The value of asking questions before, during, and after our sermon will help people better engage with the text and God.
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Along the banks of the Schuylkill River, just north of the famous Philadelphia Art Museum is an oft-unnoticed small plaza consisting of four twelve-foot high granite statues. One of the four statues is jolting because it is strikingly counter-intuitive. A preacher in his preaching robe has his mouth open and the sculpture's title is etched into the base: "Preacher-He Guided Our Ways." The preacher isn't doing what we expect. He is not speaking, proclaiming, or pronouncing truth. Instead, the preacher is leaning forward with his knees slightly bent and head turned sideways, with both hands cupped around his ears. How does the preacher guide our ways? By leaning in and listening.
The body part most people—people both inside and outside of the church—most often associate with preachers is the mouth. Fundamentally, preachers are known for talking, but imagine if we began to be known primarily for our ears even in our preaching? Imagine if our listening was the primary avenue by which we guided people's ways.
When studying Jesus' life in the Gospels we often focus on his miracles, his teachings, his parables, his conversations with his disciples, and his interaction with the Pharisees. How often have you considered his mastery of questions? As I study Jesus, I can't help but notice the three primary areas where life transformation happened: his stories, his guided experiences, and his questions. His questions-which most often proceeded his posture of compassionate listening-were a significant tool in his ministry of transformation. As preachers, we'd be wise to take notice of that.
Jesus and his questions
Jesus asked a lot of questions—and he was asked a lot of questions—a lot more than we might think. The Gospels record Jesus asking a total of 307 questions. He's asked 183 questions. Quite interestingly, he only directly answers three of them.
Why so many questions, Jesus?
Well, it was the educational system and tradition in which he was raised. A rabbinic approach to education assumed that teaching and learning is saturated in questions because the core conviction was held that the more questions one asked the more learning occurred. In our Western education system, when a child is asked, "What is two plus two?" the child correctly answers, "four." But in an Eastern rabbinic educational system, when a child is asked the same question, he or she might respond with another question: "What is 16 divided by four?" or "What is eight minus four?" This style of learning doesn't merely insert information into the minds of learners; instead, it allows for opportunities for discovery and deeper engagement than what merely information can provide.
Even today, Jewish yeshivas (Orthodox Jewish seminaries and schools for younger children) use questions as a way to understand the Torah utilizing something called chavruta. Chavruta, translated as "friendship" in Hebrew, is understood as "learning partner." Students pair up to read, study, and discuss a text using mostly questions as a tool for their discovery. If you've ever had the opportunity to watch Jewish students engaged in chavruta you'll see that they are passionate and animated, almost as if they are angry with one another. They aren't upset they'll tell you; they are passionate, passionate to know the text inside and out and to learn what God has to teach them through it. Questions and a partner are the ways they learn the truth of the text in their lives.
Jesus wasn't primarily about information transfer but about transformation. It's obvious in many contexts that Jesus asked questions that he already knew the answers to. He knew the answers to the questions he was asked, and yet at times purposefully refused to give answers. Was he being mean? No. Instead, he was more interested in people growing than people knowing. In fact, you'd be hard pressed to find examples where Jesus taught where he wasn't using questions as a way to engage his listeners and learners. Instead of getting it into their heads, he wanted it to run wild through their bloodstream.
Why questions are crucial for our learning
What do good questions do for us? What role can questions play in our preaching and how it might influence those in our communities of faith? Questions grab our attention because they help us to participate in the learning process. Questions, the best, most incisive questions, don't let us get away with easy answers, thus making what we are learning influential and indelible in our lives. Additionally, it doesn't put us in a position to be seen as the "all-knowing expert" up on the platform. A pastor is often positioned as the one with all the answers. Yet, Jesus positioned himself purposefully as the one with all the questions. So, in our pursuit of helping people become like Jesus, and in our own pursuit of taking on his character and living as he did, why the disconnect?
