Looking for Answers in an Ask-Assertive World
Convergence 2004 : Global Positioning for the Soul
By: Spencer Burke
Show and tell isn’t big in the emerging church. Do you know why? Because sometimes, the question is more important than the answer. In fact, sometimes, the question is the answer. Allow me to explain.

People tend to be assertive in two different ways. They may be “ask-assertive” or “tell-assertive.” The ask-assertive person uses a questioning approach to indicate intention. When it comes to choosing a lunch spot, an ask-assertive person like me might say, “Would you like to go to Carl’s Jr.?” (my favorite burger joint) and not the more direct “Let’s go to Carl’s Jr.!” The intent is clear, but the approach is understated. By starting the conversation that way, I open the door for future discussion while at the same time letting you know what I think. There’s still a chance that we could wind up at McDonald’s-or maybe even a sushi bar-but I’m encouraging you to talk with me about it. We can discuss and decide together.

Tell-assertive people, on the other hand, don’t tend to have time for questions; they’re ready to verbalize a position at a moment’s notice. The extremely tell-assertive person is often the first to state an opinion and often likes to lead the group. Louder and more directive, the tell-assertive person can be the perennially squeaky wheel when it comes to decision-making. “Well, let’s go!” he or she says, and with that, everyone promptly gets in the car.

In case you didn’t know, I wrote a book at the end of last year. It’s entitled “Making Sense of Church”. So far the feedback has been extremely positive. In fact, over at Amazon, we have yet to get anything less than a full five stars after 11 reviews. Nevertheless, if there’s one complaint that comes up most often, it’s this: the book doesn’t offer enough answers. It doesn’t tell people where to put the coffee and candles.

Here’s what Leadership Journal (Winter 2004) had to say:

“Perhaps the best metaphor for Making Sense is a late-night dorm-room discussion: great questions raised, intelligent and passionate conversation, but the next morning, none of the problems solved.

The book contains many fascinating threads, but we were hoping for a wearable garment.

In the words of G.K. Chesterton, “The purpose of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.”

We hope the emergent church will one day provide answers as compelling as its questions.”

Now admittedly, I didn’t set out to be the postmodern equivalent of the Bible Answer Man. Nor was my goal to provide a how-to program that could be shrink-wrapped and sold all over the world. So in some senses, I agree with the reviewers’ assessment. Making Sense of Church really doesn’t offer a lot of answers-and yet at the same time, I think books like mine may offer more substance than people realize. The trouble is that we still live in a predominantly “tell-assertive” world.


To me, much of the emerging church conversation happens in the ask-assertive realm. Through questioning, we’re unpackaging our thoughts and ideas. We’re sorting out our thinking in community, looking to get to the core of our faith. Answers, for us, often come in the form of more questions. We’re the Alex Trebeks of Christendom-always framing our response in the form of a question: “What is worship, Alex?”

The Socratic Method is extremely important in the postmodern world. And yet, for many tell-assertive [read: modern] people, questions leading to more questions are just plain frustrating. It seems like lazy scholarship. In a tell-assertive world, people are looking for three points and a poem. They look for these things because that’s what they’ve been trained to want.

In seminary, the mantra in homiletics class was: “Tell them what you’re going to tell them. Tell them what you want to tell them. Tell them what you told them.” You had to lead people to conclusive answers and make sure they didn’t miss any points along the way. When you were done, you needed to tell them what you told them again-just to be sure. The same was true when it came to writing essays. You had to build the argument and be able to outline your paper with a series of Roman numerals.

But the rules are changing. People have a hard time with “certainty” in today’s culture. Being spoon-fed answers seems to put one at risk of being manipulated and sold a bill of goods. Postmodern people value process. They want to engage in conversation, not be subjected to a closed agenda. They have a different way of navigating a conversation.

The point I’m trying to make-here I go, telling you what I told you-is that a new emerging church may mean a new literary style also emerges as well. Are there better ways to interact with material than three points and a poem? I think there are. And when I said, “Could it be that evangelism will require us to move from a warrior to a gardener mentality?” in Making Sense of Church, I was tipping my hand in a similar way. The problem is tell-assertive people breeze right by and miss the subtlety of those comments. That’s not a slam, it’s just an observation. Without numbered points and a linear strategy, many folks get lost. They don’t know what you told them because they didn’t see beyond the question.

This article will be continued in this column next week.

Spencer is one of the Keynote speakers at EBA’s upcoming Convergence 2004, held at Prince of Peace, Burnsville, MN on September 21-23. For more information on the Convergence click here.

Spencer Burke is the creator of TheOoze.com, author of “Making Sense of Church”, and co-founder of Damah – short film festival – “Spiritual Experiences in Film”.