In the Bible we learn that preaching is not the only way God’s Word is communicated. In the Old Testament, the Levites are seen explaining the Law to the people of Israel (Nehemiah 8:7–8). And in the New Testament, Paul says of his ministry, “I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house” (Acts 20:20).
In both of these contexts, teaching occurred in small groups, where God’s teachers could answers questions, give the sense of the word (Nehemiah 8:8), and lead discussions about applying the Law to life (see Ezra’s approach in Nehemiah 8:10). Today, teachers of the Word are called to do the same, and experienced teachers will master the art and science of leading discussion that is fundamentally different than just declaring what Scripture says.
To lead this kind of dialogue profitably is challenging and takes time—a lifetime even—to master, but it is invaluable for helping disciples of Christ learn to read Scripture, ask questions, think with others, and apply truth to life. And in what follows, I want to suggest ten principles for leading a good discussion. Four of them simply relate to question-asking; the other have to do with developing a conviction for the value of discussion and the need to change your preparation habits for leading discussion, as opposed to preaching.
I pray these principles may be helpful. If there are other ways you have learned to facilitate discussion, please share in the comments.
Ten Ways to Create Meaningful Discussion Around the Bible
1. Ask questions.
Ask lots of questions. Fill your notes page with questions. As much as you can, organize your outline with questions to ask, not points to assert.
In a sermon or lecture, you have points. In a discussion, you have questions. Those questions should have logical flow; you should know where you are going; but ultimately, questions are the oars that turn this boat. Therefore, ask questions.
2. Lead off with a big picture question.
If dialogue is the goal of the small group, don’t wait until the end or the middle to ask a question. In some ways, such a delayed question feels disingenuous, even if it’s not. Someone might think, “Does he really want me to talk? After all he’s doing a good job talking so far.” So, lead off with a question that gets at the big picture of the lesson.
It’s been said, we don’t think until we encounter a problem. And some of the best teaching is done when we raise a problem and then solve it with the Bible. This again is where questions come in.
If we can raise a problem by means of a question, we get people thinking right away. This problem may come from the Bible or from everyday life, but the more we can make people think by asking a big question, the more we will engage people in the discussion. Not everyone who comes to a Bible study is coming to study the Bible, so it’s helpful to ask big questions that pull people into God’s life-changing Word.
3. Kill all rhetorical questions.
In a sermon or lecture, rhetorical questions are powerful means of communication. In a small group, rhetorical questions strangle real questions.
If you include rhetorical questions in your discussion, it will be more difficult to get people to answer other questions. So, leave rhetorical questions at the pulpit and make your questions count in the small group.
4. Ask good questions.
What is a good question? Here are five types of questions that can produce discussion.
- Open-ended questions. Questions that can be answered with yes or no are as discussion-deflating as rhetorical questions. So don’t ask yes or no questions. Instead, look for what-, when-, where-, why-, and how-questions to help get your people to explore the Bible and the consequences of the Bible in their lives.
- “So what” questions. One type of question that can be really helpful in transforming information to application is the “so what” question. Any good teacher is going to present new information in a well-prepared lesson. However, if the leader only gives information, he will miss the chance of considering how truth applies. Therefore, any biblical truth given can be and should be followed up with, “So what?” This can be complemented by a “counter-example” question, one that anticipates objections and seeks to overturn them with evidence/arguments from Scripture.
- Examples. Abstract information is nearly impossible to apply. Therefore, examples are needed to help make biblical and theological truths clear, sticky, concrete—choose your metaphor. Certainly, teachers can share examples from Scripture, life, or personal experience. But one of the most effective ways to engage people, especially those who don’t know the subject at hand (e.g., the content of Hebrews or the doctrine of vocation), is to ask them about something they have experienced. By asking for examples, the teacher learns what the people in the congregation are actually thinking, and then she can tailor the biblical truth to that individual—and by extension, this helps apply the lesson to all the individuals.
- Second-level questions. Don’t ever settle for one answer to a question. To ask a question, receive an answer, and then move right on with your notes kills discussions. Instead, after one person answers, ask for more input—Who else? What would you add? Does anyone have a different answer? Etc. Or, if someone answers with great wisdom and insight, ask that same individual to explain further: “That’s a great point, Charlie. Would you tell us more . . .” By asking second-level questions, we let the conversation develop naturally and we expand the circle of instruction to more than just ourselves.
