The Question Before the Question

Among the questions I receive most often from pastors:  How can our congregation change things that need to be changed?  How can we challenge our focus for more effective ministry?

In the shifting ground of post-pandemic life, with politics upstream of faith and everything up for negotiation in organized religion, those are potentially good, growth-producing questions.  Fundamental assumptions need to be revisited.  Long-standing processes in our ministry are ripe for closer examination.

However, as most of us have learned the hard way, plunging into change, reexamination, or creative disruption, without generous preparation, will not end well – not for the pastor, not for congregation leaders, and not for the community of faith, which may well feel like the rug of stability has been ripped from beneath its feet.

Asking the question before the question can alter this dynamic.  Talking about what must not change – what the community of faith values most and will use to disrupt other parts of church life – offers a way forward that honors the congregation and may also illuminate what change is possible.

It is helpful that Jesus is our guide here (go figure).  When Jesus was asked a question – often one that was laced with the threat of disruption – he often responded with a larger or more revealing question.

In Matthew 15, the disciples asked him, “Where are we to get enough bread in the desert to feed so great a crowd?”  Jesus asked them, “How many loaves have you?”

In Mark 4, caught in a boat in a fierce storm, the disciples woke Jesus and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”  He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”

In Luke 10, “an expert in the law” stood up and asked Jesus the first-century equivalent of ‘will this be on the test?’ namely, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” The so-called expert answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind and your neighbor as yourself.”  And with that, Jesus said, “do this, and you will live,” and then told the parable of the Good Samaritan.  The thrust of that parable hinges on yet another question:  “And who is my neighbor?”

Each of Jesus’ questions is intended to locate our deepest values and clearest identity as children of God.  From there, ministry can shift and be creatively disrupted with generosity and grace.

In Genesis 3, when God confronted Eve and Adam in the garden, God asked, ‘Where are you?”  Then as now, that question that God asked us is not geographical, but spiritual, emotional, theological, and deeply rooted in our values and identity.

How can our congregation change things that need to be changed?  Start with the question before the question.

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