No matter what type of group you lead, it’s hard to craft helpful and provocative discussion questions. It’s especially hard to craft them week after week, study after study. That’s one of the reasons why myself and the other editors at Lifeway place such a high emphasis on writing great discussion questions in the material we publish—we want to remove some of the pressure group leaders often feel.
But there’s another way to ease some of that tension—a “secret weapon” for group leaders that I refer to as The Most Important Discussion Question for groups. I use this question just about every week in the groups I lead. In fact, it’s almost always the first “serious” question I ask once my group has finished with the icebreaker.
Here it is: “What’s your first reaction to this passage?” (This assumes your primary focus for the group meeting is a Scripture passage.)
Why do I like this question so much? Because it gives your group members an immediate say in the direction of the discussion. It allows them to express what they find interesting or surprising in a passage—to talk about what captures their attention. Better yet, it allows group members to identify what they find confusing or unclear. Beginning with this “secret weapon” also gives group members a chance to ask questions of their own, which allows you as the leader an opportunity to clarify the major points of the Scripture and avoid any misunderstandings as you dive into the “pre-programmed” discussion.
So many small group leaders feel like they have to anticipate how their group members will react to a particular topic or section of the Bible in order to write effective discussion questions for their gatherings. Or they feel like they need to come up with a series of universal questions that will be universally interesting to each person in the group.
But stop and think about that for a moment. Isn’t it a bit arrogant to expect our group members to talk for 30 to 90 minutes about the topics and questions that we, the group leaders, find most compelling? At the very least, such an assumption involves biting off more than we can reasonably chew.
In my experience, it’s much simpler (and much more effective) to allow your group members to express what they find interesting or confusing or significant about the passage of Scripture under discussion—and then follow that discussion as far as it will take you. Of course, what your group members want to talk about might be different than the discussion topics and questions you had planned. But that’s okay. Actually, it’s more than okay. The whole point of gathering as a group is to interact with God’s Word and each other in a way that creates life-changing experiences. And if that means letting go of what you had planned to talk about—so be it.
Now, you might feel uncomfortable asking the exact same question at the start of every group meeting. And that’s reasonable. Too much repetition will often cause staleness and stagnation. So, consider bouncing back and forth between these variations of the “secret weapon” question:
- What’s your first reaction to this passage?
- What do you like best about this passage?
- What questions would you like to ask before we move into our discussion?
- What strikes you as surprising or interesting about this passage of Scripture?
Each of these questions is essentially one side of the same coin. They all give your group members an opportunity to share what’s on their minds and hearts, rather than you attempting to guess what they’re thinking and craft a plan to engage them. Such an approach makes things easier for both you and your group members, which is why I’m such a big fan of The Most Important Discussion Question.
Sam O’Neal is a Content Editor on the Adult Ministry Publishing team at Lifeway. Sam is the author of The Field Guide for Small Group Leaders and the Bible content writer for About.com. Follow him on Twitter: @SamTONeal.