Lastly, questions push us in our own growth and learning in ways answers cannot. In college, I studied for a semester abroad in Israel at Jerusalem University College where I enrolled in a course called "Jewish Thought and Practice" taught by a rabbi who would leave his synagogue on Friday mornings to come teach our class comprised of Christian college students. In the first few weeks of class, our rabbi assigned us to read the story in Genesis 22, Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac. The Jews call this story the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, because Isaac wasn't actually sacrificed, at least not literally. (So why don't we call it the binding of Isaac, like the Jews do, if that's much more descriptive?) While we read Genesis 22 we were to write down 75 questions we had about the text and turn them in the following week. As an evangelical student, this seemed like an overwhelming assignment. Write down 75 questions of the text—really? After my first read-through, I recollect that I generated a total of five or six questions. And yet, throughout the week, more questions began to emerge as I kept reading.
How old was Isaac in this story? (Note: he's older than you think).
What was Sarah feeling with all of this and how did that initial conversation go when Abraham told her what God had said? Why is there no record of Abraham and Isaac ever speaking again in the text after this story?
More questions began to flow. I turned in my paper with a list of questions that was pushing 100 total. I realized I had learned more in this class assignment than I had in the 10 sermons I had heard on the passage combined.
How questions can enhance our preaching
As preachers, of course, it's important that we don't just ask questions. Jesus was directive and instructional in his teaching. Truth can come through questions as well as answers. Oftentimes growth can happen more through questions than through knowledge transfer. Questions have nuclear power because they push us to learn and grow and wrestle with passages and issues in ways that answers cannot.
Over the past few years I've become increasingly convinced that one of the best gifts we can give the people entrusted to our care is wonder, especially in their interaction with God and the Scriptures. Jesus was brilliant at cultivating a kingdom imagination (again, through stories, experiences, and questions) and our role is no different. We must work to cultivate a hunger in our people to know Christ more as they seek to know the Scriptures more. How is that cultivated? It is cultivated through thoughtful, intentional, timely, and courageous questions.
What are specific and practical ways we can utilize the gift and the tool of questions in our preaching process?
Before We Preach
Don't assume anything about the text. Yes, we know it is impossible to completely eliminate all of our biases, assumptions, and presuppositions when we approach the text, but we must work hard to be aware when we are making assumptions in the passage, especially in places where things are not explicitly described (for example, Isaac's age in Genesis 22). Therefore, we must learn to think like a beginner, not an expert, which means embodying the spirit of a four-year old constantly asking "Why?"
Practice chavruta. Find a study partner on a passage you are preaching on three or four weeks from now. Generate questions about the text with a friend and converse over those questions. Don't settle for easy questions. Ask the most courageous questions about the passage that you possibly can. Those courageous questions are the kinds of questions people in our congregations ask themselves but often wonder if it's safe enough to ask them out loud. In this case, it might be best to find someone who is unfamiliar with Scripture or, even better, someone who is not a follower of Christ. Discuss a passage of Scripture with someone with no faith background and you'll see the text in a completely different way. Their perspective is valuable to the preaching process and will help you understand the areas where you have potentially made assumptions in thinking.
Communicate what passage you are going to be preaching on ahead of time and invite congregants to read the passage and then submit questions to you ahead of time via text, email, or social media.
This cultivates ownership of the preaching process and gives our people permission to ask questions they're wanting to ask. It also enhances your preaching perspective and may help you to hone in on key elements in the passage.
Honor good questions-and good question-askers
"What you celebrate gets done," so the adage goes. Affirm when someone with a hungry spirit courageously asks a question about Scripture, theology, or faith issues. Celebrate when a thoughtful and important question is asked.
Ask yourself questions in your sermon preparation
Before I preach I always ask myself what I call the three most important questions of prep:
- What do I want people to know (head)?
- What do I want people to feel (heart)?
- What do I want people to do/how do I want them to respond (hands/feet)?
Other important questions include:
- Lord, what is in here that you want to speak to me? (to make sure its forming me first).
- What might the Spirit want to say to our community? (to think of learning as a communal act with the people of God)
- What might the Spirit want to say to _______? (picture in your mind a specific person in the church, maybe someone who is hurting, going through a difficult time or is in need of a challenge or encouragement). This helps to remind us that real-life stories and people are the context of our preaching.
During Our Preaching
Insert rhetorical questions in your teaching.
Like Paul in his letters, especially in Romans, consider asking rhetorical questions to engage the minds and hearts of your listeners and then consider answering those questions. On multiple occasions, Paul asks a question and quickly follows it up with "Certainly not!" Though it is not typically the style in which we were taught in seminary, it is something we can learn from Paul in his letters and use for effective engagement in preaching. Make it a goal to ask three questions in each sermon.
