Note: This article has been excerpted from the SmallGroups.com training resource called How to Prepare for a Bible Study.
Knowing how to ask good questions is one of the key elements of a successful small group. Questions are what transform a small-group lesson from a lecture into an interactive setting—which should be our goal as group leaders.
Below are a few guidelines for writing and asking good questions. I began to think about this subject a number of years ago as a result of reading Karen Lee-Thorp's book How to Ask Great Questions. The book inspired several of the ideas below, and is still a helpful addition to any small-group leader's library.
1. Good Questions Create a Conversation
And they create those conversations without putting anyone in the spot. You don't want our small-group members to feel like they are in school, taking a test. You also don't want a scenario where you are the learned teacher asking all the questions, and the group members are under pressure to know the answers you expect from them. That is not a healthy learning situation.
In contrast, some of the best discussion questions solicit input from everyone present. The best example of this is to ask people what they think. There is no wrong answer to the question, "What do you think?" "What do you think Jesus means when He says, 'Sell your possessions?' Was He talking to you and me? What's your opinion?"
Of course, as a leader, you will sometimes know what the Bible actually teaches about this—you're not supposed to be void of knowledge or opinions. But you want to gently steer the group toward the answer Jesus gives. Allowing people to discuss questions and process the answers themselves improves their rate of retention. It's also a good idea to remember that your knowledge or opinion may not represent the full scope of a passage or verse.
2. Good Questions Focus on One Thing
Make sure your questions are focused and clear. Here's a poor example of how to address a topic: "What did Jesus mean by 'You are the Light of the world,' how did his disciples respond, and how should we today respond to this statement?" Instead, break those questions down to make them more clear and focused:
- What did Jesus mean by "You are the light of the world?"
- How did Jesus' disciples respond to his announcement about being the light of the world?
- How should we today respond to Jesus' statement to be the light of the world?
Rather than asking a multi-layered question, it's best to ask just one simple question and wait for responses before asking the next thing. Well-focused questions also serve as a tool to keep bringing the group back around to the subject at hand. Small groups are notorious for getting off the subject, and clearly worded, pin-pointed questions help a group leader avoid this problem.
3. Good Questions Can Be Understood By Everyone
As a group leader, you want to keep the questions simple enough that everyone has a reasonable chance of knowing what you mean the first time you say it. So, the following won't work very well: "In light of the current theological debate about millennial views, which is prevalent in many seminaries—and other places as well, many books having been written about this from the premillennial, postmillennial and amillennial positions—how do you think we should respond to this debate in the church, in the our homes, in schools, and at the government level?"
It would be much better to ask, "How much should we care about the end times?"
4. Good Questions Say What They Mean
Let's say you're studying 1 Corinthians 11—specifically, the passage about women wearing head coverings. It's not a good idea to ask, "Is Paul saying something true here?" This is the Bible, after all—of course he's saying something true! It's better to ask, "Is Paul saying something here that applies to women today?"
That may seem like a subtle difference, and it is. But it shows how important it is not to get lazy when you write discussion questions.
5. Good Questions Are Open-Ended
A person can answer "yes" or "no" without engaging his or her brain. On the other hand, an open-ended question compels people to think about the facts of a text, or the situation. We utilize this principle in everyday life. Over dinner, if I say to my children, "How was school today?" they will respond "Fine." And we're done. But if I say to them, "Tell me something interesting that happened today at school," they have to focus on a specific incident, and I can get them talking. The same thing applies in group discussions.
6. Good Questions Involve Emotions
There is more to studying the Bible than intelligence, and there is more to discussing the Bible than intellect. Group leaders need to involve people's emotions, and questions are a great way to do just that.
Some good examples would be:
- How do you respond inwardly to these claims Jesus makes?
- How do you feel about these teachings on love?
- How do you react to that truth?
7. Good Questions Deal with People's Interests
Sometimes it's good to connect a Bible study question with the current interests and passions of your group members. Not every time, of course, but sometimes. Here are some possible examples: "Dave, you've been a college athlete. How do you react to Paul saying, 'I buffet my body daily'?" "Several of you have read the Left Behind series. How do you think it lines up with what John is saying here in Revelation?"
8. Good Questions Are Sometimes Answers to Other Questions
In any small-group setting, people usually direct questions to the group leader. Even if you've done a good job of establishing that you are a co-learner and don't have all the answers, people will still direct their questions to you most of the time.
So, in response, it is often a good idea to answer their questions with a question of your own. Like: "What do you think about that?" or "Anyone here tonight have ideas about the answer to that?"
Rick Lowry is the Small Groups Pastor at Crossroads Christian Church in Newburgh, IN. Copyright 2010 by the author and Christianity Today International.