Leaving the listener with Answers…or with Questions?
When I was going through the ordination process in The United Methodist Church, I would be questioned and interviewed on theological and practical work each year for four years (yes, mine took an extra year…shocking, I know…). One time, a sermon I turned in for evaluation took an interesting turn. Here’s the loosely remembered conversation:
Evaluator: You end your sermon with a question, not a statement of faith. How do you justify leaving people like that?
Me: I like to leave people with asking better questions rather than giving them “the answer.”
Evaluator: But that’s what people are looking for: answers. So by not giving them answers, you aren’t giving them a sermon.
Me: I don’t believe a sermon has to give them an answer.
Evaluator: I disagree. People want assurance they have the right answer. And they want assurance their preacher knows more than they do.
Of course, after the conversation was the obvious retort: Jesus, who spoke in parables and questions, was a terrible preacher by my evaluator’s standards! 🙃
But this memory came to mind this week when I became aware of tests that look for one answer…and tests that look for several answers.
Convergence and Divergence Tests
Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, spends a fair amount of the book talking about how we evaluate geniuses (outliers for sure!). He names two different types of tests:
- Convergence tests: Tests that are looking for the “right” answer to problems, such as math, logic, or scientific tests. The SAT for college admissions is a convergence test, for example, as are most IQ tests.
- Divergence tests: Tests that are looking for diversity of thinking, or something close to creativity. These tests range from the infamous “Google” tests that ask crazy questions to gauge how job applicants will creatively answer a problem, to the elementary age tests asking how many uses can you find for a paper clip.
Gladwell notes that people who score high on convergence tests don’t necessarily score high on divergence tests, and vice versa. The point is that if you are looking for outliers, you need to offer both kinds of tests to find people who can live into both ways of thinking.
Convergence and Divergence Sermons
The conflict between the ordained ministry evaluator and me exposes a similar rift between the tests: sermons are geared towards either questions or answers, and rarely both.
- Convergence preaching is more popular in conservative, traditionalist, or fundamentalist congregations—or high-demand faith traditions. People come for the truth, the proof-texting, the convictions, the creeds. Progressive and liberal preachers can do the same thing, drawing on convictions of human rights and social justice as the right thing to converge on.
- Divergence preaching is more popular in progressive, big tent denominations, and ecumenical and interfaith contexts. People come for multiple takes on one issue, questions about the text they haven’t asked before, or different sources of inspiration beyond predictable Christian perspectives. Conservative and Traditionalist preachers can do the same thing, drawing on the diversity of Christian tradition’s take on questions, and pointing to faith as the substitute for answering unanswerable questions.
It doesn’t fall neatly between progressives being more comfortable with questions, and conservatives being more comfortable with answers. In my experience, those tendencies are both true, but there are enough outliers and case studies to make the divisions not as simple as that.
Nonetheless, even divergent preaching must engage the answers given in Scripture, as Olin P. Moyd writes in his book The Sacred Art: Preaching and Theology in the African American Tradition:
There must be divine answers to the cries, “What must I do in my present situation?” just as there are answers to “What must I do to be saved?” Preaching in the African American tradition always responded to both of these questions. (Page 121)
Convergence and Divergence Cultures
It’s more than the sermon: it may be that the church or faith tradition culture itself tends more to answers than questions, or questions than answers.
Church consultant Gil Rendle, in his book Quietly Courageous, writes about convergent and divergent cultures. One summary of Rendle’s work states:
“A convergent culture is characterized by commonality, a sense of unity, common purpose, and shared values; a divergent culture craves variety and diversity and stresses generational, racial, and gender differences. Whereas a convergent culture urges individuals to hide their differences or try to fold their differences into the larger group, a divergent culture encourages people to lead with their differences and to cultivate and express the ways they deviate from cultural norms.”W. Willimon Leading with the Sermon, page 82.
The same issues apply to cultures as they do to sermons and to tests: convergence is about leading to a singular point of agreement despite differences, what we would call uniformity (the answers), whereas divergence is about being okay with a unity in diversity (the questions). It’s why certain church cultures create either strongman theologies (one person is the answer leading with all the hierarchical authority) or paralyzed flat structures that are so slow to collect everyone’s questions that they fail to lead with answers.
Again, it doesn’t fall quite as neatly along idealogical lines, although uniformity in conservative/fundamentalist churches is far more prevalent than liberal purity culture. But it is worth wondering about your ministry context: are they more focused on unity (even of diversities) or on diversity of smaller unities?
You already know
The reality is that after a half-dozen sermons, people know whether their church has a convergence or divergence preacher or culture.
- No matter the types of illustrations, practical implementations, or pop culture references, at the end of the day, the sermon either is big on answers or big on questions. My congregation knows that I strive to give people something to think about or a new take on a well-known story in my divergent preaching.
- The same is with church cultures: either they have converged on a set of beliefs that are unbending, or they have a way of asking questions and being comfortable with ambiguity. My congregation knows that the question of LGBTQ+ inclusion is settled, we’ve converged on that in all aspects of the church, but that we live into our differences and spectrums of perspectives moreso than one person’s.
I wonder what my evaluator, who so struggled with questions rather than answers, would say if they walked into my United Methodist congregation today and heard these words as part of our standard welcome:
This is a place to explore your spirituality and bring your questions. We don’t have all the answers, but together we ask the hard questions and confront the troubles and injustices we see in the world. With God’s help we use our voices and energy to bring change.
We’ve named our culture and our preacher at the outset so folks know how to hold the experience. I wonder if other churches do the same setting of expectations? Sound off in the comments.
- Are you a convergence or divergence preacher? Is there a third way between those two? What marks it as different?
- Where do you see aspects of convergence and divergence active in your ministry context?
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