Adjacent Urinals at Pease Pottage image

Adjacent Urinals at Pease Pottage

It occurred to me the other day, during a conversation with Joel Virgo, that I now have more in common with people who share my questions than with people who share my answers. That sounds, even to my ears, like a ridiculously floaty remark, worthy of ethereal backing muzak and a generous helping of suitable parody, but I think it’s true. Here’s what I mean by it.

In the abstract, our answers relate to where we are now, and our questions relate to where we think we are going next. As such, someone who shares my answers but not my questions is like someone who I meet at a service station but who is heading to a different destination than me: we coincide in our location at present, but our futures are certain to be very different. Someone who shares my questions but not my answers, on the other hand, is like someone headed to the same destination I am, but who is currently in another part of the country: we are in very different places now, but we will get progressively closer between now and the time we eventually meet.

A little less abstractly, let’s say we have Pastor A and Pastor B, who are both part of the same denomination or network. When asked a series of questions about doctrine, mission and ethics, they answer in identical ways, because their theological and practical frameworks are so similar. But the questions that keep Pastor A up at night are very different from those that animate Pastor B. Then one day, Pastor A meets Pastor C, who is cut from a very different cloth theologically, and disagrees with him on all sorts of issues, but who nevertheless finds himself energised by exactly the questions that Pastor A is asking. In such a scenario, I suggest, Pastor A will increasingly find himself drawn to dialogue and partnership with Pastor C, and less and less so with Pastor B.

So, a bit more concretely: as a pastor, I may agree another pastor doctrinally, right down to the way I understand Ephesians 4 and Revelation 20, but if we are asking different questions – if they are primarily asking, “how can we guard against a dumbing down of charismatic experience in the next generation?” and I am mainly asking, “how can we ensure that everyone in our town has heard and understood the gospel?” – then I may have a less strong connection with him, in the medium- and long-term, than I do with a paedobaptist cessationist who is asking the same question as me. Even on this blog, I suspect the people I quote and find myself stimulated by the most are the ones with whom I have least in common theologically – R R Reno (Catholic), David Bentley Hart (Orthodox), Carl Trueman (Presbyterian), Doug Wilson (Federal Vision) – and I suspect that is because, for all the differences between their answers and mine, we are all preoccupied by similar questions surrounding intellectual, confessional, historical and cultural coherence. So sharing a hierarchy of concerns with someone, I suggest, may be more unifying than sharing a confessional statement. Put differently, the answers we give to certain questions are less important than the importance we attach to those questions.

And now very practically: I’ve heard it said many times that large churches have more in common with each other than churches who are part of the same denomination. So, it is said – by Tim Keller, Steve Tibbert, and probably a lot of other people – that a Baptist church of 10,000 has more in common with a Pentecostal church of 10,000 than with a Baptist church of 200. But I wonder if a large part of the reason for that is that the two big churches are both asking the same questions (about diversity, contextualisation, systems, effective communication, or whatever), whereas the two Baptist churches merely share the same answers (on doctrine, polity, ecclesiology, and so on), and it is their questions rather than their answers that predominate when they talk. When the two big church leaders meet, they feel like kindred spirits on similar journeys from different starting points – as if they’re both going to Peterborough, but one’s at Birchanger Green and the other is at Watford Gap. When the two Baptist guys meet, by contrast, they feel like two guys who are going in thoroughly different directions, but happen to be using adjacent urinals at Pease Pottage.

That metaphor may have stretched beyond breaking point now. But you know what I mean. Do you agree? And (more personally) what do you think your key questions are?

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