Think back. In the past year, how many times have you sat in a church service in which people were invited to ask questions? The previous blog quoted from You Lost Me, in which David Kinnaman says, “Fully one-third of young Christians (36 percent) agree that ‘I don’t feel that I can ask my most pressing life questions in church.’”
Questions Begin Early
Why do toddlers and preschoolers ask so many questions? Because, instinctively, they know they can learn by doing so. Why do people die? Where do babies come from? How do birds fly? And, as any parent knows, the answer to one question may uncork a dozen more. Imagine a family gathering where the unwritten rules allow no one to ask questions. Sadly, such rules seem to shape the agenda in a great many contemporary gatherings of God’s family.
And yet the Master disciple-maker, Jesus, relied on the give-and-take of questions and answers as a key part of his teaching technique. How large a part did questions play in Jesus’s relationships with others during his brief teaching ministry on earth? To get a better idea about that, I counted the questions in the first and fourth gospels. (I did not tally questions in Mark and Luke, because they repeat many found in Matthew.) By my quick scan through Matthew and John, Jesus asked 130 questions—and was asked about the same number by others. Questions swirled around Jesus:
He asked them of his disciples: "You of little faith, why are you so afraid?" "Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?" “How many loaves do you have?” “Do you still not understand?”
Jesus asked questions of others: "Why do you entertain evil thoughts in your hearts?” “Do you want to get well?” “Why is my language not clear to you?” "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?"
His disciples asked Jesus: "Lord, to whom shall we go?” "But Rabbi . . . a short while ago the Jews tried to stone you, and yet you are going back there?" "Lord, are you going to wash my feet?" "What does he mean by 'a little while'?”
Others asked Jesus: "What must we do to do the works God requires?" “What is truth?” "By what authority are you doing these things?" "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?"
Clearly, questions, responses, and dialogue played a prominent part as Jesus began to build his Church. It seems reasonable, then, to think he would endorse that same kind of learning context in the later stages of Church-building and disciple-making. Centuries of church tradition, though, seem to rule out participation within our Sunday gatherings.
Can questions fit into church meetings in 2017? And, if so, how? Good questions. Glad you asked.
In answer to the first question: Yes, questions can fit. In response to the second question: My book, Curing Sunday Spectatoritis, includes interviews with 25 church leaders who tell how, in various ways, they are making their church services more participatory. Sample just a few of the techniques they are using to open their Sunday meetings to more interaction:
One pastor, following the sermon, calls for questions and comments. Sometimes he replies to questions himself. On other occasions, he invites a knowledgeable panel to respond to the points people raise. The panel may join him up front or speak from roving microphones. Another pastor, says: “Fairly often, at the end of a sermon series, people will have questions that the teaching has raised but not answered. So we will form a panel of, say, three persons up front. Then we open things up for questions from the body. This usually makes up the entire service.”
Reports from the Front.
After hearing requests for spoken testimonies, one pastor began asking two from the congregation to tell their faith-stories during Communion services. Normally, those asked to speak are not in the limelight. Better, the pastor believes, to ask “average” believers others can identify with. As a result, some have come requesting opportunities to share their stories. Although these are not Q & A sessions, the sharing in these reports actually responds to many applicational questions people struggle with.
A church in Minnesota opens its Sunday meetings not with the traditional “stand-up-and-greet” moment but with “community time.” The leaders usually offer two suggested ice-breaker questions to help get conversations started. Instead of taking 60 seconds, this segment lasts from five to eight minutes. As one of the pastors says, “You can’t remember someone unless they share something with you.”
A Real Meal.
The book includes an account from my own experience while serving as pastor. During our once-per-month celebration of the Lord’s Supper, we filled the room with tables and embedded Communion into an actual meal. We emphasized the need to keep the menu simple—often soup, bread, and perhaps a salad. The families from one of our small groups—including children and young people--provided the meal and did the serving.
Each month the message for Communion Sunday focused on some aspect of Jesus’s death and its meaning for us. Then, during the meal, we paused as we shared the bread and later the cup, during which times someone briefly helped us focus on the significance of each. Conversations across the tables liberated us from any somber stiffness. Yet the focus on the meaning of the bread and cup preserved the seriousness of what we were remembering. We found that dining together restored a sense of family and one-anothering. On each table we included a few suggested conversation-starters designed to stimulate mutual encouragement and spurring on.
Sharpening a Well-Used Tool
Jesus promised, “I will build my church” (Matt. 16:18). Dialogue made up one of the major construction tools for this Carpenter/Church-Builder. The results in that first-century Church proved he knew what he was doing. As we Christians meet together in our century, can we sharpen and use the same tool?