Mission, Stephen Colbert & the Power of “Yes!”

Time Magazine compiled a list of the 10 best commencement addresses ever. This list included speeches by Winston Churchill (Harrow College, 1941); John F. Kennedy (American University, 1963) and even Steve Jobs (Stanford, 2005). Also on the list was Stephen Colbert (yes, that Stephen Colbert!) and his 2006 commencement address at little Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. Colbert, who Knox had just awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Fine Arts, closed his address with a challenge about the power of saying, “Yes”:

“When I was starting out in Chicago, doing improvisational theatre with Second City, there was really only one rule … When you improvise a scene with no script … you have to accept what the other improviser initiates … Well, you are about to start the greatest improvisation of all. With no script. No idea what’s going to happen, often with people and places you have never seen before. And you are not in control. So say yes. And if you’re lucky, you’ll find people who will say yes back. Now will saying yes get you in trouble at times? Will saying yes lead you to doing some foolish things? Yes it will. But don’t be afraid to be a fool. Remember, you cannot be both young and wise. Young people who pretend to be wise to the ways of the world are mostly just cynics. Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don’t learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us. Cynics always say no. But saying yes begins things. Saying yes is how things grow. Saying yes leads to knowledge. Yes is for young people. So for as long as you have the strength to, say yes.”

You may or may not like Colbert’s politics, but either way if you want to lead your church toward mission, you’d better listen to his words of wisdom and lead with a “Yes!”  The one thing every leader possesses that every follower needs to engage in mission is permission. And permission always comes in the form of a “Yes.”

Leaders, if you want to see missional engagement in your churches and ultimately a movement, you must lead with a “Yes” to your people’s creative ideas. If your followers can’t get permission from you, then they may never be engaged in the mission. The great temptation is to respond with questions of how. But questions of how need to wait. If we respond with “How could you do that?” we immediately begin to sow seeds of doubt by responding to the individual’s vision with a question about strategy. If we ask, “How much would that cost?” we are responding to their vision with a question of tactics. The questions about “how” will come later on, but the reflex of an innovative leader needs to be “Yes.”

(This is an excerpt from my new book with Alan Hirsch, On The Verge: A Journey Into the Apostolic Future of the Church.)