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Saturday, November 11, 2017

Beautiful Questions

If your church compiled a list of FAQs – Frequently Asked Questions – what would be on it?

I don’t mean the official list posted on your website, with information about how to become a member or your wedding policy.

I mean the questions that are really on people’s minds.Like…

Why don’t we sing more old hymns?

When did we start dunking the bread in the juice at communion?

How come the choir doesn’t wear gowns anymore?

Why don’t we learn more new hymns?

Here’s one question that would be on every church’s FAQs list: “Why don’t more young people come to church?” I have heard this question in one form or another in virtually every church I have worked with.

It’s a question I’ve asked many times over the years, and I don’t pretend to have an answer. But lately I’ve been wondering if the problem is not the lack of answers, but the question itself.

In his book, A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas, Warren Berger argues that questions, not answers, are the key to change. We don’t need more experts with answers, we need more “expert questioners.” In our rapidly changing world, finding the right question can be more critical than finding the right answer.

Berger says we should search for “beautiful questions.” A “beautiful question,” he writes, “is an ambitious yet actionable question that can begin to shift the way we perceive or think about something – and that might serve as a catalyst to bring about change.”

“Beautiful questions” are ambitious. They push the limits. But they are actionable. You can do something about them.

“Beautiful questions” change the way we perceive. They help us to see things differently. But they can also change the way we act.

Let’s go back to our frequently asked question, “Why aren’t there more young people in church?’ It is not a beautiful question – at least, not the way it’s normally asked. Usually it doesn’t go anywhere. It seems like a dead-end – a problem without a solution, a question without an answer. Rarely is it asked in such a way that it leads to a change in perception or action.  

Berger says that beautiful questions start with “Why?” But it’s not enough to ask “Why?”
once. He says that, with any problem, we need “Why?” at least five times before we can get far enough below the surface that we get to the root of the issue.

So, let’s try it.

“Why aren’t young people in church?”
            “Why does it matter if young people are in church?”

“Because we’re all getting old and tired.”
            “Why does it matter if you’re getting old and tired?”

“Because soon there won’t be enough of us to do the work.”
            “Why does the work need to be done?”

“Because the church we know and love will have to close down.”
Why does that matter? What would happen if it didn’t survive? Who would miss it?

“We would miss it. It’s been an important part of our lives.”

Ah. It turns out that the question is not so much about the needs and concerns of the young people who aren’t in church, but the needs and concerns of us older folks who are in church. In other words, we want young people to help sustain something that is important to us, not so much to them.

Which raises another question: “Why should they?”

So often when we ask, “Why aren’t young people in church?” we imply that the problem is with them. “We raised our children to go to church. What happened?” We come up with answers like, they’re not committed, they don’t care, young people are self-centred, they’re too busy with sports or work or their cell phones. There is a note of judgment in the very asking of the question.
If we’re really serious about wanting to know why young people don’t come to church, we will turn our attention away from what we want and need and focus on what they want and need. We’ll ask, “What actually matters to young people? How can we find out what matters to them? How can we learn to listen to them, understand, respect their lives, their hopes and dreams, their fears and worries?”
We will stop trying to make them responsible for the decline of our churches and use that question to search our own hearts. When that happens, our dead-end question can be turned into a beautiful question because it will open our hearts to the lives and longings of those people who are not in church. It will be about them and about what God is asking of us.
The next stage in creating a beautiful question is to ask, “What if?”

“What if” creates the freedom to imagine alternatives without having to prove upfront that they will work. What if we did this, rather than doing that? That’s how innovations are born.

But we need to break some old habits. Churches are experts at shutting down “What if?” questions before they even have a chance to take root. We immediately list all the reasons why that will never work. We need to create spaces of openness and curiosity where we can ask “What if?” and not know the answer.

The final stage of a beautiful question is to ask “How?”
“How?” grounds possibilities in the reality of available resources and practical results. But we need to ask “How?” in such a way that we are not defeated before we begin. “How?” is an invitation to experiment, to try things out, to approach things from a different angle, to tinker, and above all, to fail. Failure is an indispensable element on the road to success. Berger’s book is packed with examples of people who tried and failed repeatedly and persistently before they finally got it. So many potentially good ideas die on the vine in churches because we don’t stick with them. 

Asking these questions won’t magically fill your church with young people. But it will lead you on a journey of discovery that may take you to some surprising places with unexpected results. You won’t know until you try. 

We’ve used “Why don’t more young people come to church?” as a test case, but we could apply the same steps to other frequently asked questions. Some examples might be, “What should be do with our aging building?” or “Can we afford a full-time minister?” These questions often feel like dead-ends. But they can be turned into beautiful questions if we approach them in a curious, imaginative, adventurous and faithful spirit. 

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