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Can I Ask You a Question?

Have you ever been stuck with someone who more than answers your questions, and you start wondering how you can escape the conversation?

As an extrovert and a preacher, I like to talk. My passion levels and my word count can exhaust a listener. There is a healthy conviction every time I read James 1:19, “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (TNIV). And Proverbs 10:19 is almost too convicting: “When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise” (NIV).

As leaders, we have the privilege of teaching and training the people around us. How can we do this most effectively? Without even realizing it, I assumed that a pastor’s role is to go to seminary, study diligently and then, when asked a question, back up the dump truck and unload all of the information. Have you ever been stuck with someone who more than answers your questions, and you start wondering how you can escape the conversation? Granted, there are times to explain at length, and some leaders would do well to pass on more of their knowledge, but I discovered the importance of asking questions. Leaders need good questions, not just good answers. Your list of good questions might be different than mine, but here are some practical examples that I learned after seminary.

Matthew 20:28 says that Jesus “did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Is it possible to serve the people around us with a question?

I started to ask my staff and leaders this question: “Is there anything that you need?”
It was so much better than constantly making demands. They began to think through what they truly needed to get the job done, which also increased their ownership of their work. More importantly, it communicated that I truly care about them and want to set them up for success. After all, that is my role, and the question helps me keep the right mindset for ministry. Sometimes they want clarity, training or a second opinion; other times they want more money or a vacation. If it is reasonable, why not give it to them?

Math was not my favorite subject in school. I remember enough of it, though, to know that at 36 years old, I am a college pastor who is frequently talking with people who are half my age. It is both a reality check and proof that it can be more difficult to find common ground as I get older. Instead of trying to come up with clever stories and cool phrases, it is a lot easier to simply ask questions. “How did you hear about the group?” “What do you think about it so far?” “Have you been to something like this before?” These simple questions usually open up the doors for a real conversation. Proverbs 20:5 says, “The purposes of the human heart are deep waters, but those who have insight draw them out.” Good questions are like the buckets that bring the water out of the well.

In Acts 8:30, Philip came alongside an Ethiopian man who was reading the Bible and asked him, “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip ran up to the man (you don’t have to duplicate that; in fact, it might be better if you don’t) because he was eager to ask him a question. Questions are disarming, and people are more likely to interact with you if you first listen to them. Here are some questions that have sparked great discussions:

• What is your religious background?
• Did you have good or bad experiences?
• What do you think about God?
• What are some of your spiritual beliefs?
• Would you say that your spiritual interest is high or low? Why?

We often don’t know how to start sharing what is most important to us with people we love, but these questions can guide a conversation from the secular to the spiritual to the Gospel. I like to add the questions, “Has anyone ever told you about grace?” “Can I?” It is surprising to me how ready people are to talk about Jesus and listen to the Gospel. An evangelist named Larry Moyer said he likes to conclude by asking, “Is there anything preventing you from putting your trust in Jesus now?” God is the One who does the saving work, but what a privilege for us to ask the questions that point people to Jesus.

When was the last time you were working through some tension with someone? In Acts 15, Paul and Barnabas were in a sharp dispute with some of the believers in Jerusalem. The topic was if the new Gentile believers needed to follow the Jewish laws. Apparently, some of the Gentile brethren were less than excited about the idea of a mandatory adult circumcision. Can we become Christians without that, please? Paul and Barnabas sided with the Gentiles and did not feel that such laws were necessary. In finding a solution, Acts 15:12 is a key verse and our example to follow. It says, “The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul.” How many Christians are in disagreements and never stop to do this? These questions can help enhance our listening skills (take note especially if you are skilled at winning debates and are usually right):

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• What do you think?
• What are you reasons for your conclusions?
• Can you help me understand why this would work?
• Can I repeat that and see if I am hearing you correctly?
• Is that what you meant?

These questions force us to slow down, value the other person’s perspective and give them equal time to speak. And they are not just for church; they are pretty good at home too.

Have you ever noticed how many questions Jesus asked? He was constantly teaching and training the disciples with questions (Matthew 16:13-20, Luke 8:22-25). And He responded to His critics with questions (John 10:31-36). Begin to go through familiar texts and look at the effectiveness of the questions. In Exodus 32:21, Moses used a question to rebuke Aaron. Samuel used a similar approach to rebuke Saul in 1 Samuel 15:14. As I read through the Scriptures, I begin to get the idea that maybe God wants His leaders to learn how to ask good questions in a wide range of situations.

Students are energized when I begin to ask them what would be ideal for them and for the ministry. They are creative and insightful. Their ideas are frequently much better than mine. And I realize how much I can learn from them. I also understand my boss better with a few questions. I hear his expectations for me and his advice. I learn about his passions and the reasons for his approach to ministry. And my sweet, patient wife appreciates it when I ask her, “What can I do that would be more helpful?” Sometimes I need to ask her the same question a few times, slowly and gently. Because I want her to know that I really care about her and I am willing to change. Questions are not a substitute for humility; they must be sincere. Question and Answer is a format usually designed for leaders to share their “brilliance,” but maybe leaders need to sharpen their questions before giving all of their answers.

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