The Power of a Great Question

April 12th, 2018

Faultlines is a collection of resources intended to inform conversations around human sexuality within the United Methodist Church as the denomination prepares for the 2019 General Conference. The collection represents diverse perspectives and attempts to fill knowledge gaps around the debate, biblical foundations, theological arguments and the impact on The United Methodist Church and her people. Visit for more information. The following is an excerpt from The 19: Questions to Kindle a Wesleyan Spirit by Carolyn C. Moore.

A great question has power. A question mark is almost like a trowel. It dips into the soil of our hearts and churns up latent feelings or beliefs we didn’t even know were there. A great question can stop us in our tracks and change our perspective. Good answers fix problems in the short-term. Good questions have the power to create lasting change. Great questions can change a worldview. 

Asking good questions was a technique John Wesley used. A devout student of “The Book,” surely he learned that skill from the best of the best. Jesus was also a master at asking great questions.

The questions Wesley's Holy Club asked and answered were designed to expose the souls of those who participated in weekly accountability, and those questions still have power to expose our weaknesses and call us to account for making spiritual progress. Wesley developed similar avenues for accountability in the Methodist class and band meetings, using discipleship questions to help people grow in faith.

Beyond those accountability questions in the Holy Club and in class and band meetings, Wesley developed nineteen other questions to probe the hearts and motives of potential Methodist preachers. These questions have had a kind of staying power. Since 1773, pastors in the United Methodist tradition have answered these nineteen historic questions as a way of agreeing to how we will live into this ministry life. Candidates for ordination examine these questions and prepare to answer them at the Annual Conference during which they are ordained (The Book of Discipline 2016, ¶¶330 and 336, pp. 257-258 and 270-271). It is the beginning point of our connection.

"The 19: Questions to Kindle a Wesleyan Spirit" (Abingdon Press, 2018)

Do you wonder why Wesley chose questions? Why not statements of faith, or something that sounds more like a manifesto? Was his choice an act of practicality or a stroke of brilliance? I suspect the latter. Because he chose to ask questions of those seeking to lead in the early Methodist movement, pastors for nearly two hundred fifty years have had their worldview shaped, their calling clarified, and their potential unearthed by these nineteen potent ideas presented as theological affirmations with a question mark.

By the time an ordinand stands to answer these questions publicly, he or she has already been approved for ministry. An appointment has already been chosen. The candidate’s family has arrived from out of town to celebrate the milestone. No one reasonably expects the pastor to answer in a way that would preclude ordination. Much like a wedding, while the public profession is authentic, the commitment seems to have been made long before the big day.

And much like a wedding, one might well answer these important questions faithfully on the “big day,” then quickly forget the substance of them in the years to follow. 

I read these questions for the first time when I was preparing for ordination. After that, I can't say that I so much as thought about most of them again until almost twenty years after I first answered them publicly. I pulled them out in recent years when conflicts within the United Methodist Church began to heat up and pointed questions were being leveled at opposing “sides” about what matters theologically. As a blogger, I was surprised to find some of those questions leveled at me. I have had people take issue with my use of the term orthodoxy, informing me that I don't get to decide what orthodoxy means. I would agree. Neither I nor they get to decide what it means. Orthodoxy has an accepted meaning. Methodism is another term I'm hearing tossed about as if it too can be redefined according to whim and culture. And love. Evidently, some circles get to define what love is, while others are labeled as unloving or unjust by virtue of their disagreement with those definitions.

As the debates and contemporary questions swirl, I’m drawn back to these historic nineteen questions. In them, I’ve discovered something unexpected and sublime. I’ve found that rather than becoming distant and lifeless, these questions have only been enriched by time. After twenty years of ministry, I now have experience to support their richness. I understand freshly that knowing what you believe matters. In light of denominational turmoil, I recognize the importance of publicly committing to our doctrines. In these questions, I hear the heart of a man at the helm of a new and growing movement. When he asked his candidates whether they were resolved, whether they were earnest, whether they would study and be diligent in instructing others, Wesley wasn’t after company men or career women. He was looking for fruitful, whole-hearted followers of Jesus willing to give their all to this Methodist way. It was his vision that these questions both inspire and require a cohesive unity — one heart, one mind, one mission. 

I commend these questions to your study for precisely that reason: that you also will find a renewed commitment to wholehearted connection to our doctrine and mission as Methodists.

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