Consider the words “good” and the words “tough.”
There are some things which are either one or the other. Steak for example, is either good or tough. Generally it can’t be both.
There are other things which are good because they were tough. I remember a class my senior year of high school on American Government. I worked harder in that class than I ever did in college or graduate school. That class was good because it was tough. I might not have realized it back then. But I do now: that class was good because it was tough.
The words “good” and “tough” can also be applied to a question. We can say “That’s a good question” or “That’s a tough question.”
There are interesting similarities and differences between the questions we classify as “good” and the questions we classify as “tough.” Both types of questions don’t have easy answers. Both types of questions indicate that the questioner has thought it out.
But there are differences. I’m quite likely to tell my kids that they’ve asked a “good” question if I’m comfortable with the idea I don’t know the answer. I’m much more likely to tell a small group member that they are asking a “tough” question if I’m uncomfortable with the idea that I don’t know the answer.
That’s a surprising realization for me: the difference between a “good” and a “tough” question is not in the question itself. It’s not in the person asking the question. It’s in me: my expecations of what I think I’m supposed to know. Or maybe it’s in my fears that I’m going to expose to others what I don’t know. Most likely it’s in both.
There is a level on which this is not good.
The power of a small group is in the process of uncovering truth together. The Holy Spirit does not only work within us. He also works among us, between us.
It is not practical to expect that most small group leads have received thorough, seminary-level training. We should not act like the answer man (or woman) for a variety of reasons.
Wise people who have had the luxury of years of formal religious education struggle with providing the right answer to good (tough) questions. This does not mean that we leaders should not attempt to answer questions.
But it does mean that we should not position ourselves as the dispensor of knowledge. This can be hard. Others might want us to be in this position. It can be enjoyable to be placed in this position. Like many enjoyable things, though, it’s not healthy for us, and it’s not healthy for our members.
Questions begin to look like good ones, and not tough ones, when we recognize that we are not responsible for answering them.
But reframing the questions doesn’t make them go away. As leaders, we don’t need to give verbal answers to good (or tough) questions. But just because we’re not giving the answers, this does not mean that we shouldn’t do anything.
If we are passive, as small group leaders, and do nothing, when people pose tough questions several unfortunate results can occur. The first is that members get a sense that there is no point to asking these questions, that no answer will get found. The second is that we appear to be passive, weak leaders. The third is that unhealthy, unhelpful answers can appear.
Let’s make this concrete.
Suppose that someone in your small group asks about the nature of hell. Our first instinct is to approach this as a tough question. Even if we’re clear in our own hearts about the answer to this question, these answers aren’t easy or popular. It’s easy to feel like as the leader we ought to have some sort of easily accepted, pat explanation. But the truth is, it’s a mistake for the leader to always present herself (or himself) as the teacher.
It’s also a mistake for the leader to do nothing.
If we are passive and silent, some members might attempt to do their best. You probably have somebody in your small group who reads theology books for fun. Perhaps he is not the most sensetive person. If there is a silence, a vaccuum, he’s likely to chime in with some very blunt assertions. Perhaps they will be doctrinally correct. But they are also likely to be divisive, and perhaps even insensitive.
On the other hand, maybe that mellow person who’s sampled other religions will respond to the questions about Hell. Perhaps this person will make statements that are easy to swallow, but out of sync with your understanding of scripture and the church’s doctrine.
It’s easy at this point, to wonder: Just what should a leader do? If he shouldn’t always answer the question head-on, and he shouldn’t sit back and be passive, what else is there!?!?
The truth is there is no one-size-fits-all, easy answer. There will be times that you will do too much. There will be times that you won’t do enough. Despite appearances, though, there is a pretty wide menu of options available to a leader that don’t involve directly answering the question at hand. I’ll suggest a few of these in my next post.