The questions up to this point help to establish the high bar. They answer the question, “What does God want us to do?” From this point, we turn a corner. We want to talk now about how we are doing. We want to talk about the gap between how we are doing and how God would have us to live.
Exposure to the gap can be contrasted with what I call, “yup-yup” teaching. This is teaching where we just affirm what we already believe. The teacher presents truth and everyone nods and says “yup-yup.” There is more to good teaching than that. Somewhere along the line we need to communicate, “You are sinning and you need to quit.” Of course, I don’t recommend using those words, but we much communicate the message of the gap between God’s high and holy calling for out lives and how we are living right now.
But, don’t people know that they have a gap? Well, no, as a matter of fact, they don’t.
Why people don’t see the gap
There are two reasons people don’t see the gap: pride and denial. Denial says we don’t think about the gaps. Pride says that when we do, we tend to minimize them.
This tendency to think about ourselves in a more flattering light than is warranted is well documented in psychology. It is called the self-serving bias. Here are some examples.
Researchers surveyed 829,000 High School Students and asked them if they were above or below average in terms of their ability to get along with others. Obviously, 50% are below average. 0% rated themselves as below average. 25% thought they were in the top 1%.
- Most drivers think they are above-average drivers including drivers who have been hospitalized for a crash that they caused.
- George Barna found that 90% of all pastors rated themselves as above-average in teaching and preaching. These are people who have to preach on Romans 12:3, which says, “Do not think of yourselves more highly than you ought.”
- 94% of college faculty members think they are above average teachers.
- When the concept of self-serving bias is explained to people, most people rate themselves as above-average in not falling prey to the self-serving bias.
The gap exists, but we don’t see it. Where are you at questions can help us cut through the denial and the self-serving bias.
Making “Where are you at?” questions work
Most people think of themselves as normal. So, one of the easiest ways to start with where are you at questions is to ask about normal people:
- How often do most people have a quiet time?
- What percentage of their income do most people give?
- What percentage of the people who were in church this morning could name their spiritual gifts?
When people answer these questions, they will generally—though not always—be talking about themselves. From here, you can pull the noose.
- What about the people in this room, how common is it for us to share our faith?
- How would you say we are doing as a group in terms of creating authentic community?
- What keeps this group from doubling every two years or less?
From here, we can pull the noose even tighter:
- What about you, when is the last time you and your wife had a date night?
- What fears keep you from abundant Christian living?
- If you knew Christ were coming in twenty-four hours, what would you need to do to be ready?
From here, the questions will go into 1) application: what could we do to close the gap? 2) motivation: what are the benefits of closing the gap? and what will it cost you if you don’t? and 3) commitment: what do you want to do about what you heard today?
Before we get into these next three steps, let’s explore a little more carefully the hidden benefit—the magic of the where-are-you-at question.
The hidden benefit
The Bible says: Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. James 5:16
It is interesting to me what this verse does not say. It does not say that healing comes from trying hard, or being disciplined or even letting go and letting God. This verse teaches us that healing comes as we confess our sins. As we acknowledge the gap, the gap gets smaller. There is something magical about acknowledging the gap.
I take a pretty broad definition of sin. The Bible speaks of sin as everything that falls short of God’s glorious ideal. Anything in your life and mine that is not glorious and ideal is my sin. My debt, my anger, my depression, my purposelessness, my prayerlessness and everything else in my life that is not glorious and ideal is my sin. It could be the sin that I committed, or it could be the sins committed against me. Christian counselors and participants in the recovery movement will attest that great healing comes to us as we confess sins committed against us. The odd thing is, I don’t necessarily need a solution. I just need someone to whom I can confess my sins.
In the Bible we call this person a priest. A priest is one who represents God to me and represents me to God. I think one of the reasons we miss this point is out of a misguided reaction against the Catholic application of James 5:16. The Catholic approach is to go to a priest. Now, let’s think about this.
True or False:
We don’t need a priest.
I have asked this question to hundreds of groups. Ninety-five percent get it wrong. The correct answer is False. We do need a priest. We believe in the priesthood of all believers. Now, if we believe in the priesthood of all believers, it stands to reason that we need these priests for something. Our difference with the Catholics is not about whether or not we need a priest, it is about who the priests are. We believe that all believers are priests. “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” 1 Peter 2:9 [NIV]
It is true that we can go individually and directly to God. We don’t need an intermediary. But, there is great healing in confessing our sins to one another.
