Suppose someone were to develop new software called “Question Detector.” If you were to use it before, during, and after the sermon on a given Sunday in your congregation, how many questions would the program uncover in the pews or chairs? More importantly, how many of those questions would remain unasked and unaddressed as the meeting ended?
In his blog, Dave Simpson, a pastor in Maryland, asked: “Where did we ever get the idea that Christians shouldn’t ask questions about their faith? . . . We may not be putting inquirers on the rack . . . anymore, but our spoken and unspoken attitudes toward questions are driving people away.”
Church Discussions in Sao Paulo
In doing the research for my book, Curing Sunday Spectatoritis, I interviewed Jane Hawkins. She and her husband, Pete, had planted the Sampa Community Church in Sao Paulo, Brazil. The main teaching for the congregation came by means of DVDs (with subtitles for Portuguese speakers) from Andy Stanley, pastor of the Northpoint Community Church in Atlanta, GA. After the 35-40-minute message, the congregation divided into small groups to discuss what they had heard. In time, the Sampa Church hired a teaching pastor. But the people insisted on keeping the after-sermon discussion period.
The Hawkins have planted 2 other churches using the same approach—messages by Stanley followed by the conversational interaction time immediately afterward. To prompt discussion, the Hawkins use modified questions supplied by Northpoint Ministries. To prevent the risk of any arguments over theology or having to publicly correct someone, they make certain the questions are experiential. As each meeting ends, Pete wraps up the discussion, repeats worthwhile comments, ties everything back to the message, and closes in prayer.
Questions for God
The other day, in response to my blog on the importance of questions, Jane wrote with news from their most recently planted church in Sao Jose dos Campos. At a church gathering earlier that week, she had invited the people to write out their responses to this question: “If you could ask God a question, what would it be?” The results surprised her. “These were mostly Christians,” she wrote, “and yet, look at the questions we got.”
- Why do people feel so lonely that they have to believe in God? Does God really exist?
- If a person doesn’t have faith or believe, will God forgive them at the end? I mean… will he show them the truth and give them a chance to save themselves?
- What’s the difference between God’s permission and God’s plan?
- Why did God change people’s languages at Babel?
- Does God really love everyone independent of their religion or belief?
- Why does God stay silent when you are living a difficult moment? You pray, pray, and nothing happens. Why? Tell me!
- How was God created?
- Is God one person or three? Why do Christians believe that Jesus is also God? What about the Holy Spirit?
- If the Bible was written by humans, how can I believe it is inspired by God?
- If there are so many religions, why do you preach that Christianity is the right one?
Jane said: “I knew during the church discussion no one would call out their question for God. So at the end of the 15-minute discussion period, I read out that list. The room went quiet, because they were questions so many of us could relate to, and they were so honest.” Pete and Jane decided to focus in on the first question and open the meeting up to discuss it. They deliberately chose NOT to have a pastor give the "right" answer, but to let the "ordinary" people themselves make comments.
“Wow,” wrote Jane, “it was powerful. A girl from Estonia talked about life under the Soviet Union where they were taught there is no God, then they became independent and missionaries of all kinds came, and 'Now, I am still trying to figure it out.' Two guys quoted from apologist William Lane Craig. One person talked about the wonders of creation that testify to a Creator. She said this planet, space, and the animal kingdom all testify that they were designed. One person said he had had a prayer answered that week.”
Jane concluded: “All that to say—doing this sort of discussion after the message is revolutionary and community-building. It engages everyone.” Well, almost everyone. One Christian left the fellowship because the whole-church discussion time made him uncomfortable. Jane believes he was more at ease in the traditional church of his childhood. “He is shy,” she said, “and doesn’t mix with people—not visitors, not lost people, not even other Brazilian Christians.”
In his book, Partners in Preaching, Reuel L. Howe, describes the interplay between questions and responses: “Dialogical preaching . . . is a two-way give-and-take; it is a partnership. In dialogical preaching we need the question and the answer. The question awaits the answer, and the answer needs the guidance of the question. The preacher is, so to speak, master-of-ceremonies in the dialogue between question and answer.”
I doubt that question-detecting software will be available anytime soon. No matter. We don’t need it. By simply adopting a shared-church format, leaders will find that church people are eager to ask their pressing questions. The askings will come in all sizes, shapes, and colors. As Jane Hawkins found, many will come as surprises. Some will require I-don’t-know-but-will get-back-to-you responses. But the payoff will come in the form of increased relevance, as the timeless truths of the Gospel sync with the real-life concerns of contemporary Christians.