Practice chavruta in your sermon
Earlier I mentioned using chavruta in the preparation process, but it can also be utilized during your preaching. When I preach, sometimes I explain the process of chavruta-and then we've participated in it together for a few minutes during the sermon. Certainly, that was a risk, but it has worked well with both adults and students. Understandably, it may not be your church's culture to have people discussing and interacting with the text during a sermon, but consider taking a creative risk and having people experience the text. You may be surprised by the level of engagement, interaction, and learning that occurs.
Ask the two most crucial sermon questions.
Challenge your congregation by asking these two crucial questions, particularly at the end of your sermon:
- What are we hearing from Jesus?
- What are we going to do about it?
In doing that, we teach our people that Jesus, in fact, wants to speak to us through the Scriptures-even now. We are the ekklesia, the "called out ones," thus making it important to cultivate an ethos of listening and responding to what God's Word has to say in the lives of his people. This could be asked verbally, inserted in your final presentation slide or printed in the bulletin at the bottom of an outline.
Leave it open-ended.
Sometimes we can ask a question and then let the response logically and clearly lead to an explanation through biblical truth, but there may be times where the most powerful avenue to people's transformation is to ask a series of questions and not answer them. Just as Jesus asked questions and left many of them unanswered, it might be wise for us to do the same in our preaching when appropriate.
After Our Preaching
Give space to respond in real time
Recently I preached at The Evergreen Community, a church in Portland, OR pastored by my friend Bob Hyatt. In the church's order of service each week, a few minutes are reserved after the sermon. There is space for the congregation to respond together to what they've heard, often through questions. They ask, "What have we learned and how have we been formed through the teaching of God's Word?" This allows for feedback, discussion, and interaction in real-time. They've found that it helps the church truly wrestle with the text and its implications for their lives and how to respond appropriately. Consider allowing your congregation to respond to Scripture right after they have heard it preached. It can be a powerful way to pay attention to God and each other and to learn to respond appropriately.
Invite people to continue to interact with the passage throughout the week.
At the end of your sermon encourage people to interact with you further about the text. Consider putting your email or phone number in the bulletin or on the screen. When I've done this, I've been amazed at how thoughtful and insightful people's questions have been in the days after I've preached, pushing my own thoughts and inspiring deeper faith.
Create a follow-up document.
Consider posting follow-up questions for individuals, families, or groups on your website or social media a day or two after your sermon. In our context, we create something called "The Going Further," a tool to help people explore further what was preached on Sunday. We want people to go further and deeper in their engagement with the Scripture and, more importantly, with God. We include five sections in The Going Further: additional passages, creative ideas, suggested practices, additional resources, and questions to ponder throughout the week ahead that engage head, heart, and hands.
Host a discussion after the service.
If time and schedule allow on a Sunday morning, host a 30-minute space for dialogue around the sermon that was preached. Other than bringing two or three open-ended start questions to get the conversation flowing, there is no preparation needed; it's purely spontaneous and interactive. Preachers should focus more on listening and facilitating rather than on lecturing or slipping in that additional point or two from the sermon that they weren't able to squeeze in at the end of the sermon because of time constraints.
Don't expect fireworks every time you host a discussion space. Some weeks might fall flat and feel forgettable. Other weeks, discussion might be lively and people may come alive. It will communicate that incisive questions are an important part of the church and in our own growth and development as followers of Jesus. If right after the service doesn't work, find another time during the week where this might work.
Questions are powerful tools for people's spiritual growth and development. Like the statue along the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia, the world longs for preachers who lean toward, turn our heads to the side, cup our hands around our ears, and say, "Tell me more." May we be the kinds of kingdom leaders that people, both inside and outside of the church, say asked good questions, listened well, and helped to guide their ways forward in the direction of Jesus.
J.R. Briggs is the founding pastor of The Renew Community in the Greater Philadelphia Area and founder of Kairos Partnerships, which seeks to equip the church by caring for pastors and kingdom leaders through coaching, training, and consulting. He is the author and co-author of several books, including 'Fail: Finding Hope and Grace in the Midst of Ministry Failure' (IVP).