By Ken Braddy
Here is a truism in group Bible study: not all questions are created equal. I participated in a Bible study during the Christmas season one year when a well-meaning group leader asked a question he’d made up: “Why did Joseph sin and choose to divorce Mary?” It was a terrible question for several reasons, the chief of which is that Joseph didn’t sin! I’ve participated in other groups when a leader shut down discussion (and probably wondered what happened and why no one would talk) when he posed questions with only yes or no responses.
“The first step of transformation suggests that teachers may help persons by…raising questions.”1 All group leaders must master the art (and science) of asking questions that boost discussion and generate conversations in their groups so that transformative Bible study takes place. I like what is said in the book Teaching the Bible Creatively. The author highlights what he calls “the Yakety Yak Principle”—people learn better when they are encouraged to talk and discuss what they are learning.2
Most of us need some help in learning how to ask questions that boost discussion. I am thankful for a friend, Sam O’ Neal, who wrote a chapter about this in his book Field Guide for Small Group Leaders. He communicated what many of us have experienced while leading Bible studies—there are all kinds of questions you can ask that will shut down discussion, while there are other kinds of questions to boost discussion. Let’s look at the kinds of questions that get groups talking. Use these in your Bible study group and you’ll have to rein in the discussion.
Icebreaker Questions – I love a good icebreaker question! These questions can quickly fire up some great discussion, or they can pour cold water on enthusiastic people who want to contribute something to the group’s Bible study. A good icebreaker question can communicate, “I am interested in what you have to say! Tell me what you’re thinking.” Solid icebreaker questions always have 3 characteristics. First, there is no wrong answer. Second, a good icebreaker helps a person tell part of their own story. Third, anyone can answer it. An example of a good icebreaker is one that meets all three criteria such as: “Who do you know that can make lemonade out of sour circumstances?” If you want to boost discussion, open with a strong icebreaker like this.
Experienced-Based Questions – We all have experiences. One of the great things about group Bible study is as we explore the Bible and answer questions together, we realize that we are just as messed up, confused, and perhaps normal as the next person. Bible study groups are places for growing disciples and critics with questions to come together and reason through things in light of God’s Word. Experience-based questions allow group members to answer based on their experiences, which can then be compared with biblical truth, taking every thought captive for Christ. A good example of an experience-based question that will boost discussion is, “The last time you found yourself in a jam, what emotions did you feel?” Or how about, “During your most recent trial, how did you know God was walking with you through it?” Ask questions like these and get out of the way. People will talk and share their stories, and the whole group will benefit.
Follow-up Questions – This is one of my favorite types of discussion-boosting questions. As I lead Bible studies, I frequently make use of follow-up questions to boost the discussion and keep things going. When someone in the group responds to a question, I may ask a follow-up question such as:
- “Would you tell us more about that?”
- “How does what (person’s name) just said line up with your experience or beliefs?”
- “Are we all in agreement with that?”
- “What else ‘ya got?”
Emotive Questions – These kinds of discussion-boosting questions can arouse intense feelings and emotions on the part of your group members. Be warned—this can create uncomfortable moments as people relive events that bring emotions to the surface. “When was the last time you were in a vulnerable position?” or “When you most recently felt real fear, what was taking place?” A third example is, “When you attended a funeral of a friend or family member, what did you feel?”
Controversial Questions – These questions boost discussion for sure, but they can also create unintended moments of tension, so use them sparingly, and be quick to jump into the fray if things get dicey. A controversial question will normally cause people to polarize around an issue. An example of this kind of question is, “If God is love, why did he order His people to kill the women and children who lived in the Promised Land?” Another possible question is, “If God is all-powerful, why doesn’t He prevent evil from running rampant in our world?” I think you see how these kinds of questions could cause people to take extreme positions as they engage in vigorous discussion. The goal isn’t to create a fight, but to get people thinking critically and talking about their ideas and feelings as they wrestle with complex theological questions.
Open-ended Questions – These are the opposite of what I call “cul-de-sac” questions—the kind that take you into a dead end. An open-ended question doesn’t have a particular answer. Instead, it is like having the open road in front of you on a trip—you can literally go anywhere. A good open-ended question allows group members to think broadly about their answer. This is a cousin to the icebreaker question (in that there are no wrong answers, necessarily). A good open-ended question doesn’t feel like the group leader is “fishing” for a particular answer. An example of a good open-ended question is, “How do people use their speech to belittle or harm others?” This is a question I might ask during a study of the book of James, who wrote about the destructive nature of the tongue. Group leaders should avoid related cul-de-sac questions such as, “What do we put into the mouths of horses to control them?” (answer: a bit). The answer to that question doesn’t lead to discussion, but a dead end. That’s the beauty of open-ended questions, they can take you anywhere.
To summarize, you want to ask questions that boost discussion, not shut it down. Asking questions is both an art and a science, and the time to create great questions is before the group Bible study. “Good questions do not just happen…questions formulated on the spot are often vague or unproductive. It is best for teachers to write out questions in advance. They should avoid yes/no and short answer questions in favor of questions that motivate thinking.”3
1. Robert W. Pazmiqo, Basics of Teaching for Christians (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Pub, 2002), 61.
2. Bill McNabb and Steve Mabry, Teaching the Bible Creatively (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1990), 61.
3. Gary C. Newton, Heart-Deep Teaching (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2012), 191.