thing in the end. We can’t do everything, so we have to pick the best alternative for ourselves in any given situation.

But many of us have been taught a false definition of faith. Because of that, we’re paralyzed by indecision. We’re unable to to say “yes” to good things because we’re unwilling to admit that this means saying “no”, or “I can’t” to other things.


What I’m Not Saying When I Say “I Can’t”

Obviously, I’m not referring to the “I can’ts” that come from fear or lack of faith.

The entire premise and title of my book, The Grasshopper Myth, comes from the Hebrews saying “I can’t” when God was telling them “you can!”

Never say “I can’t” when God says “you can”, no matter how ridiculous or impossible the situation may seem.


Yes, You Can

One of the founding principles of this blog and the ministry of is that not every church is meant to become a big church. But it’s not because I lack faith. It’s because I have enough faith to acknowledge reality.

Your Small Church can’t do what a megachurch can do. So stop trying.

But that’s OK. Because megachurches can’t do what great Small Churches can do, either. That’s why the world needs both/and, not either/or.

When we stop trying to be what we’re not meant to be, we’re free to be what we were meant to be.

I know it’s true because it happened for me, my ministry and my great Small Church.

The moment we realized that we can’t do what megachurches can do, we were OK with it. It was quite a relief, really. It freed us from a burden we were never meant to bear. And it put us on a road to discovering what a great Small Church can do – and we started doing that.

If we hadn’t narrowed our choices, gone against the prevailing “bigger is better” tide and said “we can’t” to big church ways of doing things, my church would never have become a great Small Church and the ministry of would not exist today. I might not even be in the ministry any more.

But we did narrow our choices. We became great at what we can do by saying “no” to what we can’t do – because we were never called to do them in the first place.


What Are You Holding On To? And What’s Holding On to You?

Not every “I can’t” comes from a lack of faith.

Are you, your church or your ministry paralyzed by indecision? Maybe you need to start with some God-guided NOs, I WON’Ts and I CAN’Ts.

Let go of what you’re not called to do. Grab hold of that unique, faith-filled idea you are called to do.

Then be awesome at.


So what do you think? Have you been paralyzed into indecision and inaction because you can’t say “I can’t”?

We want to hear from you. Yes, you!
Enter your comment right below this post and get in on the conversation.

(Confused Traffic Signal photo from caesararum • Flickr • Creative Commons)

13 thoughts on “Saying “I Can’t” May Be Your Missing Key to Success”

  1. Every ministry opportunity is not for your church. Sometime specialization is a good thing. You don’t go to Chic-fil-a for a burger or to In-n-Out for a chicken sandwich. Each place knows what they do well and sticks to it.

    One of the best things for a pastor (24/7 job) is to schedule time for family daily. You schedule it. Then when someone needs your time you can see what your schedule allows. By simply referring to family time as an “appointment” can help relieve the guilt or timidity of declining others demands because you want to be with your family.

  2. I agree, though I think it is less about what I can’t do and more about what I should not be worried about doing. I am not opposed to the idea of large churches in some places, but the modern church growth industry is modernistic, humanistic and sociological – not biblical. Most of the biblical record is about God working in individuals and very small groups of people. The misplaced triumphalism of church growth teaching is definitely crushing and defeating pastors (of all size churches) every day. How much better if we concentrated on being Godly people than on being successful as our culture measures success.

    1. Hi David. Yeah, the word “can’t” doesn’t fit everyone or every situation, for sure. That’s why I threw in some other alternatives.

      I agree that there’s a lot going on in the church world that’s based more on sociological models than a biblical one. But big churches aren’t the only ones susceptible to it – they’re just the most visible. “Misplaced triumphalism” (great phrase) is a big problem everywhere, as you rightly stated.

      One of the core principles of this ministry is that we need biblically sound churches of all styles and sizes. But I’m focusing on the smaller ones because that’s where my ministry is and because there’s so little material out there to help Small Churches be great.

