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Dare to Ask a Beautiful Question

After decades of ministry in hard places, Joel Van Dyke recommends asking beautiful questions and giving away power to experience a deeper unity with all in Christ's body.

Joel Van Dyke says desperation drove him to start asking what he calls beautiful questions. As co-pastor of Bethel Temple Community Bible Church in a Philadelphia neighborhood stigmatized as “the Badlands,” his job was to focus on people age 30 and under.

“After twelve years of hitting a dead end in igniting transformation in a community fueled by incessant drug activity and violence, I asked a former drug dealer at church to take me out to the street to meet other dealers.

“Trading on his relational capital, I was introduced to many drug dealers. I had a bunch of questions, the most prominent of which was, ‘If you were a youth pastor in this neighborhood, what would you do to reach yourself and why would you do it that way?’

“That unloaded unbelievably exquisite insight that someone like me, a seminary graduate, had never been able to think of,” Van Dyke recounts. The experience led him into a paradigm-shifting pattern of ministry that any church can use to see God’s grace at work in hard places.

Shift your paradigm

Van Dyke’s shift began when he read this e.e. cummings line: “Always the beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question.”

“I realized that Jesus, over and over, engaged people by asking a question. He does that with blind Bartimaeus, the Samaritan woman at the well, and the disciples on the road to Emmaus. When you ask a beautiful question, you give power away. Jesus did not say to Bartimaeus, ‘I’m Jesus. I know what you need and want.’ Instead he asked, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’”

When Van Dyke asked local drug dealers what the church could do for them, the answers surprised him. North Philly drug dealers don’t have time, equipment, or a field to play baseball or soccer or football. They like to play handball between drug sales.

“They said, “We can’t get walls to play handball on because everyone knows we’re drug dealers and no one will give us the time of day. We’ve got to bust our ankles playing handball on curbs because there’s no other place to play.

“’Throw a huge handball tournament. We’ll all show up. And we’re not going to be selling drugs then. We’ll bring all our homies. All the fans that want to watch us play, they’re going to come too. You’d have us as a captive audience for the entire time because you’d be providing something we desperately want to do and don’t have the facilities to do so,” Van Dyke recalls them saying.

Listen before praying

By asking a beautiful question and truly listening—before going to God in prayer—Van Dyke reversed the typical order of church outreach.

“Often, Christians want to reach their neighborhood. So, with all good intentions, they mobilize a prayer meeting. They’ll keep themselves together inside the church and pray and come up with things they think God wants them to do, like a ‘claim the neighborhood for Jesus’ march. They’ll pray and say, ‘God what do you want us to do? What do you want us to do?’

“But they’ve already decided what is to be done. They’re asking God to sign off on it. They’re comfortable with their own plan because they have a sense of control over it,” Van Dyke notes.

“To me, the reality of the incarnation is that if you want to reach your neighborhood, don’t start talking to God about it. Go out and talk to people in the community. Engage with them as Jesus would. Ask the beautiful question: ‘What would you do to reach yourself?’ Then bring that information back into church and, in desperation, ask God how to do what the community requested.”

After his conversation with drug dealers, Van Dyke asked permission to use the nicest local rec center “for a Saturday handball tournament for neighborhood youth.” He didn’t say which youth.

The all-day tournament went on into Sunday. The church had paid a drug dealer who was an artist to make T-shirts for every player. “I saw those shirts for years afterwards in the community. We served hot dogs and hamburgers and played hip hop and Christian hip hop music. If players cursed, they would apologize because they didn’t want to offend us. We had trophies and a closing ceremony,” he recalls.

The church began sponsoring three or four handball tournaments a year. A couple years later, a handball player got in a fight with his girlfriend, got kicked out of his house, and knocked on Van Dyke’s door. “We spent hours talking. Because of relationships that had been built through handball, he surrendered his life to the Lord. He began looking for opportunities to use handball as a means of living the gospel in a creative way for his friends on the street,” Van Dyke says.

Give away control

Joel Van Dyke and his family now live in Guatemala City, where poverty and violence tempt Christians to stay separate from people they fear or who they want God to change. He directs Estrategia de Transformacion (Strategy of Transformation), a grassroots leadership training alliance of Center for Transforming Mission and Christian Reformed World Missions.

