I asked people in my community, “What is your biggest question about Jesus, spirituality, Christianity or religion?” Based on those questions, I planned to preach a five week series called “Your Biggest Question” in May and June 2014.
But the questions I received were not even close to what I was expecting.
I’ll tell you what I expected. I expected questions about evil and suffering and the goodness of God. I expected questions about other religions, questions about the exclusivity of Christianity, questions about the trustworthiness of the Bible. In short, I expected questions of the skeptical, seeking sort. And so I planned to prepare, you know, “apologetic for the Christian faith” messages. Heady stuff, intellectually brilliant, 😉 make C.S. Lewis proud kind of stuff.
Confession time: I thought I already knew what kind of questions I would get. I’d even set aside a stack of my best apologetic books, featuring authors such as C.S. Lewis, N.T. Wright, Timothy Keller and Gregory Boyd, ready for my message preparation. But after the questions started rolling in, I put them back on the shelf. Yes, I did ask for questions honestly. Yes, I did really want to hear what people had to say. BUT, in actual fact, I thought I already knew what they would ask.
Was I wrong. The questions were nothing like what I expected. They were much more personal, much more real. I received questions like “How can I help my marriage to flourish?”, “What did God create humans for, anyway?” and “How do I overcome church hurt?” Life questions, heart cries. The most common question raised was a variation on this theme: “How do I hear God’s voice?” prompting me to take two weeks out of the five I’d planned to address just this question. (By the way, if you’re interested, you can listen to these messages here.)
Now, you may be thinking “that’s because your church is full of Christians and you don’t have seekers or skeptics in your community.” Nope. It might surprise you to know that, in our church of 200+, with maybe 140 in average Sunday morning attendance, we’ve got a healthy number of spiritual seeking, previously unchurched, first-time faith explorers. We’ve also got a significant group of folks who would be “new to faith” or just awaking to a long-time dormant faith.
I learned a few things through this experience.
1. I shouldn’t assume I know the questions without asking first. I need to ask and listen. I have grown so much in my understanding of the people in my community because I asked for this feedback. It is too easy to assume my people are asking questions that “others” are asking without taking the time to listen to the people who are right here. And who wants a pastor who is preaching an imaginative audience vs. the real people who are present?
2. People want practical help. Folks (in my community, at least) do have intellectual faith struggles, but the dominant questions they are asking are pretty practical. Marriage, discernment, healing, purpose of life kinds of questions. They want God’s guidance in their daily lives, and that goes both for committed Jesus-followers and for people just beginning to follow Jesus who haven’t made any faith confession yet.
3. Discussion is important. Together, we can speak truth into each other’s lives as we address the questions that matter most. Some of you know, I often reserve some time toward the end of my messages for discussion, questions and conversation. During this series, our discussion times have been very lively. Last week, addressing the question “How do I overcome church hurt?”, I reserved even more time than normal, feeling strongly during my preparation that people needed to share with each other how they have overcome church hurt. We were not disappointed. During our discussion time, which you can hear in full on the audio recording (to be posted soon), we had many people share how they have overcome personal hurt and moved toward healing. It was a rich and valuable experience for everyone. And I know the discussion continues far beyond our time on Sunday.
I’m glad we’ve grappled through some of our community’s Biggest Questions. We’ve learned a lot together, and I, as a pastor, have grown so much in my understanding of our church’s faith journey. Here’s my question for you: What kind of responses would you receive if you asked the people in your church for their biggest faith questions? Would the answers surprise you? Would they change the way you think about your community? Would they shift the quality of your conversations together?
I think they would.
Why don’t you try it? Ask, listen and see where the conversation goes. You might be surprised, but you won’t be disappointed.