Questions Push Us Farther Than Answers
Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give a reason for the hope which you have. I Peter 3:15
Good old Q&A—questions and answers always have been and will forever remain at the very center of the academic experience. This tried and true tactic continues to be among the most reliable ways for teachers to assess whether or not students are engaged and learning in their classes. A carefully crafted query that elicits a thoughtful, well-informed reaction stimulates a meaningful sense of gratification for teacher and learner alike. That eureka, lightbulb-flashed-on moment when a student demonstrates clear understanding invariably makes a teacher’s many trials more worthwhile. Or, when discovery is still far off and the light remains dim, questions met with still unrefined answers suggest more remains to be done. Yet another reason to show up for work tomorrow! In either instance, questions and their answers are indispensable to the educational process.
The two are inextricably bound together, of course, but a wise teacher once said to me that “questions push us farther than answers.” The point is that too often we settle for the barely sufficient and are satisfied with just enough and miss the opportunity to push as far, or plumb as deep, or ponder as wide as we might. Rote responses might be “right” responses to questions that are posed, but is correct recitation all that we seek? Certainly, there is nothing wrong with being right, but is it possible that embedded within the thought-provoking question there is the catalyst to push us farther, deeper, broader than we otherwise might have expected? “Teaching to the test” may result in improved scores as long as students are capable of parroting back information they have heard in class, but the best teachers realize that typically there is more to a probing question and much more to a considered answer than a formulaic, albeit “right,” rote response.
Self-evidently, Q&A is a methodological must for practical pedagogy, but these days some of the most challenging questions for Lutheran education are ones that involve Lutheran schools themselves. Christian education has historically been an integral focus of the mission of the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod. The extent to which this commitment to Christian education must continue as a ministry emphasis is prompting a series of compelling questions for schools and congregations, districts and the Concordia colleges and universities. Plenty of indicators—social, cultural, economic, demographic, political, and others—portend difficult days ahead. All of the signs of our times, however, reinforce the idea that Lutheran education for students at every level of learning is as critical as it has ever been. Indeed, the opportunities for impact may well be unprecedented.
Regrettably, many schools have implemented cutbacks, and more than a few have faced permanent closure during the difficult economic downturn of recent years. Folding up tents and dispersing in hasty retreat is nobody’s preferred option. Will heroic efforts to hold fast and firm be a futile struggle to succeed? While not true everywhere or in all places, deeply declining enrollments at Lutheran grade schools and Lutheran high schools have been all too common. Correspondingly, the number of students who are enrolled in programs preparing for teaching ministry or synodical service in other professional church vocations has dipped significantly in recent years across the Concordia University System. The situation prompts concern from every quarter.
Hard questions that defy easy answers are before us. Indeed, easy answers only invite short cuts that allow short-lived solutions. If questions really do push us farther than answers, then the knottiest questions provide occasion for even keener attention, deeper reflection, and greater growth. In Lutheran schools that growth will be, above all else, growth in faith and trust in God’s grace in Christ Jesus and His plan for the church. No one argues about the importance of figuring out our problems and offering right responses—so much is at stake. To get there, however, we dare not settle for anything less than thoughtfully and thoroughly, prayerfully and carefully exploring the many angles of the complicated questions. Seeking the Lord’s help and guidance, and resisting the short cut to simple solutions, our first question may be, “Which way to go from here?”
We do not all approach the question of direction from the same vantage point. The issues and circumstances within Lutheran higher education are not exactly the same as those confronting our colleagues in Lutheran early childhood, elementary, or high school settings. In fact, even among synodical colleges and universities problems, possibilities, and priorities vary from one campus to the next. Collectively, we recognize that the landscape within higher education in general, and within Lutheran higher education in particular, is changing. The option of doing things the way we have always done them is not available to us. Cooperation and collaboration has allowed us to identify best practices and to partner on significant initiatives. The potential for greater efficiency and better management will allow us to explore expanded opportunities for reaching a wider range of students with assorted learning needs and interests. Working together should enable the Concordias to accomplish a lot—maybe more than we might imagine. Nevertheless, each Concordia college and university has its own set of challenges which evoke its own list of questions. One-size-fits-all answers will not adequately address the diverse set of situations among us at the collegiate level. It stands to reason that points of comparison will be less and less applicable between Lutheran higher education and other Lutheran schools. Most questions testing Lutheran educators and the schools that they serve, therefore, defy uniformity. No template exists that provides a ready remedy to head-scratching conundrums that are sometimes dramatically different, sometimes subtly nuanced, but rarely identical from one place to the next. Which way to go from here depends on where “here” may be!