In Latin America, as in North America, Christians often define faith more by moral boundaries than by boundary-crossing relationships. Van Dyke loves the Genesis 1:2 picture of the Spirit hovering over chaos, because it promises God is present and active outside the church.

“God gave all power and authority to the Son. Jesus gave it to the Holy Spirit, who unleashes the power and gives it to the church. But the church disrupts the power flow by hoarding it and treating it as a possession instead of a gift to give away to the most powerless,” Van Dyke says.

He and eight associates serve 400 leaders, such as Irwin “Shorty” Luna, once a gang member, now a prison chaplain.

“There’s times when other people, Christians, criticize you. They judge you for working with ‘dirty people, mean people.’ But somehow the Lord put this work in my heart to go there and make links with these people and tell them that…God still loves them,” Luna says in a brief video. He and other leaders intimate with life’s worst are like “prophets without a home,” Van Dyke says, because they don’t have the titles or credentials that fit conventional church structures.

Be willing to see

“We have learned that grace is like water. It always flows downhill and pools in the lowest places…Our job is to see what is, to name it and see God at work in it,” Van Dyke and Kris Rocke write in “Asking the Beautiful Question.” The article is part of the 2010 Global Conversation series sponsored by the Lausanne movement and Christianity Today.

Asking beautiful questions may be God’s way of freeing you from numbness or helping you find meaning and hope in the ordinary. Ask a prostitute to share her story, and you’ll hear her pain at having no other way to support her children and her hope for their future. That happened to Van Dyke, who was moved to tears as she prayed for him.

When he asked incarcerated gang members for insights to share at a gang outreach conference, they described “children dying of hunger, gang members killing one another, and prisoners suffering greatly while Christians comfort themselves in their big churches.”

Exchanging that numbing comfort for the experience of unity with people labeled as the last, the least, and the lost is amazing. It’s also heartbreaking, especially when leaders such as Daniel “Sugar” Antonio Puac Calderón lay down their lives for Christ.

The work is so hard, Rocke observes, that it drives you to humility. You realize you can’t authentically serve among the poor on your own power. Further, you see that “no single spiritual stream is enough. High-risk communities require the best of all the spiritual streams that the Church has to offer, and then some,” he writes.

Learn More

Temple University sponsored a multimedia student journalism project to tell North Philly’s stories from multiple points of view, rather than only through the lens of crime, drugs, and blight.

Read the Christianity Today article “Asking the Beautiful Question by Joel Van Dyke and Kris Rocke. This Alternative Church blog post explains how a person who asks a beautiful question becomes a beautiful answer. Use this guide to prayer as you seek to discern God’s leading.

Strategy of Transformation, Center for Transforming Mission, and Geography of Grace are rich interrelated websites well worth your time. Watch short videos about gang chaplains and tough neighborhoods. Read essays on “mapping a community's pain and hope,” a diesel-fueled perspective of mission, and using the lectionary for a street kids Sunday School curriculum. Meet people who stay in gangs so they can reach members for Christ and scavenger families who live at a garbage dump.

Sign up to receive CTM’s weekly Word from Below email. Watch short Street Psalms Intensives videos online and discuss the accompanying missional questions.

Watch trailers that will become part of Reparando, an Athentikos movie about ministry in Guatemala.

For startling insights about God from people many churches ignore, read and discuss Reading the Bible with the Damned by Bob Ekblad and Hard Living People & Mainstream Christians by Tex Sample.

Use ideas from Reformed Worship to plan worship based on Jesus’ searching questions and worship in a mission-shaped church,

Browse related stories on eschatology, local and global worship, multiracial churches, and restorative justice .

Start a Discussion

  • What is your congregation’s image of Jesus or of the work of the Spirit in mission? How do those images shape the way you serve and worship?
  • Share an experience where you felt someone was trying to help by imposing their understanding on you. How did that feel? Have you ever experienced the reverse situation?
  • What beautiful questions might you like to ask? And who would you ask?
  • In what ways do your worship services help worshipers deepen their awareness of God, others, and themselves so that they live with more love towards those not like them?
  • If you felt uneasy about asking or reaching out in a way that gives away power, how did you handle those worries? What was the result?
  • What worship resources—biblical, written, musical, visual, social, or other—help sustain you in long-haul ministry in hard places?