Living the Questions

questions1219Answers are over-rated.  Good questions beat right answers every time.  The reason?  Rarely in real life is there ever a single “right” answer.  There are good answers.  There are workable answers.  There are reasonable answers.  And in most cases there are multiple answers.  Answers are easy, but asking the right questions is hard.  You can’t get good answers if you’re asking poor questions.

One of my all time favorite quotes comes from Rainier Maria Rilke, in Letters to a Young Poet (1903), when he advises, “…I would like to beg you dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language.  Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them.  And the point is to live everything.  Live the questions now.  Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

How can we help leaders in our conferences and congregations to “live the questions,” instead of opting for easy, simplistic answers?  I write often about getting back to basics and not making things so difficult.  People ask me all the time what I mean by that.  What I mean is, we would be well served to lay all our assumptions about church on the table and start with the most rudimentary, simple, and important questions about our mission, identity, and purpose. 

five-most-important-questionsTwenty years ago, Peter Drucker wrote a short, profound little book called The Five Most Important Questions You Will Ever Ask About Your Organization.  This book, though aimed at the corporate world, supplies a nice template for the kind of questions I am talking about.  (For a full review of the book, click on Best Books)

  1. What is our mission?  (What are we here for?  Why do we exist?)
  2. Who is our customer? (Who are we here to serve?  Who needs us?)
  3. What does the customer value? (What are people seeking, needing, looking for?)
  4. What are our results?  (What is it we actually produce?  What impact are we having on people’s lives, the community, and the world?)
  5. What is our plan?  (How are we living into the future?  What are our specific goals and objectives, why are they important, and how are we going to achieve them?)

To begin with, most United Methodist organizations (at every level) take these things for granted — we assume everyone in the whole system knows, understands, and agree with the answers to these five questions.  BIG mistake.  We cannot assume anything.  It is only through intentional and intensive conversation and exploration that we come anywhere close to comprehending the breadth and depth of these questions.

What is Our Mission?

The mission of The United Methodist Church (spelled out in detail as our core process in ¶122 of our Book of Discipline — see also Methodist to the Core) is simple, direct, and clear — “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  Fewer than 50% of United Methodists know that this is our mission, and those that do know it hold very different interpretations of what it means.  71% of UM adults define a disciple as “someone who believes Jesus is the one true Son of God.”  This is neither biblically nor theologically defensible, and it raises an immediate opportunity for “living a question,” namely, what does it mean to be a Christian disciple?  If we don’t know why we’re here, how well can we fulfill our purpose?  (Don’t live this question too long… it’s a no-brainer.)

Who Are the People We’re Here to Serve?

One good answer to this question is “everybody,” but that isn’t a given in The UMC.  Look at the current debates over who we should let in and who we should close out.  How we define “us” and “them” impacts how we answer this question.  Recent surveys indicate that almost two-thirds of church people in the United States would rather not allow “sinners” in the church.  How many questions does this raise?  (I hope a lot.)  Understanding all the many and diverse people we’re here to serve should be an ongoing, never-ending question — there is always someone else who needs to be served.

What Are People Seeking, Needing, Looking For?

This question cannot be answered by “us,” but only WITH “them.”  We in the church make highly speculative and egregiously erroneous assumptions about the “un-churched.” (a term that those not-affiliated with churches find deeply offensive and judgmental)  While people in our society may be looking for many of the same things we “churched” people do, they may experience fulfillment of those needs in very different ways.  The most important thing for people inside the church to do is go OUTSIDE.  The message we have to share is severely limited by our capacity to listen.  Christians need to earn the right to speak, not assume that everyone else needs to hear what we have to say.  In my work as a researcher for the General Board of Discipleship, I heard from literally hundreds of people, “thank you, no one has ever bothered to listen to us before.”  People have the right to be heard.  If we hope to serve them, we first need to listen to them.  Then, as trust and respect grows, we can share with them what we think and believe.

What Are Our Results?

How is the world better for our existence?  If we are here to change lives and transform the world, how’s that workin’ out?  What positive, measurable impact are we making in our community and the world?  What evidence exists that we are actually forming faith and equipping people to live in the world as the body of Christ?  What else could we, should we be doing?  What are the measures and metrics we use to evaluate the quality of our ministry and service?  These are not easy questions, but they are vital questions.  Unless we can measure and evaluate our impact, we have no clue what to change or how to improve.  In my experience, fewer than 5% of our United Methodist congregations know how to answer the question of what impact they make.

What Is Our Plan?

Many of our churches do what they do because it is what they’ve always done.  Someone in the church defends the importance of every ministry and program.  Few churches have clearly defined priorities, goals and objectives.  Because we tend not to do #4 well (evaluate our results), we don’t have good data and information upon which to do #5 (plan for the future).  Because many churches are fuzzy on their mission and the people they should serve, they’re equally fuzzy on any kind of vision for effectiveness.  These things are intrinsically related.  If you don’t have a clear sense of purpose and you don’t know how to best serve people, it is virtually impossible to develop any kind of effective plan.  (Hey, Moses even had a Promised Land to shoot for, and it took him forty years to get the people there…)

I have yet to work with any church that did not benefit greatly from stepping back and starting over with these basic five questions.  Are there other good questions?  By all means.  Explore as many questions as you like — just don’t rush to act on the first answer you discover.  For every “right” answer you find, I guarantee there’s at least another “right” answer yet to be discovered.  Once you find five or six right answers, then you are in a good place to choose a “good” answer.

Live the questions — who are we?  why are we here?  what is God’s will?  who does God want us to serve?  how can we know we’re doing well?  if we can only do one or two things, what should they be?  if we do everything we want to do well, what’s next?  And on and on.  No matter how many questions we have, trust that God has more than enough answers for us to live into.

2 replies

  1. Today at work we were audited by corporate higher- ups to make sure we are following all the necessary policy and procedures. The question that comes to mind after your article is “When do Methodist churches get audited? Who is it that asks our church Councils, what our mission is, who do we serve and what is the gameplan for making disciples for the transforming the world? How does the Methodist church collectively or better yet corporately (bodily) hold its members accountable for being Methodist? I really enjoy your blog! Keep up the great work!

    On a different note:The mission of the Methodists to make disciples and transform the world- does this statement come across to anyone as too anthropological, too human centered?Should there be in this statement something about the primary action of God and our making disciples is a response to work with God as we (God and us) transform the world together? Just a thought!

    • If the system was aligned toward our mission, our pastors and lay members to annual conference and lay leaders would have, as part of their responsibilities, to hold internal audits, and a part of our annual charge conferences would be an external audit. This is idealistic, but also actually doable. Accountability is perhaps the greatest weakness of The United Methodist Church in the early 21st century.

      In a larger theological frame, if the church is the body of Christ — Christ at the head, empowered through the Holy Spirit — then the work of the church is God’s work, and God uses the congregations to make disciples. It ought to be an integrated partnership — Christian disciples serving as the hands, heart and voice of God at work in the world. There is a huge difference between us doing good things for God and us allowing God to do great things through us. I believe our mission reflects the latter, though many congregations strive for the former.

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