Sunday’s “God in the Neighborhood” gathering encouraged and inspired me once again. We now routinely share about what we’re learning and seeing in the places where we live. Though this time of sharing is common it is, nonetheless, still exciting and Spirit-filled. (Click here for an introduction to this Sunday school series I’m leading.)
Paul learned this week in his neighborhood that God was already there. He discovered that a number of people who attend another church host a weekly Bible study for those who live on the block. He was excited to see another group of Christians already at work where he lives.
After being challenged to think about demographics last week, Melody did a little internet research. She accessed the website of the local elementary school and learned that the school's overall academic performance was in the bottom 10% of California. She also noticed that the school's enrollment was predominantly Hispanic. This raised all kinds of concerns and questions for Melody about ethnicity, poverty, education and more. She leads a tutoring club in NFC's neighborhood and is wondering what God is doing or might want to do where she lives.
Marcy began investigating the difference between two elementary schools her children have the opportunity to attend. She learned that the school with better scores and performance had a higher population of white students (as compared to the other school with less white students), even though the school touts multiculturalism as one of its benefits. She was left wondering why poverty and ethnicity are so closely associated with poor school performance, and why the educational system perpetuates this cycle.
Jamie has been working for a year on getting sugared drinks like chocolate and strawberry milk removed from the meals of the neighborhood elementary school. She is concerned about the negative physical and mental consequences these drinks bring. She has learned that almost a quarter of the school's students eat three meals a day on campus. Many of the food options are unhealthy and detrimental to a positive school experience. She continues to work toward healthier options, has earned the respect and support of her school, but has been met with resistance from a system that is very difficult to change.
Paul, Melody, Marcy and Jamie have all researched and investigated their neighborhoods in an attempt to know their neighborhoods better. They are on the lookout for what God is doing and discovering how they might join him.
Dwelling in the Word
Another routine we have is to read and listen to a passage of Scripture, specifically Luke 10:1-12. Today we spent some time thinking about Jesus’ instruction to accept hospitality. Jesus tells his disciples to enter homes and “stay there, eating and drinking whatever they give you.” A second time he emphasizes, “Eat what is offered to you.”
Americans are often the bearers of hospitality, help and benevolence, but we have a much harder time accepting the kind and gracious acts of others. We are good benefactors, but not very good beneficiaries. Why is it so hard to receive hospitality? Maybe we don’t like the feeling of being dependant on someone else. Maybe we can’t handle not being in charge and in control. When I invite someone into my home, the visitor is on my turf and thus I hold the power and influence over what is done and said. When I enter another person’s home I am the recipient of whatever my host imparts. Americans do not like the vulnerability that comes when they are on the receiving end of hospitality.
Competent missionaries know that they must accept the customs and practices of the native culture if they are to have an effective presence. Speaking the language, eating the food and wearing the clothes of the people is essential. These acts signal that the missionary has something to learn from those he or she has come to live with and serve to establish relationships of trust and respect. We need to see our neighborhoods the same way a missionary sees the mission field—a culture to be explored and engaged while giving up control and our preconceived notions of what it means to “bring the Gospel.” We must learn to be recipients in our own neighborhoods. In the end, maybe the most hospitable thing—the most Christ-like way to behave—is to receive what is being offered.
The resource I presented this week focused on asking good questions. Many of us think that our job as Christians is to give advice, offer help and tell people how to be saved, when simply listening might be a better way to gain respect in the neighborhood. In fact, asking questions—and being ready to receive the words of those we live with—could be viewed as a form of hospitality.
Proverbs offers a wealth of advice on the skill of listening. Drawing on the image of a well, Proverbs 20:5 reminds, “The purposes of a person’s heart are deep waters, but one who has insight draws them out.” When I see a person standing in front of me and open to dialogue I see a deep well. My job as a listener is to ask the kinds of questions that will draw out the depths of the person’s soul, just as a bucket thrown into a well draws out life-giving water. Each person I come in contact with is filled with stories of hope, despair, joy, and pain. The right questions can draw out the narrative of my neighbor.
Proverbs 18:13 advises that “To answer before listening—that is folly and shame.” Often times in a conversation we are not really listening. Particularly when a conflict is emerging or when we feel the need to defend ourselves, rather than hearing what the other person is saying we are quietly formulating what we are going to say next. The worst thing a person can be called in Proverbs is a fool; a sure way to attain this status is to talk more than listen, give hasty advice and be more concerned with telling others what to do than hearing what they are saying.
Asking questions builds trust. An old phrase I’ve often used with ministry teams is a bit trite, but sums up the importance of attending to the needs of others: People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. Of a similar nature, the instruction of Young Life’s pioneer Jim Rayburn to his staff and volunteers was, “You have to earn the right to be heard.” We earn the right to speak into a person’s life by listening with genuine warmth and authentic concern.
Asking good questions is not always easy. It’s important not to ask leading questions. These are the kinds of questions that imply an answer. For example, when I speak to youth groups about alcohol use I could easily ask, “You know drinking is a bad idea, right?” or, “You’re not going to drink anymore, correct?” There’s only one way to answer those questions and a teen would be stupid to respond counter to what I want them to. Unfortunately these types of leading questions are also used in evangelistic efforts. “You want to pray the prayer and receive Jesus into your heart, don’t you?” Saying something like this to a child or young teen is manipulative and borders on emotional abuse of power.
Good questions should be “open” rather than “closed.” Closed-ended questions require single word answers such as “yes” or “no.” Examples of closed questions one might ask a neighbor include “Do you like living in this neighborhood?” “Do you enjoy your job?” or “Are you married?” Rather than ask a closed-ended question like “How many kids do you have?” it would be better to use an open-ended question such as “What do you and your children like to do together?” This kind of question will help draw the deep water out of a soul. The questions above could all be restated as open questions: “What do you like or dislike most about this neighborhood?” “How does your job make you feel?” “How did you meet your wife?”
If we relate this discussion again to evangelism, we find that a really bad question to ask would be “If you were to die tonight do you know where you would go?” or “Do you know Jesus as your personal savior?” These are both closed questions. A much better question would be “What do you think happens when a person dies?” or still better, “If you could ask God one question, what would it be?” These questions have a much greater potential to spark authentic and caring conversation.
For a good summary of open vs. closed questions follow this link.
Our assignment for the coming week is to go into our neighborhoods, not trying to fix something or solve a problem, but to simply ask good questions and listen for responses. Caution: this can’t be done quickly. This takes time and effort. It requires walking off of our property and onto someone else’s. It means we must enter the world with eyes wide open ready to find God and join him when we do.