Monthly Letter – February 2019

Dear Friends

It’s not for nothing that the ‘logo’ for Alpha is simply a question mark.

People have questions: questions which they want to ask and air, even if they are not always quite so keen on the answers. We’re inquisitive creatures by nature – we were made with a hunger for knowledge, made with a drive to explore, discover and expand the horizons of our finite and limited understanding.

So we ask questions, ponder questions, like to hear questions being answered. We enjoy questions. Think of the drawing power of PMQs in Parliament every week: or the lasting appeal of the BBC’s ‘Question Time’ (on the go since 1979, as the TV version of the radio’s longer-running ‘Any Questions’, whose roots go back to 1948).

Questions are a kind of ‘telescope’ of truth, a means by which we seek both to explore and also thereby then the better to get an insight into all the wonders of God’s universe. And as such – not least in the culture of today’s ‘post-modern’ world, where everything and nothing is ‘the truth’ – as such, questions are a fruitful and important means of our engaging for the gospel with the people whom we meet.

Not a ‘Spanish Inquisition’ style of questioning, which only serves to pin the one thus questioned right against the metaphorical wall. That’s interrogation, a style of using questions which involves some verbal force and puts the person questioned into full defensive mode – hackles understandably up; position resolutely entrenched; mind inevitably closed.

That sort of question gets nowhere, in terms of our easing a person away from the view they have previously always adopted.

Gentler, subtler, far more ‘teasing’ questions are the sort I have in mind. Questions which will put the other person at their ease. Questions which convey no sense of arrogance, and carry not a hint of any finger-pointing tone. Questions which will open up discussion and facilitate reflection in an open-minded way.

There’s a short but important book we might all do well to read, which picks up on precisely this: written by Randy Newman, it’s called ‘Questioning Evangelism’.

(Don’t be confused by the title – the writer isn’t calling in question the value or significance of evangelism, so much as highlighting the role which questions can have in sharing the gospel with others!)

There’s a pastoral skill involved in our learning to ask telling questions. And the Lord Himself is the Master – as, of course, we’d expect!

Such questions began in the garden of Eden, in the wake of the truth being exchanged for a lie and the cancer of sin slipping into the world God had made. And it’s here that the first gospel message is clearly proclaimed: here that evangelistic ministry begins. Sin-stained, doomed-to-death humanity in need now of a message of deliverance and grace.

The man and the woman, however, have sneaked off into hiding – a forlorn sort of hope in the face of an all-knowing God, but the fools they’ve become (and the rebels they have shown themselves now both to be) they presume upon their out-manoeuvring God.

Camouflaged and hidden thus the two of them are in what is emphatically defensive mode. When people have adopted such entrenched, defensive postures (which as sinful, senseless rebels we invariably will do), a full-on, all-guns-blazing sort of censure only tends to strengthen such resistance and defiance on their part.

The Lord is a whole load wiser than that! There isn’t from Him a tirade of accusatory words: He doesn’t ‘throw the book’ at them (though He’d have had every good reason to do so); He doesn’t choose to hit them with deserved denunciation – “You’re a pair of good-for-nothing, hell-deserving scoundrels, who have messed up My whole universe and forfeited for ever what you might have both enjoyed.” Though He’d have been quite within His rights forthwith to do so.

Instead, there is a calculated question. “Where are you?”  He says.

He’s teasing them into some talk. ‘You tell me.’ He’s encouraging them to speak: to talk it through, to think it through, to see for themselves what they’ve done, where they’re at. To get back to being on talking terms with the God Who loves to speak. To tell them of the promise He has made: the promise which alone is their salvation.

But they’re not going to hear while hidden away in the bushes, hunkered down in defensive mode, out of earshot of the gracious, promising God. They need to be helped to come out of their enclave, to come down from their perch of pretentious self-justification. They need to be helped to see what a grave situation (in every sense) they are in, and to see what great grace is extended to them by the Lord.

It’s a question which paves the way to that prospect. “Where are you?”

Three short, tantalizing words, addressed to these two hardened hearts with a view to one important ‘gospel conversation’.

The Lord, as I say, is the Master at this art.

And it is art. It’s a part of His great creative genius, His ability to take that which is empty, chaotic and dark, that which is tainted and twisted and torn – to take such unpromising ‘rebel’ material and create out of that something new and ennobled, resplendent and sparkling with life.

It’s an art which you see Him applying Himself to in all sorts of ways in the Scriptures. See how He deals with a stubborn and moody, resentful and petulant prophet – Jonah. It’s questions He’s tossing in Jonah’s direction, again and again. “is it right for you to be angry? … Is it right for you to be angry? … Should I not be concerned..?”

Questions, questions, questions.

See how He speaks with His battered and bruised servant Job, when at last the Lord Himself pitches into the conversation Job’s been having with his so-called friends. It’s questions again. Question after question after question. Read Job 38-41 in a single sitting, and see for yourself what I mean – it’s a barrage of questions, designed as much for the ears of those Pharisaical friends (they’re still sitting in on the whole on-going discussion), who needed to hear the gospel as much as any irreligious rotter of the day.

This is ‘questioning evangelism’ through and through: questions, questions, questions as the swing-doors to a gospel proclamation, and the summons to repentance and what Paul will later call the ‘obedience of faith’. And it worked! These men all then heed that gospel message and the Lord, we’re told, won’t deal with them according to their folly (Job 42.8f). That’s surely gospel grace!

Read the gospel records and you’ll see how very often that it’s questions Jesus addresses to the folk He’s with. Remember the way He tackled the so-called ‘expert in the law’ who hadn’t got the gospel, and who was wondering what he had to do to gain eternal life (Luke 10.25ff).

See how Jesus engages with him. A question. Then a story. Then another telling question. “Which of these three do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” Teasing out good gospel truth.

Or think of Philip and the way that he engages with a stranger on the desert road: a sort of random conversation it would seem (not that there are ever any random conversations in the providence of God!) at an out-in-the-sticks type of café on a remote stretch of road heading south.

Philip’s a man who loves the Lord Jesus, and his heart is attuned to the promptings the Spirit is giving: he goes up to this total stranger, and triggers a gospel conversation with a simple, one-line question. “Do you understand what you’re reading?” he asks. Boom! All of a sudden this desert road has turned into a ‘highway to Zion’!

Questioning evangelism. An art which we’ll all do well to be learning.

But the ‘art’ (if it’s genuinely that) lies not just in our asking telling questions which then open up these gospel conversations, but also in our living lives so altogether different and attractive that they prompt the people round us to begin themselves to ask some searching questions.

‘What makes you tick?’ ‘How come you’re not losing the rag?’ ‘Why on earth do you choose to do that?’ ‘Where on earth do you get all your strength?’

The way we live, the words we use; the attitudes adopted and the choices made; the warmth in our relationships, the depth of our resilience. They all trigger questions in people whose paths we will cross.

Because we now live in a culture whose roots in the Bible have long since been lost, a manner of living that’s shaped by the gospel of grace always prompts such baffled questions – which become the basic platform for our sharing Jesus Christ.

It’s that we’re now going to be studying here in our Sunday morning worship. Learning to live in the love of the Lord in a way that leaves others intrigued! You can try and shut God’s people up … but you can’t stop people firing out their questions!

Yours very warmly in the service of the Lord,

Jeremy Middleton