Asking the Wrong Question

I’ve been pondering over something for a while now (maybe a couple of years) – the consequences of asking the wrong question.

Perhaps I’ve been asking one particular wrong question for a long time now.

After most events I run, I usually ask my volunteer leaders: “How did you think ____________ went?” or “What did you think about ___________?”

Most people will see no problem with this sort of questioning. In fact, it’s rather commonplace, the typical modus operandi for internally judging the success or failure of a given activity.

But asking this question about something as sacred as ministry turns the whole focus to programming and human willpower/decision-making. It reduces everything that we do to preference – did you prefer this type of presentation to that type, this event to that one. This happens at the expense of believing that God is at work and journeying with us, constantly, and we (I) can tend to analyze and disintegPentecost_iconrate via comparison and contrast, and in measuring based upon preference or ideal.

In many ways, life/ministry is either a me-mission (my own project of self-satisfaction usually carried about through autonomous action and measured based upon arbitrary ideals, thus usually resulting in disappointment), or a participation in His mission – an encounter with the Lord Jesus Christ who with the Father pours out the Holy Spirit and brings about transformation in my life, an invitation to participate in His salvific journey not by my merit or preference or pure-act-of-will, but by gift of grace that is destined for beatitude.

The problem with the question I’ve been posing is that it turns the whole endeavor into a me-mission. Ministry risks becoming a me-mission. We become me-missionaries – measuring the success or failure of an event based upon our liking or disliking, our comfort or discomfort. This is called “willpower Christianity.” It is the willing the earthly success of something, the endless creation of programs, or the feeling that we need to fix ourselves in order to be deemed worthy of God’s love.

An experience at a recent Jr. High Youth Ministry event gathering many parishes typifies this position. We had a small group session after adoration and the questions were asking us to basically rank how much we “liked” Eucharistic adoration (I think they were trying to figure out if bringing students before Jesus was preferable and enjoyable to them). This struck me. Why? Because we’re talking about God. Not my preference. Or yours. They asked the wrong question. We have no place before God Almighty to say if His Presence conforms to my preferences. We cannot will the impact of the Mystery on someone.

I believe that in ministry we cannot be led by our preferences or a desire to will success (whatever we think that is). Instead, we’re being asked to constantly move forward in faith as humble beggars who realize they don’t really know much and are in need of everything. We need to learn how to see. We need eyes of faith. Instead of reducing everything to how much we liked an event, or a small group session, or this or that, we should be asking: How is the Mystery present? How is He present here? What is He calling us to? How has He been at work? Are we responding to His grace?

Then we will be asking the questions that correspond to being “Spirit-led.” Lord, give me eyes to see. Ministry must become prayer – “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.” “You are the resurrection and the life.” “Master, to whom shall we go, you have the words of everlasting life.” Lord, give us eyes to see!

The Church, as Pope Benedict reminded us last October, is not something of human making. Our youth ministry program isn’t either. God always initiates. His love is initiatory. He simply calls us to respond.

The point is never – it can never become – how well-produced a video was, how well-choreographed a game or skit, how dynamic a talk was, if we got what we wanted out of small group, or the feeling produced by this or that prayer experience. The (focal) point is always Jesus. Our hope must always be Jesus – now and forever. Once we take our focus off Him, or begin to use Him as a starting point for our own self-propelled projects, we become disappointed.

In speaking about the ministry of evangelization, Pope Francis, speaking from His experience of encountering Christ, provides us with crystal-clear insight on how to proceed (he’s answering this question – “How can we communicate faith effectively today?” – which is our question too):

I shall answer with just three words. The first: Jesus. What is the most important thing? Jesus. If we forge ahead with our own arrangements, with other things, with beautiful things but without Jesus we make no headway, it does not work. Jesus is more important. I would like now to make a small complaint, but in a brotherly way, just between ourselves. All of you in the square shouted “Francis, Francis, Pope Francis”; but where was Jesus? I should have preferred to hear you cry: “Jesus, Jesus is Lord, and he is in our midst!” From now on enough of “Francis”, just “Jesus”!

The second word is: prayer. Looking at the face of God, but above all — and this has to do with what I said earlier — realizing that he is also looking at us. The Lord looks at us. He looks at us first. My experience is what I feel in front of the tabernacle, when I go in the evening to pray before the Lord. Sometimes I nod off for a while; this is true, for the strain of the day more or less makes you fall asleep, but he understands. I feel great comfort when I think of the Lord looking at me. We think we have to pray and talk, talk, talk…. No! Let the Lord look at you. When he looks at us, he gives us strength and helps us to bear witness to him — for the question was about witnessing to faith, wasn’t it?

First “Jesus”, then “prayer” — let us think of God holding us by the hand. Then I would like to draw attention to this element: letting ourselves be led by him. This is more important than any calculation. We are true evangelizers when we let him guide us. Think of Peter; perhaps he was having a snooze when he had a vision, the vision of the sheet with all the animals, and he heard Jesus telling him something that he did not understand. At that moment some non-Jews came to call him to go to a certain house and he saw that the Holy Spirit was there.

Peter let Jesus guide him to that first evangelization of the Gentiles, who were not Jews, something inconceivable at the time (cf. Acts 10:9-33). So it has been, throughout history, throughout history! Letting ourselves be led by Jesus. He is our leader, our leader is Jesus.

And the third word: witness. Jesus, prayer – prayer, letting ourselves be led by him – and then witness. But I would like to add something. Letting oneself be led by Jesus leads to the surprises of Jesus. We might think we should work out programmes of evangelization carefully, thinking of strategies and making plans, but these are only tools, small tools. What matters is Jesus and letting ourselves be led by him. We can then plot our strategies but this is secondary.

Finally, witness: faith can only be communicated through witness, and that means love. Not with our own ideas but with the Gospel, lived out in our own lives and brought to life within us by the Holy Spirit. There is, as it were, a synergy between us and the Holy Spirit, and this leads to witness. The Church is carried forward by the Saints, who are the very ones who bear this witness. As both John Paul II and Benedict XVI have said, today’s world stands in great need of witnesses, not so much of teachers but rather of witnesses. It’s not so much about speaking, but rather speaking with our whole lives: living consistently, the very consistency of our lives! This consistency means living Christianity as an encounter with Jesus that brings me to others, not just as a social label. In terms of society, this is how we are, we are Christians closed in on ourselves. No, not this! Witness is what counts!

I pray that we all long for and receive this consistency of life that Pope Francis speaks of. The world needs the consistency of life that is found in the witness – not in a program, or the most perfectly developed thesis, or the flawless meeting. This consistency is not the fruit of our willpower, but of Jesus’ divine action and the Holy Spirit who teaches us how to pray, who prays for us:

The Spirit too comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit itself intercedes with inexpressible groanings. And the one who searches hearts knows what is the intention of the Spirit, because it intercedes for the holy ones according to God’s will. We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, so that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.And those he predestined he also called; and those he called he also justified; and those he justified he also glorified. What then shall we say to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? (Romans 8:26-31)