Joel Hart wrote the following guest-post. Joel is preparing for pastoral ministry as a student of theology in the Great Lakes-Gulf Presbytery of the RPCNA. He is a rising senior at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary. The Lord has given Orlena as Joel’s wife and has blessed them with three children.
“I left the church because no one would answer my questions.”
This refrain, or similar rhetoric, scatters the blogs or social media posts of those who have distanced themselves from Christ’s church. One question emerges when we observe the phenomenon of despairing and leaving question-askers: Does the church — can the church — answer the questions of those in the church asking questions amidst an increasingly skeptical world?
Earlier this summer, I enjoyed the privilege of teaching 30 junior high youth at a church family camp. Our studies in the gospel of John led us to the response of the crowds to the teachings of Jesus as the bread of life (John 6:60-71). For Jesus’ audience, this teaching left many with a searching, skeptical question: “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” (6:60). Here, our Savior answers the doubtful question with a decisive answer built on the faith-providing work of Father (v. 65), Son (v. 62, v. 65), and Spirit (v. 63). The hope found for true disciples in this Triune answer of Jesus is revealed in Peter’s rhetorical response of confidence: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (6:68).
After our class pondered together this question-asking and question-answering of John 6, I provided the students index cards to write down any question they had about their faith. The students engaged the exercise, asking questions such as why evil exists, how to interact with unconverted family members, and what to do about certain difficult parts of Scripture. I have been around quite a few church conference Q&A sessions, but few have rivaled these students for profundity and depth of questions.
These questions provided enriching content to the final few days of our class. As I departed from this joyful experience, I pondered this question: “How should the church’s pastors, elders, Sunday school teachers, parents and mentors approach theological questions within the church?” Here are a few thoughts:
- Answering questions follows a Biblical paradigm. It is noteworthy that Paul’s two longest epistles proceed in a Q&A format. In Romans, Paul presents his argument through back-and-forth response anticipated questions about the gospel (cf. Rom. 3:1-3, 3:27-28, 3:31, 4:1-3, 4:9-11, 6:1-3, 6:15-17, 7:7, 7:13, 8:32-35). In 1 Corinthians, Paul’s refrain of “now concerning” (cf. 1 Cor. 7:1, 7:25, 8:1, 12:1, 16:1) appears to be a means to work through major questions asked by the Corinthian church. Quite simply, the Scriptures often come to us as a response to genuine questions of the human heart. Whether in formal catechesis or in informal Q&A engagement, the church follows a Biblical pattern when it provides a forum for asking — and answering — questions.
- We must assume the presence of significant questions resting in church members’ hearts. In His omniscience, Jesus was able to see into people’s hearts and know their questions (cf. Matt. 9:4, 12:25). Jesus’ probing reveals that the un-omniscient in our midst will wrestle with the unknown concerning the Christian faith. In my situation, when asking 30 junior high students to write down questions, five minutes of pondering produced an array of profound, searching questions. Questions abound, and our ministry must reflect an awareness of this reality. To continually address surface-level issues and assume a non-questioning stability in the hearts of members is to miss the mark in ministry. We will not regret providing settings for church members to ask searching questions. How much better are these settings compared to hearing the questions of church members already finding their way out of the church?
- We must confidently and joyfully present the answers of Jesus. I recently watched the movie Jackie, a depiction of the experience of Jackie Kennedy after the death of her husband. In the movie, she consults a post-modern priest for spiritual counsel. At the high point of an emotional discussion between Kennedy and the priest, the priest declares to Kennedy, “There comes a time in man’s search for meaning when one realizes that there are no answers. When you come to that horrible, unavoidable realization, you accept it, or you kill yourself.” This is the “gospel” of the post-modern era: a news that self-consciously has no ultimate answers. Even the church can stumble into the error of reveling in the question and not the answer. Into this arena comes the robustness and fullness of answers found in the person and work of Jesus Christ, “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:3). In my short time with these junior high students, my greatest joy was to see relief and confidence grow in the eyes of students hearing that Scripture had answers for their questions. The unfolding of God’s Word still gives light (Ps. 119:130).
So, wherever you find yourself ministering to people in the church, assume questions, allow for questions, and answer questions. Let no one leave the church because an asked question was an ignored question. Work together with the church to remind yourself and others that the Word of God provides a reasoned and glorious answer to our questions. The church is a haven for question-askers — a haven where an anchor is cast in the Word of our glorious God, the Question-Answerer.