The value of a good question

As I grow older I enjoy a good question more than a “pat” answer. A good question lets me explore, and exploring can be challenging to what I already know, but it can also expand what I know and experience. So-called pat answers — those that have a tone of ‘this is the answer and no one better argue’ or ‘ we all agree on this so you better too’ or ‘this answer has the situation all boxed in and organized neatly’ actually can make me angry, because I’ve learned life is not a neat box. Nor is God, nor are God’s ways. I’m hoping — because that’s a direction I’ve gone in in life — that appreciating that God or God’s ways are not to be too easily put in a box is a sign of spiritual maturity… otherwise I’m in trouble. It seems that just like children need to learn rules and live by them literally for a time in order to live a decently ordered life later as adults – a life that by then knows the spirit or intent of the law beyond it’s letter – so we need to learn the law of God in order to be free in Christ later.

But some don’t learn the value of a good question, and that is both frustrating and saddening for me.

An important part of the work of an STM is to be good at asking questions, and to ask good questions. I’m learning that is an art I need a lot of learning in. I am encouraged and inspired today by some good questions I was exposed to after both services on Sunday. And then in my inbox there was also an article by someone from the Alban Institute named Cameron Harder who reflects on questions. And so this blog post was born!

At some point both the Elders and the Transition Team will be getting some training in asking good questions, and this is in some ways a preview.

A good question opens up the possibility of getting more and new information. That is it’s power. Bad questions limit. Jesus was asked many poor questions, questions which revealed the limited views of those asking. For example: “Who sinned, this man’s parents or he himself?” is one of those. It only leaves two options for an answer, and so is a ‘closed’ or ‘pat’ question. The question reveals the ideas the questioners already have, namely “someone directly connected to this man must have sinned to cause this man’s problems.” But if that assumption on the part of the questioners is not how Jesus sees things, then how can he answer if he only has two options based on a false assumption? Jesus has to address the assumption, not the question. This happens repeatedly. Another example of a two option question is “Should we pay taxes to Caesar?” I love Jesus’ surprise answer and how he addresses the assumptions in that question and the thing they overlook in asking it. They are eager to get Jesus in trouble with either Rome (for saying “don’t pay taxes”) or with the Religious leaders and those who opposed the occupation by Rome (for saying “pay taxes” to the oppressor).

And I’ve already preached on the question of “who is my neighbour” and how Jesus answers with a story that becomes a serious challenge to the man asking the question, and a blowing open of the thinking of those who are willing to expand their thinking. But I won’t belabour that again here (much) except to say Jesus challenged the man’s ‘letter of the law written on stone’ thinking that had him believing he could earn his way to eternal life by obeying the letter of the law. No, Jesus points out that some have the spirit of the law, it’s intent, written on their hearts, and so act as neighbours in the way the law commands, where legalism would excuse not acting. As the article I referred to reading earlier states: “The question, Jesus realized, was the lawyer’s way of protecting his present lifestyle by implying that there were those who didn’t deserve his help. The lawyer wanted to avoid change yet obtain the approval of God.” In other words, maybe he was still a child, and needed to mature. We too shape our questions and answers to protect our current views. Where is the spiritual and personal growth in that?

So, what makes a question not helpful?

Well, a question that demands a “Yes” or a “No” is not helpful. It may be easy, it may be neat and clean, and it may seem clear, but it does not help the asker to get to know the answerer. It views the world as black and white, yes or no only and leaves little room for anything in between.

So too, a question that only gives two answer options within it, is what I think of as a ‘closed’ question. It is not helpful.

A question that reveals a bias on the part of the questioner is also not helpful. “Why is worship so boring?” is in that category, as is “why don’t we talk more about the Holy Spirit?” The first leaves out any possibility that for some it is not boring, and the second the possibility that the Holy Spirit is being talked about somewhere else, so it closes things off, and they both carry a negativity that also does not generate positive discussion. In fact, they invite the whole conversation to go in a negative direction. Others, that might happen related to church, could be “why don’t we do xyz anymore?” or “why do we have to learn these new/old songs all the time?” Not helpful.

Questions that are a diversion, an avoiding of the real question or the real problem are also not helpful, though they can be fun to debate. I’ll use a safe example, the one the Lutheran author of the article uses:

“Diversion questions often pop up in congregational debates. For several years many of our Canadian rural church­es have been heatedly debating whether they should be blessing same-sex marriages-even in tiny communities where there are no gay or lesbian couples interested in marriage. Meanwhile, eco­nomic changes that are depopulating those communities and dis­mantling their social infrastructure go unquestioned. Energy that should be devoted to building communities under stress is going into fighting an issue whose resolution will have little or no im­pact on their particular community, no matter how it is resolved.” – Cameron Harder, Alban Institute

See how that works? So such questions are not helpful and are in fact not important, and help us as a community avoid asking more important questions about problems that are right under our noses.

When good questions are put to a healthy congregation, they give an opportunity for those folks to work it through themselves, and although they might be hard questions because they might help us focus on things under our noses, that will give a better result in the long term. If I as an STM come in and prescribe answers without helping you deal with questions, most of you might nod and agree to my face, but not have resolved things when I am no longer around. Good, appropriate questions, well asked, generate interest in exploring their own experiences and the stories of others, in search of answers, their own answers, not closed or pat answers. Once they have an answer (or “operating theory” as I put it for myself) they will be much more understanding of things and much more committed to following through on the solutions than if they were told what the answer was.

Good questions may touch on more difficult things, but asked well, can be encouraging. This is especially so if the questions have a positive tone and nature to them, such as “tell me about about a time when this church was doing well in outreach?(or xyz)” Poorer attempts to get the same information, that will take the conversation in a negative direction would be “Has the church ever been good at outreach?” Do you see the difference in the questions? If a person is inclined to be negative, they will launch into some rant on the second question. If they are really determined, they could do so with the first one too, but it would be harder because it asks for positive experiences. And a sequence of such positive questions about what was good in the past, can lift people’s spirits as they remember, and can raise hope that some similar things can be repeated.

When I visited people in the congregation, in almost every household I asked two “open” questions: “How did you experience the ministry of your last pastor” and “What was your experience/impression of how his time here ended?” These are questions that were carefully formed to not bias your answers, and to give you room to tell stories of your experiences, your puzzlement, your pain, and your relief if that was the case. If I had asked “Tell me what bothered you about…” “Did the ending go well, Yes or No?” or “What do you think the council did wrong?” I would have heard entirely different things than the open questions I did ask brought to me.

I love a good question put well.

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