Living the Subversive Life of Jesus: Question Asking and Community Cultivation

The other day a few of my friends and I were discussing the realities of life. Rootedness, patience, and attending to the ordinary rhythms of life were at the core of our dialogue. For us, life doesn’t make a whole lot sense unless we’re pursuing the actualization of these words. The call to move into our neighborhoods is one we’ve taken seriously and are becoming more and more aware of the postures and practices needed to follow through with this. In a world where the extraordinary and flashy are sought after and valued, we believe faithfully pursuing the mundane of the everyday is where we will see actual growth.

We firmly believe in things like rootedness, patience, and attending to the ordinary rhythms of life because these are some of the things Jesus firmly believed in. And by “believe in” I don’t mean mental assent alone. Belief is something that is manifested through action. Therefore, if you say you believe something, I should be able to see actual actions and habits to support this. Give me a month of observing you and I’ll tell you what you actually believe. We in the Church have done a grave disservice by assigning mere intellectual affirmation to what it looks like to have faith.

Discussing these things in generalities is step one; coming to grips with specifics is step two. So, when my friends asked me what it looks like for Scott Emery to practice contextualized rootedness and patience within the humdrum of everyday life, I had to pause and think for a moment.

Within my life, I have been learning what it looks like to follow after Jesus from the margins. I am thoroughly convinced we are living in a post-Christendom society here in the greater Syracuse area, which changes everything, including our postures and practices in and among the rhythms of our everyday.

Where once the Church was at the center of culture, we have been pushed to the margins. Where once we had a voice and a seat at the table, we have now been booted out the door. Where the story of Christianity held a prominent place in peoples’ collective memory, a vacancy sign now hangs.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: This is a good thing.

Why is this a good thing?

Because I believe it is the impetus to push us into being more like Jesus and less like Caesar.

As I continue to read the gospels, I consistently see a Jesus who is marked by profound question asking. He didn’t possess the assumed cultural power and influence of his time. He didn’t wield a violent rhetoric or forceful legislation thundered from on high. Nor did he browbeat anyone into agreement. (Yes, he did give many answers, but it seems to me that we’ve swung the pendulum too far in the answer-giving direction much to the relegation of questions. In many ways, we’ve adopted our Enlightenment heritage of power through proclamation over the humble way of Jesus.)

Instead, he spent his days subverting the kingdom of Caesar with the kingdom of God.  His primary means of doing this was through constantly asking questions. Think about how many times you hear Jesus ask the person or crowd in front of him a question.

Why do you call me good?

Who is my mother and brothers?

Who touched my clothes?

Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?

Do you love me?

What do you want me to do for you?

You of little faith, why are you so afraid?

The list could go on.

When we look behind the veil of Jesus’ questions, we find his main concern: community. God is always at work bringing disparate things together. The very nature of Godself is community and thus God’s work is always community creating. The same can be said of Jesus since he is always about doing his Father’s work. So, with his questions he is unmasking the struggles people are dealing with. He is destroying the façade people have constructed. In short, questions allow for self-reflection, which produces participation with Jesus, others, and the created order. One cannot stand by idly when faced with the questions of Jesus. And once we are participating, we can be held accountable to our commitments. We are prompted to act in a way that tethers us together. This is the nature of the kingdom of God: tying back together the relational strands between God, humanity, and creation.

Peter Block says it well

Conversations that evoke accountability and commitment can best be produced through deciding to value questions more than answers, by choosing to put as much thought into questions as we have traditionally put into answers…Questions create the space for something new to emerge. Answers, especially those that respond to our quick results, while satisfying, shut down the discussion, and the future shuts down with them. (Block, Community, p. 103)

The trick to this lies within the nature of the questions. When we ask questions that do not produce participation, accountability, and commitment we

collude with people who might attend a gathering and choose not to join in cocreating the value of the event. The point is that the nature of the questions we ask either keeps the existing system in place or brings an alternative future into the room. (Block, Community, p. 104)

This is precisely what Jesus was and is still doing.

There needs to be a delineation between questions with little power and ones with great power (Block’s wording). Questions with little power are constantly asked and are usually the first ones rolling off our tongues. They have almost become part of our vernacular. Block lists some of them as:

How do we get people to show up and be committed?

How do we get others to be more responsible?

How do we get people to come on board and do the right thing?

How do we get those people to change?

Who has solved this elsewhere and how do we import this knowledge? (Block, Community, p. 104)

These questions do not produce participation, accountability, or commitment. Rather, they look for predictable answers and predictable futures, usually coming from ones who have already assumed they have the answers.

Questions with great power are ones that transform us into cocreators of our world. Through them we become actors in the drama of our lives. Passivity is removed and we are given agency. As soon as an answer comes from our mouths and hearts, we have moved from mere spectator to participant.

Block says all great power questions have three essential qualities: being ambiguous, personal, and anxiety evoking. Ambiguity allows each person to “bring their own meaning into the room”; things are not precisely defined. Personal: “all passion, commitment, and connection” grows out of what is personal. Everyone experiences this. Anxiety evoking: you will not move towards that which doesn’t bring some edge along with it. Power lies within evoking healthy anxiety.

So what questions are powerful?

What is the commitment you hold that brought you into this room?

What is the price you or others pay for being here today?

How valuable do you plan for this effort to be?

What is the crossroads you face at this stage of the game?

What is the story you keep telling about the problems of this community?

What are the gifts you hold that have not been brought fully into the world?

What is your contribution to the very thing you complain about?

What is it about you or your team, group, or neighborhood that no one knows? (Block, Community, p. 106)

From here, we can move forward with powerful answers to powerful questions. Questions that produce commitment, self-reflection, accountability, and perhaps most importantly, vulnerability. Spectators step aside as actors take their place.

The beauty with these questions – and the typology they engender – is their universality. What I mean by that is that they aren’t questions just for pastors, missionaries, or other church “professionals.” They are questions you can walk into your context, be it a neighborhood, workplace, third place, or marriage, in an effort to cultivate community. Jesus never intended for things like this to take place solely within the confines of a church. In fact, his main work – and by being his disciples, ours as well – is happening out in the neighborhoods, workplaces, and third places of the world.

What is your default position: question-asker or answer-giver?

Do you resonate more with asking and being asked questions of little or great power?

Who in your life is a subversive question-asker?

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One thought on “Living the Subversive Life of Jesus: Question Asking and Community Cultivation

  1. This post was incredibly helpful, and convicting. Sadly, I think I’ve seen folks in my ministry context (myself included) become answer-givers for questions people aren’t necessarily even asking. Ugh.

    Also, something specific jumped out at me. Scott wrote: “In many ways, we’ve adopted our Enlightenment heritage of power through proclamation over the humble way of Jesus.” That statement, combined with Zach Hoag’s post yesterday on the New Religious Right, has me really chewing on some things related to ecclesiology. I’ve been wading in the YRR pool essentially all of my decade in ministry, and in many ways I’m comfortable there. However, there are certain attitudes and cultural mores that have always been in the back of my mind as disconnected from what I see in scripture; stuff that I have chosen to take with a grain of salt and overlook. That said, Scott’s statement above grabbed my attention and stuck with me through the rest of the post. It really gets to the root of a number of these issues for me, and could be helpful in developing some other “great” questions…

    “Is your structure focused on controlling power, or experiencing it?”, etc.

    Perhaps I’m not the guy to write those questions, but you get the idea.

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