At just about every church conference or leadership event there is a “meet and greet” routine that goes something like this: We politely introduce ourselves identifying the name and place of our congregation, and the first question is “how big is your church?”
Translation: How many people attend on Sunday mornings?
According to researchers, the majority of us ‘stretch’ or exaggerate our response, citing perhaps the attendance we had on one Christmas Eve several years ago. (Honestly, haven’t you ‘upped’ the count occasionally in these circumstances or maybe when you’re reporting to your supporters? I know I have.)
I have also been asked, more than once, how many conversions, how many baptisms, how many donors, how many newcomers and so on.
On all counts, if our ‘success’ and significance are measured by large numbers than we have failed, and are indeed, quite insignificant.
But what if we ask (and answer) different questions?
- What if it’s not about being successful in terms of numerical scorecards but about being faithful?
- What if our significance has little to do with our pew count on Sunday mornings?
That could change everything.
Different Questions Change Everything
That could change how I think about what it means to be church and what it means to be a follower of Jesus.
A friend-colleague of mine returned from a different sort of church conference and shared his “aha moment.” It was not what I expected.
He explained that at the beginning of the event, participants had been instructed not to introduce themselves with their church information but rather with what neighborhood they were from, how long they had lived there and what they appreciated about it. He observed that many in the room couldn’t even name the neighborhood they lived in!
It changed everything.
I heard about another congregation that was in the midst of a pastoral search. Along with the usual requests for resumes and references, the search team asked candidates to include the contact information of several of their neighbors—as references.
It changed everything. (In other words, they ‘lost’ some applicants.)
I used to go into conversations with neighbors thinking about what questions I might ask, what opportunities their might be to invite them to church, to share the Gospel, to tell my story- how? When might I ‘interrupt’ and get to the important stuff?
Now I enter in openly, humbly pondering what God might be up to in this Image-Bearer? How is she or he my teacher and what am I meant to learn from him or her?
It’s changed everything.
The Neighborhood Question
One of the questions I now ask church leadership and pastors as we begin to assess where they are at missionally is how much of your time, your job description is allocated to your neighbors, to good neighboring practices. I wonder with them what might happen if ten percent of their time, of their “job” was to be spent in their ‘hood?Their monthly goals and performance reviews would then include reflections on how well they were doing at being good neighbors. How would their stories change? How would they be changed? What might happen if ten percent of their 'job' was to be spent in their ‘hood? Click To Tweet
Unfortunately before we get to either of those latter questions, the usual response is that their church would never allow it. The church wants the pastor to focus on them. After all, that’s what they’re paying them for, right?
The contrary question: How might it be the responsibility of the pastor/church leadership to model what it means to be a faithful follower of Jesus the one who commanded us to first and foremost to love our neighbors as ourselves?
Changing the questions makes a difference for us corporately—and personally.
Questions That Help Us Be Like Jesus
Traditionally in my tribe, elders would visit every household once a year to review how that person/family was “doing spiritually.” (There would be more visits if there were concerns!)
The elder would ask about and comment on one’s Sunday service attendance which was the primary determinant as to how good a Christian you were. Those who attended twice a Sunday were better Christians; as were those who joined Bible study and served in some way. “Goodness” was equated with attendance and follow-up questions continued along that same vein of assessment. Do you do personal or family devotions every day? Are you tithing 10%?
But are affirmative answers to such questions really a good indication of, or marker for, my spiritual growth and commitment?
In other words, if I do all these things to the nth degree, will I necessarily be more like Jesus, loving my neighbor as myself? Bearing witness to the Kingdom of God in word, deed and thought right where I live?
We all know the answer to that question: We have seen it played out over and over again in numerous ways: the pastor who has had numerous affairs; the elder who abuses his spouse; the deacon who steals from the church pot; the members who are in church on Sunday but were drunk as skunks the night before.
Unfortunately the oft repeated old adage, “that going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than going to McDonalds makes you a Big Mac” – still fits.
Of course I am not saying that participating in a worship service every week and other such practices are wrong or insignificant, don’t miss what I’m saying. I do, however, believe that asking different questions leads us to very different places—different responses, attitudes and actions. Are the answers to our questions really an indication of spiritual growth and commitment? Click To Tweet
Questions Worth Asking
We’re learning to ask different questions in our communities when we gather. We might, for example, invite participants to tell about some of their interactions with neighbors from their week:
- How were you present to them?
- What did you learn from each one?
- Where/how did you see God at work and how will you join the Spirit in that?
Jesus asked different questions:
- Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” (Mark 5:9; Luke 8:30) In other words, “You’re important to me.”
- Then Jesus asked, “Who touched me?” (Luke 8:45) In other words, “I care.”
- [Jesus] asked him, “What do you want me to do for you?” (Luke 18:41) In other words, “I can help.”
- And Jesus asked the lawyers and Pharisees, “Is it lawful to cure people on the Sabbath, or not?” (Luke 14:3) In other words, “People are my priority.”
- “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” (Luke 10:36)
- “But who do you say that I am?” (Matt.16:15)
Asking different questions changes everything.