By Deacon Mark Krejci, Ph.D. / Office of Formation in Discipleship
Do you ever find yourself wanting to ask the “wrong” question? Perhaps you remember a teacher saying, “There are no wrong questions.” But sometimes there are. It may not be so much that the question is wrong, but the way you ask it and the words you select may not lead to a good conversation. We can ask questions in a way that makes the other person defensive or combative.
“Are you really going to wear that?”
“Why would you do such a crazy thing?”
“What makes you think that was a good idea?”
Questions worded in this way can make people defensive versus inviting them into conversation.
My recent columns have been about reaching out to a loved one who has left the Church and may not even believe in God. This set of columns is a taste of things considered during the Shepherding Them Home sessions that I or my colleague Bob Noel are holding around the diocese. Many people say to me, “my loved one has left the Church and I don’t know what to do” or “I tried to talk to them about this but it ended up in a big argument and so I just don’t bring it up anymore.” I developed Shepherding Them Home to help people plan a way to approach a fallen-away loved one. When I write “I developed” this really means that I brought together some good ideas that are already out there. Shepherding Them Home is based on work by psychologists and sociologists at Notre Dame, Georgetown and the Pew Research Center as well as my own research. Information comes from the Church including the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), Bishop Robert Barron’s Word on Fire ministry, and from saints and theologians (e.g. St. Monica and St. John Paul II). Finally, I pull in ideas from people involved in this ministry, many of whom are younger adults. I want to highlight one of them in this column: Brandon Vogt, who has published a book “Return: How to Draw Your Child Back to the Church.”
This book is full of practical advice about how to have a sustained conversation with your loved one who has left the Church. Brandon focuses on a parent reaching out to a son or daughter, but the advice can be used with a grandchild, other relative, friend or others no matter their relationship to you. Brandon and others suggest what I have brought up over my most recent columns: be ready to listen. But what if they do not want to talk?
Mr. Vogt describes some great questions you can use to begin a conversation without making the other person become defensive. He calls them the “Trent Horn” questions because they were developed by Mr. Horn, a convert to Catholicism who has published a number of books that “make the case” for the Catholic Church. Here are those questions:
1. What do you believe about (and here you can fill in the blank with God, Jesus, the Church etc.)?
Perhaps your loved one says, “I don’t believe in God” or “I don’t believe you need the Catholic Church to be religious.” Come back with this question and ask them about their reasons concerning why they believe this. Remember to listen so you can get a better idea of where they are coming from
2. Why do you think that is true? and/or how did you come to believe that?
Perhaps use these questions when the person states something as a factual reason for not believing. For example, they may say “I don’t believe in God, science is where you find real answers.”
3. What do you mean by ____?
Ask them to dig deeper into something they claim.
4. What would you say to someone who says ___? For example, if someone says they do not need the Church to be close with God, ask: “What would you say to someone who says that the Church is how Jesus intended us to be in a relationship with Him?”
By asking this question with these words you talk about believers in general, versus your beliefs which could turn the conversation into a you versus them thing.
Brandon has so many other great ideas that, through our Diocese’s grant from the Our Sunday Visitor Institute which supports Shepherding Them Home, everyone who attends the session receives a copy of the book for free. Now I know you may not like reading anything longer than my column (and these are tough to get through at times I am sure!), but I strongly recommend his book and website to those looking to shepherd a loved one back to the Church.