Ted Haggard needed a priest
Ted Haggard was the pastor of New Life Church-a true mega-church in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He was the president of the National
Association of Evangelicals. He was an author, a leader, and a hero of mine. I had enjoyed several of his books and had conducted an interview with him. I really was in rapport with his approach to small groups and ministry.
But Ted Haggard had a problem. This is a little difficult for us to relate to because we may not have the same particular flavor of problem. But, at the end of the day, we are just talking about different flavors. Ted Haggard’s flavor of temptation was, he wanted to be with a man.
One winter day, Ted’s life came crumbling down when a male prostitute in Denver accused him of having a three-year professional relationship with him. His story was that he had not known who Ted was through most of that relationship. Not until he saw Ted on T.V. did he realize that Ted was a famous preacher. Ted was publically opposed to homosexuality. The hypocrisy of it drove him crazy. It drove him to get on T.V. and tell the world about their relationship.
It was quite the scandal. For a day or two Ted denied it. But the Bible says, “What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs.” Luke 12:3 Things have a way of coming out. Secrets have a way of being told. For a day or two, Ted denied it, but then, he had to come clean. The following is an excerpt from a statement he had read before his church. Read carefully:
The public person I was wasn’t a lie; it was just incomplete. When I stopped communicating about my problems, the darkness increased and finally dominated me. As a result, I did things that were contrary to everything I believe.
What is amazing to me about this statement is the implication of the second sentence: “When I stopped communicating about my problems.” Stopped communicating. This implies that there had been a time when he had someone in his life that he could communicate with about this. That is amazing. Who does a pastor go to and talk about the fact that he longs to be with a man?
Sin is a tricky thing. Sometimes, we are relieved of sin all at once. Sometimes, presto, we are saved and it is gone. Sometimes, however, we struggle. Sometimes we struggle our whole life. Sometimes God leaves the thorn in the flesh with us. Sometimes God takes away the load. Sometimes, He gives us a stronger back. Sometimes we have to fight and resist and keep fighting and keep resisting.
As long as Ted had someone—a priest—that he could talk to about his sin, talking pushed back the darkness. But, “When I stopped communicating about my problems, the darkness increased and finally dominated me.” Having a priest in his life—someone he could talk to about what was not perfect—created a bubble inside which he could walk and breathe. When he stopped talking, the bubble collapsed.
What is a small group?
A small group is not a miniature worship service with a miniature pulpit and a miniature preacher. A small group is a church of a different sort. It is an interactive group. It is a participatory group. It is a one another group. It is a place where we can get honest. It is a place where the masks can come off. It is a place where we can come clean. It is a place where we can get real. It is a place where we can confess our sins. It is a place where we can find healing.
Not that all this confession will happen in group per se. Much of it will happen outside of group. The group time is only one part of group. The whole idea of group is to develop relationship where people get together outside of group. In these relationships the masks come off. Honesty develops. We get real. We get well.
Where are you at questions pave the way. They begin the process in class that continues in relationships in the rest of life.
The key to making it work
But, “I ask and they don’t get honest” you might be thinking. Here is the key: you get honest. You take off your mask. Quit pretending you have it all together. It is amazing how when one person gets honest, the whole atmosphere of the group changes.
We must do this carefully. It is possible to share too much with too many too quickly and do more harm than good. There is a place and time to keep a secret. There is such a thing as too much information.
I was in a church service once where a gal came forward during the invitation. She was crying. “I just need to confess my sin to the body of Christ. I need to get something off my chest.” The pastor handed her the microphone. Not a good call, in this case. “I just need to confess my sin to the body of Christ. I need to get something off my chest. I have been guilty of sexual immorality with John Smith.” John [not his real name] was sitting about three rows back. I had the feeling he was not in the mood to have his sins confessed.
There is a line in a old hymn that goes, “Plunge in today and be made complete.” Sometimes we do well to do that—plunge in. Sometimes, we do well to take a different approach—wade in slowly. Did you see the movie What About Bob? Baby steps. Baby steps. Baby steps.
Most classes I have been in, however, err on the other side. They are too superficial. Too much pretending. Too fake. The key is for one person—normally the leader—to get real, take off his or her mask and get honest.
Let the magic begin.
Josh Hunt, How to Use Questions to Stimulate Life-Changing Discussions, Good Questions Have Small Groups Talking (Las Cruces, NM: Josh Hunt, 2010), 73–80.