How to Ask Better Questions in a Post-Christian World
Last year, Australia joined 24 other countries in legally permitting same sex marriage. It came via an unusual path, with a ‘postal survey’ held of all voters prior to legislation being enacted to amend the nation’s Marriage Act.
The public debate was acrimonious. And since it was mostly Christians who were making the case that marriage should remain legally defined as between a man and woman, a great deal of the acrimony was directed at ‘the Church,’ churches, and Christians in general. It’s difficult to draw definitive lines, but our church saw a marked drop off in visitors and newcomers during this period. It became difficult to have any conversation about spiritual things without getting bogged down in the pressing issue.
But then a funny thing happened.
The survey closed in November, and over the Australian summer/Christmas period (December to January) our church saw around 1,000 non-churched visitors and newcomers attend our various outreach programs, kids clubs, Christmas events and community activities. Suddenly, with the same sex marriage debate over, everything got back to business as usual.
Which raises two issues for discipleship.
The first concerns culture. It is common to say that our culture has entered a post-Christian phase. More accurately, we have moved from post-modern indifference to genuine post-Christian hostility. The posture towards Christianity on many media platforms is that Christianity is not just a strange private idiosyncrasy but a potentially dangerous and even oppressive system of rules and values. Not surprisingly, in the face of this hostility, many Christians are intimidated and become more and more silenced and silent.
But, to leave the diagnosis there is to fail to make an important distinction.
The distinction is between macro-culture and micro-culture.
Macro-culture is what we see on Facebook and YouTube, in newspapers and on blogs. It carries the post-Christian energy, and is a self-sustaining echo chamber.
Micro-culture is a different thing. It is formed by direct experience and relationship, by face-to-face conversation with a real person, rather than at a digital remove.
And the thing is, micro-culture is often very different from macro-culture. It’s quite possible for an unchurched person in Australia to be a relatively standard head-nodder in response to attacks on Christianity, and at the same time to be quite open to sending thing their child along to the local church’s holiday kids club, and even join in the final celebration, which includes singing Christian songs and saying prayers, and to walk away saying what a great job the church is doing in the community.
In other words, it’s crucial that Christians resist the pull of silence and intimidation. And in part, that will be possible when we see past the macro-culture and continue to build, at both a church community level and an individual level, a micro-culture of grace, openness and welcome.
Which leads to a second discipleship implication.
Although macro-culture and micro-culture are not the same, neither are they completely unrelated. The fact is that as connections develop and relationships deepen, the issues that lie behind all that macro-cultural hostility will find their way into conversation. When that happens, it often puts Christians on the back foot.
The problem is, in a strange way, we can end up feeling quite comfortable in that posture! At least we get a chance to stand up for the truth — particularly the uncomfortable truth — and make our allegiance to Jesus clear. Of course, the result is a stand off in which views (and insults) are traded but with little real engagement, let alone fruitful evangelism.
My take on this is that we need to get off the back foot, and find a way into a front foot stance. Or, to change the analogy — and the boxing ring is a dangerous analogy to draw on, since it’s hard to avoid the oppositional tones — we need to get off the ropes and into the middle of the ring. What I mean is that we can find ourselves on the end of a string of accusatory questions which pre-suppose that the obvious answer is the secular answer. When we get locked into a conversation where what we do is answer those kinds of questions, it’s very hard to make headway.
Instead, we need to get much better at asking questions.
Jesus was the master of this. He almost always answers a question, even the most aggressive and loaded ones, with a question himself. And in doing so he turned the tables, he pivoted to get out from under the battery and change the balance of the conversation.
Some questions simply express curiosity and interest, finding out things. We should ask those questions. But the best questions open up the assumptions of an issue, lay bare the often unexamined presuppositions the other person holds, and invites them to do a bit of reflection.
The best questions open up the assumptions of an issue, lay bare the often unexamined presuppositions the other person holds, and invites them to do a bit of reflection.
You know you’ve asked a really great question when the tone of the conversation changes, and the person you’re talking to says something like, ‘You know what, I haven’t really thought about that. What do you reckon?’Suddenly, you’re in different territory. You’re not the boxing ring at all. You’re two people actually trying to come to grips with the thorny bits of life.
At our church, we are working hard to re-skill people in this practice of asking more questions than we answer. In an increasingly moralistic environment, with judgment and finger wagging more prevalent than ever, there are always dozens of opportunities to ask friends, colleagues and neighbours interesting questions about what they think about various issues. And then some more questions to dig a little deeper into the world view assumptions behind that stance. And then, eventually, some fundamental questions — which are always spiritual in character — that open the conversation to gospel content.
We gather a training cohort for four sessions to work through some material based on Randy Newman’s book, Questioning Evangelism, and also Tactics by Gregory Koukl, as well as to reflect on real time opportunities and responses they have had in the last week. Together we figure out what might have been better questions to ask.
It’s been a great experience. It’s encouraged people to realise just how many opportunities there are to engage in gospel conversations. It’s empowered them to find an alternative to the relentless defensiveness that can characterise our evangelism.
It may just turn out that these times of post-Christian culture, far from being barren dust shaking years, are more fruitful than ever for bearing gracious witness to Christ.