Want a Better Church? Ask Better Questions
“You are a Christian only so long as you constantly pose critical questions to the society you live in . . . so long as you stay unsatisfied with the status quo and keep saying that a new world is yet to come.” —Henri Nouwen
By Brian Mavis
If your spouse calls and says, “I’ve just been in a car accident,” the first question out of your mouth will show what you really care about (and it will also have a direct bearing on your marital relationship). Asking, “Are you OK?” reveals love for your spouse and results in compassion and healing. Asking, “Is the car OK?” reveals concern for your car and . . . I don’t even want to think about how that will end up.
There is such a thing as a dumb question, and more gravely, there are ungodly questions. The Pharisees asked Jesus, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!” (Matthew 15:2). Jesus despised their question and responded with a very different question, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition?” (v. 3).
Questions matter, because they reveal and reinforce our values, and because they set things in motion. The best questions aren’t mere curiosities. They are catalytic. They control conversations. They get people to think differently. They change the course of an individual, family, company, church, or country. Catalytic questions are meaningful and actionable.
God is a catalytic questioner. His first question to man was the existential, “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9). Jesus asked catalytic questions. “Do you want to get well?” (John 5:6). “Who do you say I am?” (Mark 8:29). “Why are you so afraid?” (Matthew 8:26). Paul asked catalytic questions. “Is God the God of Jews only?” (Romans 3:29). “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit?” (1 Corinthians 6:19). These questions are life-changing and world-changing.
Learn the Art
Church leaders need to ask better questions than the two dominant ones: “What was the attendance?” and “How was giving?” If you want to be an influential Christian leader, you need to learn the art of asking catalytic questions. Do you need to measure new things? Ask different questions. Do you need to create a more compassionate, or daring, or hospitable culture? Ask relevant questions. Do you need a fresh vision or breakthrough? Ask questions no one else is asking.
John Wesley is one of the most influential Christian leaders of history. He, along with his brother Charles, started a Christian group at Oxford that critics labeled “The Holy Club.” These students and the early Methodists pursued a deep union with Jesus that changed their lives and changed the world. They accomplished this, in part, by asking 22 questions of themselves each day. Here is a sampling of their questions:
• Am I consciously or unconsciously creating the impression that I am better than I really am? (In other words, am I a hypocrite?)
• Am I honest in all my acts and words, or do I exaggerate?
• Do I pray about the money I spend?
• Am I jealous, impure, critical, irritable, touchy, or distrustful?
• How do I spend my spare time?
• Is there anyone whom I fear, dislike, disown, criticize, hold a resentment toward, or disregard? If so, what am I doing about it?
• Do I grumble or complain constantly?
Choose a Question
What questions do you ask of yourself, your family, your friends, and your church? Spend some time with God and start jotting some of them down. To get your wheels greased, here are some questions to think about.
• What do I need to stop doing?
• What should I be doing instead?
• What should I focus on?
• Where do I make the greatest contribution to the organization? (Call this “the Acts 6 Question.” It is related to the choosing of the seven men “known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom” [v. 3] who helped perform the necessary ministry of caring for the widows, which kept the church from splitting, and allowed the apostles to focus on preaching and other ministries.)
• What should our church stop doing?
• What should our church focus on?
• What is our church known for in the community? (I wouldn’t guess at the answer to this question; you probably need to actually ask your community.)
• What do we WANT to be known for in the community? (It may be very different from what you are known for.)
• What would happen if our teens believed they deeply mattered to the church and the world? What if the teens were told they weren’t the church of the future, they are the church of today? (Teens have incredible energy, optimism, and creativity. Tap into it.)
• What questions do kids have for our church? (Kids are great at asking question. For example, a 3-year-old’s question led to instant photography. Edwin Land took a photo of his daughter and then explained to her it takes a few days to see the results. She asked, “Why do we have to wait for the picture?” Good question. It led to the creation of Polaroid instant photography.)
• What would Jesus do if he were mayor of our town or city? How would his “government come” and “policies be done” in our town as in Heaven? Are we praying for those things? Are we working to be part of the answer to our prayers?
• How could we get every orphan in our state adopted? (This is a question I have been working on for several years. Six years ago, Colorado had more than 800 orphans; today there are 277.)
• Does our teaching attract the irreligious? If not, why not? Does it offend the religious? If not, why not? I think many churches have thought about the first question, but not the second. Consider that Jesus and his disciples routinely offended the religious—often intentionally. Maybe the second question should be asked and addressed first.
• How can we help “elder-brother types” (as in the prodigal son’s brother) be transformed into the likeness of Christ?
• Should we drop the “membership” language? Should we, instead, refer to fellow Christians as “partners” or “Christ followers” or something else? If you want to change what people think of themselves, change what you call them.
• If people asked you whom you were discipling, could you name names? Do your “disciples” know you are discipling them?
• How do we “neighbor” differently from our non-Christian neighbors? Do we know our neighbors’ names? Do we pray for them? Do we invite them for meals? (Since loving our neighbors is the second greatest command, you’d think we’d want to give it a bit more thought—and action.)
I could go on like this for hours. Feel free to take one, two, or a few of these questions and work with them. But the point is to identify the questions God has for you—the ones he wants you to ask yourself, and among your family, friends, church, and community.
Brian Mavis is executive director of the Externally Focused Network. He also serves as the community transformation minister at LifeBridge Christian Church in Longmont, Colorado.