It's a deceptively simple question, a perfunctory one. If I had asked it at the beginning of PRAXIS, Element's third-space community group, I would have gotten answers like "Fine," "Good," or perhaps "Busy" or "Tired."
Last night I asked it at 8:45, with fifteen minutes theoretically remaining in our time together. 45 minutes later we were pushing our chairs back in to leave while the clean up crew was sweeping the floor around us.
This is how our small group thing works. We meet at a Whole Foods Market and have dinner/coffee together. Then we take out our Bibles and have a guided, informal conversation. It's not a lesson or a Bible study per se; I come with a short list of about four or five questions for discussion. The focus is on application, which I know violates the cardinal rule of Bible study, but as I and other theologically competent leaders are present, we don't worry too much about errant beliefs filtering into the bloodstream of the study.
Questions are typically things like "What are some practical ways you personally 'make no provision for the flesh'?" or "What fruit of the Spirit do you believe you're most lacking and why?". That sort of thing. Sometimes they trend theological (like last night we talked about the concept of eternal security and of the charismatic gifts), but they are mostly applicational in direction to best foster discussion. With this intent and given our meeting in a "third space" (neither a home nor a church building), this is our way of approaching Bible study/small group from a missional perspective. People feel more inclined to bring friends if it's people just having a spiritual conversation at a restaurant (although Whole Foods is more like a grocery store).
Anyways, long story short, about 4 questions into our conversation last night I simply asked, "How are you?" There were some giggles. One person asked if that was really the question or if I was just joking.
"No," I said, "that's the question. Every week we talk about how we do this or that and our views on this or that, and every week we take prayer requests, so we kinda-sorta know what people are going through, but what a waste if we come every week and don't just see how we are, where we're at. So: how are you?"
It was the best question of the night. We did it where each person who answered then picked the next person to answer. And everybody answered.
If we hadn't asked "How are you?" I probably wouldn't know about the abusive boss, the tricky breakup, the spiritual frustration, the sting of friends' judgmentalism, the hurt of not being able to be there for hurting friends in another state, the practically paranoid fear of the future (courtesy of a sermon the person heard last Sunday morning), the confusion over following God's will. Lots of hurt, fear, confusion.
And if I hadn't asked "How are you?" I probably would not have heard how integral the Element community is in comforting, supporting, and directing these folks through these things. Several said some variation of the point "I am thankful for Element because it helps me with this stuff I'm dealing with."
Know the people you're doing life with. Even if you see them every day. Cut through the chit chat and the superficial talk of what's irking you at the moment and ask with meaning, "How are you really?"