THE ART OF ENCOURAGING QUESTIONS

In one of my part-time congregations, we are experimenting with some different approaches to worship.  One of them began almost by accident.  I had just begun the sermon when someone in the small group of people there raised a hand because she wanted me to explain something I had said a bit more.  She kept apologizing for interrupting but I assured her it was fine.  The next week, it happened again, from someone else who had a comment about something I was saying in the sermon.

It became clear to me that we had a really opportunity here.  We could make the sermon more than just a one-way communication where I talked and the people listened at least some of the time.  And so at a meeting designed to deal with where we were going as a church, we decided to add a couple of things to our worship to encourage such interactions.  First, we put in a space after the reading of the Scriptures to allow people an opportunity to ask questions and  make comments about the Scriptures before the sermon.  And then, we made it a policy that the sermon could be interrupted at any point with questions and comments.

Since I am a teacher at heart, I don’t have a need to preach an uninterrupted sermon–and since we are a small group, we don’t have to worry about being overwhelmed by so many questions that we lose focus and degenerate into a free-for-all.  But more importantly, creating a climate for asking questions opens the door for real spiritual searching and growth for both me and the congregation.

It also means that we sometimes end up going places that I hadn’t anticipated when I prepared the worship and sermon.  One Sunday, I was looking at forgiveness in the sermon when  one of the people asked a very important question that seemed to galvanize the whole congregation (all 10 of them).  The sermon time essentially doubled as we looked at the question and the comments.  The whole congregation was really working together to understand the reality of God’s forgiveness in Christ.  As I watched the congregation and moderated the discussion, I saw smiles as people got some point in a real way; signs of deep thought as people confronted their established theology and a willingness of the part of everyone to listen and think and follow the discussion.  We got more out of that question than we would have if I had just preached the sermon.

Now, I know that this approach isn’t for every church–it works for our small group but I know it isn’t for everyone.  But I do think that every congregation needs a forum where people are not only free to ask questions and make comments but also are encouraged to do that.  Not every person in a congregation is going to be interested–asking questions is hard and challenging work and some people want clear answers, not difficult questions.

But there are people who have questions or who could have questions who are often left out in the cold.  Sometimes, congregations and their leaders actively discourage questions.  Sometimes, the culture of the congregations stifles questions.  And sometimes, people just don’t realize that there might be questions that need to be asked.  Whatever the reason, people who have questions are sidelined.

And that is a tragedy, I think, because some of us need to ask questions about our faith in  order to grow in our faith.  I would like to say that all believers need to ask questions in order to grow in their faith but I know there are some for whom questions are too hard, scary and/or challenging.  Those of us who need to ask questions need a time and a place where it is safe to ask our questions.

I have always tried to make the Bible Study time a safe place for questions and as well have encouraged people’s questions during the various pastoral contacts I have.  I have often wondered what it would be like to have questions during the sermon time but could never find a way to make it happen.  I was grateful for that first hesitant question and even more grateful that the rest of congregation wanted it to become a part of our regular worship.  I think the questions are going to help our congregation grow in a lot of ways.

May the peace of God be with you.

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