Asking Better Questions
Recently, the Cross Church School of Ministry went to Portland, Maine, to help church planter Aaron Werner launch Cross Church Portland. This New England city boasts more atheists per capita than any other city in the United States. So the ground is hard but the Gospel, we know, can always penetrate.
In preparation for launch, our team distributed literature and participated in a massive blitz to invite people the weekend before. One of our young men invited a woman to the launch and was met with a question. This young lady, who just happened to be a divinity student at an Ivy League institution asked, “Will the pastor of this new church perform a same-sex wedding?” So there it is…a question with the demand for an answer.
The world has questions for us Christians. Some questions are legitimate questions seeking truth and clarity. Some questions are “gotcha” questions trying to expose or “set us up.” And some questions are innocent questions betraying the naiveté of a culture that just doesn’t know as much about what it means to be Christian as it thinks it does.
All questions deserve an answer. But the type of answer we give is important. Too many times, I believe we prematurely jump to an answer that is definitive and designed to settle the issue. And too many times, the answer we give shuts down dialogue, closes the door, and builds a wall between us and those we are trying to reach with the good news of Jesus Christ.
I am struck in my reading of the Gospels at how Jesus answered the numerous questions that came his way. People wanted Jesus to define himself, to explain himself, to justify his love for them, to defend his actions, etc. And so many times, Jesus would answer the questions posed to him with…a question.
Jesus, it seems, used this technique with just about everyone who crossed his path:
- Disciples of John the Baptist wanted to know why Jesus and his disciples did not fast. Jesus answered, “Can the wedding guests be sad while the groom is with them?” (Matt. 9:14-15)
- The Pharisees, who were constantly trying to catch Jesus violating Jewish law, asked why he broke with the tradition of washing hands before a meal. Jesus questioned back, “And why do you break God’s commandment because of your tradition?” (Matt. 15:1-3)
- When it came to the issue of trying to feed 4,000 hungry people, his own disciples asked where the food would come from. Jesus replied with a question, “How many loaves do you have?” (Matt. 15:32-34)
- Even in one-on-one situations Jesus employed the method. When Peter was confronted by a tax collector and asked if Jesus would pay an entrance tax to the city, Peter replied with the straight out answer of, “Yes.” Jesus, watching the whole exchange transpire, pulled Peter aside and asked not one, but three questions, “What do you think, Simon? Who do earthly kings collect taxes or tariffs from? From their sons or from strangers?” (Matt. 17:24-26)
None of this is isolated. I have presented four examples from a section of Matthew’s Gospel, but this method of answering a question with a question is common throughout all four Gospels over and over again. In fact, one gets the impression that this was Jesus’ preferred way of interaction with all people he encountered.
So back to the question asked by our young divinity student, “Will the pastor of this new church perform a same-sex wedding?” Undoubtedly what this inquiring mind was seeking was a “yes” or “no” answer. And the answer she got was going to determine whether she engaged further or walked away. And no doubt our inclination is to automatically give a “yes” or “no” answer. I mean, it’s pretty straightforward, isn’t it? Well, not really. In fact, most good questions aren’t straightforward. Behind most questions is a lot of baggage: preconceptions, prejudices, preferences, whatever you want to call it. What amazes me about Jesus and his brilliant technique of answering a question with a question is that he was able to take the topic at hand and go further with it. To go deeper to the root behind the question. And in so doing he sucked people in to a much richer exchange. Sometimes this infuriated people who he exposed with his answering question. Other times, he kept an audience that would have turned around and walked away from a simple straightforward answer. But always, always, he pulled back a layer of masking from those with whom he was interacting.
I am left wondering how Jesus would answer the question of our Ivy Leaguer. I have no doubt how he would not have answered her. And then I am pressed. What the Church is desperate for today are believers who know how to ask better questions. We are being confronted today by all manner of inquiry. Our pat answers are a turn-off and I am convinced Jesus would never have answered these good questions the way we do today. This requires us to think in ways we are not used to thinking. It requires the “mind of Christ.” And it is this mind that intrigues the saved and the lost yet today.