A presumptuous attempt at a universal response to “where to go from here?” would be out of line. From my place and point of view I have some idea of what faces me. Even my own circumstances are not static. Where we are heading at Concordia is a bit of a moving target. Plans change and the path that we pursue does, too. Suffice it to say, however, that the question of where to go from here has the potential to push all of us much farther and farther each day that we are privileged to serve in places where God has called us.
ShapingtheFuture. “Are you ready and are you able to explain the hope that you have?” Here is a question that connects and directs the reason for being of every Lutheran school and of everyone who teaches in one of them.At the same time, a universal caveat is in order. In our quest to understand the implications of all that moving forward might possibly entail, Lutheran educators must avoid the paths fraught with peril that may entice us farther and farther away from our shared sense of Christian mission and, more specifically, our shared understanding of Gospel message. The direction we go from here, whatever our situation and wherever our calling, is always shaped in Lutheran schools by yet another question. It is the same one that is implicit in the Bible passage above that undergirds the theme for this edition of
Saint Peter’s instruction to his readers, ourselves included, is always to be prepared to have an answer to anyone’s question about the hope that is ours in Christ Jesus. With respect to Peter’s point, therefore, our most compelling charge in all Lutheran schools is twofold—first, to be prepared at all times to share the Gospel message of the love of God in Christ with our students; and second, to prepare our students to be ready to answer anyone and everyone, anywhere at any time, when asked about their hope in Jesus. Occasionally, the question about our Christian hope will be asked directly. A family member, a friend or acquaintance, a neighbor or co-worker may wonder aloud about the difference Jesus Christ makes in our lives. More often, safe to assume, the same people might have the same question but will keep it to themselves, mind their own business, and wonder silently. Although unspoken, the question remains.
Lutheran schools prepare learners for many things. We equip students with knowledge, skills, and attitudes that will be useful to them as they navigate their way through their lives. At the center of every Christian’s vocation, however, is the mission to help steer others toward the hope that sustains now and brings the promise of eternal life in Christ—a hope built on nothing less, and nothing more, than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. The deeply penetrating, profoundly evocative question common to all humanity, clearly voiced or quietly considered, is about life’s meaning and when life is ended “where do we go from here.” Without the twofold charge to be prepared and to prepare others to share the reason for our hope, the purpose for our schools’ existence may legitimately be challenged. With this as our primary objective, however, our mere existence is hardly enough. This question pushes us farther and farther to reach more and more people with the hope that is ours in Jesus.
It would be a mistake to suppose that declining enrollments and decreasing numbers of students pursuing careers in professional church vocations signals a diminished need for the Christian Gospel. The harvest is as plentiful as it has ever been, and the need for laborers in the harvest field remains acute. Obviously, our familiar ways of answering the question that others have about our hope are under stress. Lutheran schools are not immune from external and internal pressures that confront us. Our answer, at one level, is presented with childlike simplicity, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so…” Still, our response to others’ deepest needs is not rote recitation of familiar formulas. Similarly, our answer to the changing dynamics in which we find ourselves cannot be limited to the way we have always done things before. Our ability not only to adapt but to remain relevant will push us farther to answers still in the process of being uncovered. In order always to be ready to give an answer, we would do well to take this opportunity to ask ourselves the really hard questions about mission and ministry—not only “where do we go from here?” but first, “why are we here, and what is our reason for being?” Questions will push us farther than answers. Good questions, thoughtfully and prayerfully considered, will prepare us to give an answer to everyone who asks us to give a reason for the hope which we have.
is President of Concordia University Wisconsin. Dr. Ferry began his faculty career at Concordia in 1991 and continues to serve as Professor of History.
Illustrations by Jackie Lakely.