A colleague took me aside recently and said, “You know, you’re upsetting a lot of people.” I looked at him and immediately asked, “Who?” Furtively, my friend said, “Well, you know, leaders in the church.” “Like who?” I asked, then added, “A lot?” He went on to name two people who have been unhappy with something I have said on the blog. We talked for awhile, and my friend said something that stuck with me: “You’re asking questions that they don’t have answers for. You’re making them look bad.”
Since when do Christians need to be afraid of tough questions? Yes, I know our history is replete with incident after incident of religious authority oppressing those who dared to question authority or challenge orthodoxy, but if we’re so all fired sure we have the answers, what is the threat of a few hard questions? Most of the great advances of humankind found their genesis in those who questioned “reality.”
I pushed my friend to identify the questions I am asking for which there are no answers. He hesitated. “You keep questioning motivation… and common sense.” I brightened. “That’s what I’m trying to do!”
“Yeah, but people don’t like that.”
Once again, I have to ask why. Being clear on why we do something is never a bad thing. Nor is using common sense in our decision making. I can see how people might get offended when their common sense and motivations are questioned, but the only problem occurs when people aren’t clear on their motivations or fear they have used poor judgement. Asking questions should be the safest, most valued practice in our church that we can imagine. There is no hope for us as a denomination if open, free exchange of ideas isn’t safe.
I have some serious concerns about why we want more churches. I have serious concerns about clergy leadership who are indifferent to a disciplined spiritual life. I question the viability of a denomination obsessed with numbers. I question how serious we are about acting on anything we “rethink.” I question none of these things to be adversarial, but to push the conversation to deeper levels. We should be launching new faith communities — that equip disciples to transform the world. We should be supporting clergy and laity leadership — to model the disciplined practice of the means of grace. We should care about numbers — the number of people we can serve. And we should “rethink” — but constantly, with integrity, and with the intention to change and improve. Questioning conventional wisdom and the status quo is essential for continuous improvement. But there are those who do not want to hear the questions.
I came across a great quote in Tim Hamilton’s graphic re-interpretation of Ray Bradbury’s, Fahrenheit 451 — “You ask why to a lot of things and you end up very unhappy indeed.” This is the motto of every totalitarian organization in history. “Why” is the question no one wants to hear, when the only answer they have is “because.”
What are the questions I think The United Methodist Church should wrestle with and strive to answer?
- why do we need to make disciples?
- why do we need to transform the world?
- why is marketing more important than missions?
- why do we believe that new churches will make us better than the churches we already have?
- why do we think the next million new members will be better than the last million we lost?
- why aren’t we more concerned about sustainability than short term results?
- why are we so enamored with size?
- why do we continue to produce so many resources and programs that fail to yield positive results?
- why do we keep shifting focus every few years instead of focusing on our core and staying the course?
- why are we so committed to preserving the institution instead of transforming the world?
I could go on and on. These questions barely scratch the surface. But these questions — and the time and energy it will take to answer them — don’t help us today. Hard questions require hard work to produce hard answers. We want help NOW. We are driven by a toxic blend of time and money — both in short supply. We ignored all the signs of decay until we have no time for long-term solutions. We are in a financial crisis that motivates us to cut costs and operate from a scarcity mentality. Forget what God’s will might be. Don’t talk vision. Count up the pennies instead, and frame our ministry in terms of what we can afford.
We are caught in a spiral of negative energy. What we aren’t takes more of our attention than what we can be. What we have lost obscures what we have left. Where we have been limits where we think we can go next. Who we’re not dictates who we think we can be… Why?
It has taken us decades to get where we are. It will take more than a few months to get someplace better. We must live with all of our past decisions — both good and bad — but that doesn’t mean we can’t make better decisions in the future. We are the body of Christ for our world. We are only limited by our vision, our imagination, and our leadership. If we aren’t where we need to be, we need to change those three things.
No good leader shies away from questions. No competent decision-maker is afraid of criticism. No visionary is defensive about his or her direction. Those who have confidence that what they are doing ‘”is good, and acceptable, and perfect” (Romans 12:2) welcome every opportunity to share their understanding of God’s will. When asking hard questions isn’t okay, watch out. It means the answer is that we’re in big, big trouble.