Much of life involves learning to ask the right questions – and most of us are very good at asking the wrong ones. Sometimes the distance between the right question and the wrong one is very small. Consider, for example, the difference between, “How can I help?” and “What do you need?” The first question focuses on the person asking the question and forces the person being asked into the position of asking for help or rejecting the asker’s offer of help. The second question focuses on the person being asked and is more open, inviting the person being asked to admit a need without directly asking for help, and leaving open the option of replying, “Nothing,” without rejecting the offer of help. Of course, the second question also implies that the person being asked definitely does have needs, so it’s not the right question in all circumstances. Sometimes, “Do you need anything?” is a better question. Asking the right question always requires our awareness of the circumstances surrounding the question itself – including our own motivation.
As individuals, we need to be aware of the subtexts of our questions, particularly when those subtexts say something about status, responsibility, or relationship. Think about the differences in these pairs of questions.
Parent to child: “What have you done now?” vs. “What’s happened?” (OK, that one’s too obvious!)
Friend to suffering person: “What can I do for you?” vs. “Would you like to talk?” (Again, a question of focus, but also a question of doing versus being. A person who is suffering or who has a major problem may need affirmation and understanding more than help.)
Adult child to aging parent: “Are you sure you can make that trip?” vs. “What would help make that trip easier for you?” (The first question implies judgment of the parent’s abilities, while the second gives control and decision to the parent, where it belongs.)
We tend to ask the wrong questions as communities, as well as individuals. Churches, with their traditions and histories, can find it difficult to look for the right questions. As churches, we’re often so stuck in the wrong questions that we either focus on internal bickering or spend our time wringing our hands over why people don’t want to be just like us. Here are some of our wrong questions, and some better ones.
How can we most effectively invite people to join us? vs. How can we join other people? (Inviting people to join us suggests an invitation to become like us.)
How can we serve you? vs. How can we serve God together? (There’s a power subtext here that is very subtle. We serve from a position of power, the ability to serve. We serve together from a position of equality.)
How can we persuade you that such-and-such is true? vs. How can we grow closer to God together? (So which one of us has arrived at perfect truth, so that he or she is qualified to tell others what to believe? Yet even when we don’t agree, we can help one another grow – together.)
What do you need? vs. How can we work together to build a healthier community? (The church that sees itself as a fixer of problems will never build the relationships that truly bring about change.)
What can we teach you about being church? vs. How can we be church together? (If we are only teachers and dispensers of “the right way,” how can God ever bring about growth in us and through us?)
How are we different? vs. How are we the same? (Our unity in God is what matters, not our differences over issues of ritual, dogma, or behavior.)
How can I convince you that I’m right? vs. How can we be unified in God’s love even when we disagree? (Self-righteousness never helped anyone grow.)
The first time I visited the church I’ve been part of for nearly twenty years, I got lost in a city new to me and arrived a few minutes late. The big oak doors at the front of the church were closed, and I had no idea where I would be if I opened them (in a vestibule full of coat racks, as it turned out). Nor did I know where other entrances (also closed) might lead me. So I turned around and went home.
Too often our questions act like those closed doors, shutting out connection instead of building it. Our questions should be open doors, carrying us outward and letting others in.