At CCB, after the sermon, we usually provide an opportunity to ask questions, to explore the implications, to make a comment or to offer prophetic insight for evaluation. In the evening, where we feel the time pressures less acutely, this often leads to fruitful discussion and exchange. In the morning, it’s a little bit more rushed. We don’t want to stitch up the crèche helpers too often!
Someone asked me a while ago whether I’d say something about how to ask a question. The person concerned thought that some questionable motives and practices had crept it. She very kindly kept her observations about the quality of the answers to herself! I thought it was a fair request. And so I said that I’d give it some thought. That was weeks ago. But I’ve now given it some. And this is how far I’ve got.
But before I do, let me say why I think this time is so important.
1. Questions are good for clarification. The preacher may not have been at his clearest. Or the listener may have suffered from mental drift. But it’s an opportunity to go back over significant stuff. It allows people to be clear on what’s been said.
2. Questions are good for accountability. It prevents the preacher from dropping a theological or pastoral grenade and then running for cover. If he’s going to say something challenging or controversial then he has to be man enough to face up to the flak that he may provoke.
3. It’s good for application. It demonstrates willingness to newcomers and to one another to work hard at understanding the content and implications of God’s word. It shows that we’re a church that tries to live by the Bible.
4. It’s good for debate. It provokes discussion; especially in the area of assumptions, objections or implications. I suspect that much useful conversation takes place at the end of church, or in the pub or on the way home.
There are, of course, potential pitfalls to this practice.
1. It exposes the preacher and puts him under the spot light. He has to think on his feet, which if he’s tired (and who isn’t after 30 minutes of preaching) doesn’t come easily. But he can encourage others in the congregation to answer and it probably means he works harder in preparation!
2. It doesn’t allow God’s word to sink in. And let’s be honest, if we’ve been challenged or rebuked our initial response isn’t always godly. And so we may benefit from a period of quiet calm to prayerfully reflect and respond to what God has just said to us.
3. It relies on the congregation showing restraint, wisdom, sensitivity and maturity. And obviously at CCB, that’s a massive risk! But, on balance I’m persuaded that it’s a risk worth taking.
So how do we ask a question?
Here are three things to bear in mind when asking a question.
1. What are you asking in your question?
This has to do with the nature of the question. And the key thing is clarity. It’s worth asking whether your question is clear. In other words, can people easily understand what you’re asking? Have you phrased it in such a way that the preacher and perhaps more importantly, everyone else can understand what you’ve said and what you’re asking? In the heat of the question, we all struggle to think out loud so why not write it down. Try and be concrete, specific and brief . If you have two or three questions just go for the main one and hope that the preacher will allow you a supplementary.
2. How are you asking your question?
This has to do with the manner in which we ask a question. And the key thing is godliness. Let’s be sure that we’re being respectful of those who have spiritual authority over us, as some of those who preach do. And for those that don’t, let’s be gentle. You may profoundly disagree with the preacher. You may have good reason to do so. He may be wrong. But you can be sure that he doesn’t mean to be. He may be right but you don’t like it. That’s often the case where someone makes a comment about one of our hobby horses. We don’t like it when someone critiques our dearly held positions. But they may be right. Don’t instinctively lash out. Rather than firing from the hip, my advice is to ask a question of clarification so at least we can be sure that we’ve understood what they’re saying. I can’t remember a time when I thought that someone had been inappropriate in their manner towards me. But I’m notoriously forgetful.
3. Why are you asking your question?
This has to do with the motive for asking a question. And the key thing is motive. Our motives are hidden in our hearts. And our hearts can be deceitful. We can be asking for a whole host of reasons. And some of those may not even be known to us. We could be asking a question for any number of reasons; to parade our superior knowledge of the issue and win the respect of others, to expose the preachers’ ignorance and undermine his authority or even to stoke up trouble and cause dissension. Or we could be asking a question for much better reasons. For example, if we don’t know the answer and we think the preacher might be able to help us, if we’ve not understood what was said and we’d like some clarification or if we’re none the wiser and we’d like to give the preacher another go.
I suspect that we ought to include a period of quiet reflection after the sermon in which we can ponder what we’ve just heard and perhaps frame a question that we’d like to ask. I think that’ll help others to ask questions. I’ve been encouraged that in recent weeks a number of different people have asked questions. Often we need the regulars to get the whole thing going. And we can usually rely on a handful of people to get the ball rolling
But, if your church allows you, do ask questions. It’s hugely encouraging. Preaching is sometimes a lonely business. We spend the week in the text, in the books and in the study. We deliver a monologue sometimes to a sea of blank faces. We’re never sure whether we’ve made any difference. And then when he gives the chance for the congregation to say something all we hear is the distant clanging of a lone bell, the whistling of the wind in the trees and the brushing of tumbleweed as it rolls by at the back of the auditorium! Congregational interaction is hugely encouraging.