      Thanks for pitching in. Here’s a link to another blog post where I address the issue of New Testament churches and the contrast with the church growth industry, if you’re interested.

    2. David, I think to be fair to the “church growth industry”: it’s not all bad. I am a fan of Christian Schwarz, a German who has really helped me think better about church. He’s written a lot of books, and founded what is now called the “Institute for natural church development”. Years ago in an extensive study of over 1,000 churches, he demonstrated statistically that small churches (even those averaging 50 in attendance!) are much more effective, on a per person basis, at making disciples than big churches. Nature is also full of analogies: the long term “fruit” of a tree is not a megatree, but a forest. The long term fruit of a couple is not a megacouple, but a family, an extended family, maybe one day a nation (see Israel). And the long term fruit of a church should not necessarily be a megachurch, but a whole movement of smaller churches. Moral of the story: if you church gets big, don’t build a bigger building. Start planting new churches!

      1. I agree completely. “Church growth industry” is a generalization that neglects the fact that there are good individuals, good ideas, and good points involved. But my basic point stands… We are drawn to mega trends out of our cultural achievement ethic more than any biblical conviction or pursuit of godliness. It is my humanism that makes me see growing a huge church as the success I long for that will bring me the recognition I deserve and will help me make money with my books on how I did it. 🙂

        It seems to me that we need to value the right things and work our hearts out for the glory of God – in whatever place or circumstance we find ourselves. We should be at peace with obscurity – not plotting to break out… (This is my own evil heart – maybe nobody else ever did.) We should rejoice over even a single soul saved as much as anyone could rejoice over an attendance of ten thousand.

        I agree too about starting more smaller churches rather than having mega churches – generally speaking.

        1. I LOVE this convo between you two, Hugh and Dave. This is a big part of what this website was built for – to stimulate healthy dialog and advance the conversation, even when we might have differing approaches or use different language on some issues.

          Speaking of which, the only place I’d shade things differently from either of you is on the last statement Hugh made and Dave “generally” agreed with, about starting a lot of Small Churches instead of growing bigger ones. I say both/and, not either/or. Let’s have more big and small churches.

          If it makes sense to plant more small churches, do that. If keeping everyone together and nurturing a healthy big church makes sense, do that. In many places, there’s room for more of both, so do it all. As long as we get over our 40-50 year obsession with the idea that big churches are the only ones that really count. I think we can all agree on that.

          Thanks again, guys. I look forward to more from both of you.

          1. You’re always generous with your compliments, Karl – thanks. I don’t know how much I can verify it from my own experience, but I have read that it actually gets harder for a big church to start planting new churches, once they start getting real big. I guess people get used to the “full service church”, and it gets harder to split a group of them off to start a significantly smaller church. Basically, a church needs to make the planting of other churches an essential part of the church vision, it needs to be communicated regularly, and as soon as it’s reasonably possible, the church needs to go for it. It costs money, it costs your best workers, it costs members… if there isn’t a real vision and commitment – BECAUSE it’s the best way to really make disciples! – it’s not likely to happen.

  3. This really blessed me. My husband was called to assist a small ministry and they ended up asking him to be their Pastor. We came there from an average size ministry and I kept wondering what ministries we could incorporate in this ministry. But, I see now.. We weren’t called to be big just big great at what we were called to do. Wow!! Thanks

    1. I’m so thrilled it was a blessing to you, your husband and your church, Lorretta. Going to a smaller church can be a tough wake-up call.

      If you’re interested in reading more things that might help you in your situation, here are links to three of my posts that I think might apply to you.

  4. If New Small Church doesn’t accomplish anything else, there is so much value in this: You’re free to be who and what you’re called to be. You’re free to be great at it. You’re free to stop comparing yourself to your neighbors and everyone else, and you’re free to value what you have. There might even be something preachable in the 10 Commandments that aligns with your revolutionary idea, Karl. Thank you.

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