- Answer questions with the questions answered. When you ask questions, don’t be afraid to answer the question by means of incorporating all that has been said. Often when we ask questions, we might get 2 to 4 partial answers or partially correct answers. For some this imprecision and incompletion is a problem, but it doesn’t have to be. Instead, like a master potter, a good teacher can incorporate all that has been said; he can cut out the bad parts, even using them to teach the truth; and he can build his argument based upon the answers given. In this way, the teacher actually engages the group, rather than just regurgitating his notes.
If questions are the tools for leading a good discussion, the commitment to questions comes from a certain set of values—values that will give conviction to why question-asking is so important.
5. Value application over information.
In a sermon, the proclamation of biblical truth is supreme. Accordingly, the faithful expositor of God’s word will give information that coheres with Scripture. It should include application and illustration, but ultimately it is a single voice expounding God’s word.
Differently, in a discussion of the Bible the goal should be more application than information. It should be helping earnest believers (and even skeptics) grapple with truth. We are not just wanting disciples to hear truth and believe it; we are wanting them to think properly about biblical truth. Thus, the process of thought is as important as the final conclusion. In this way, part of the dialogue is modeling how to think about a truth, not just calling for truth to be received and believed.
In addition, we should remember life change happens with a renewed mind. “All Scripture has been given for instruction, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). Indeed, before the man or woman of God can be thoroughly equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:17), their minds must be changed. Thus, the first application of truth is always a new way of thinking, and again dialogue helps accomplish this by means of guiding the process of thought, not just demanding certain conclusions.
6. Value biblical discussion over theological precision.
One of the realities of a biblical discussion is the public sharing of half-truths and heresies. To be sure, when we multiply the number of voices in a conversation about serious matters, error will proceed. For some, this might be horror, but it doesn’t have to be. In fact, engaging with half-truths and errors can be one of the greatest joys of the discussion.
Again, if the goal of the gathering is learning how to process truth, how to shape the way disciples think, then the verbalizing of false thoughts is a perfect opportunity to model gentle correction. So long as the teacher matches the qualifications of 2 Timothy 2:24–26, then the shared error makes a great opportunity for speaking truth with grace and patience.
By contrast, if God’s people never see what gentle correction looks like, then when Christians encounter error, they may not be equipped to speak truth with love. Therefore, there is great value in shepherding people to think about and talk openly about the Bible, even if they don’t get it right. In such a setting, confessional precision is not the goal. Rather, the goal is getting Christians to feel comfortable, indeed confident, in talking about the Bible.
For sake of clarity, this doesn’t mean that everyone has their say or that error espoused can go unchecked. It does mean that the teacher must have a sound grasp on theological triage and the doctrinal standards of the faith. But once a teacher is grounded in the Word, such a discussion can be remarkably productive.
Truly, how can expect members of our church to speak openly in public about Christ if they haven’t had chance to speak openly among fellow believers? In this setting, personalities will still be less inclined to speak, but even for the more reserved follower of Christ, it is vital to see how Christians talk about the Bible. Therefore, we should value biblical discussion, even if it includes theological imprecision. So long as a faithful elder or doctrinally sound teacher is leading the discussion and having the final word, this is not an ultimate concern.
7. Value (small measures of) self-discovery over (large doses of) Scriptural dissemination.
“I have so much to say, and so little time to say it.”
Any well-prepared teacher will feel this pinch every time they teach. And the temptation is to cram as much information into a lesson as possible. I’ve done that too many times to count. Yet, in vibrant small groups, this temptation has been muted.
Indeed, the goal of any faithful biblical discussion is not piling up large amounts of information or “Wowing!” the group with information. Rather, the goal should center on helping others learn what the text, the doctrine, or the application means and to give that disciple confidence in their ability to understand and apply the truth without the training wheels of the teacher.
In other words, good teachers help students discover for themselves what is in the Bible. This is why questions are so important in the process of self-discovery. But to proceed in this way means killing the desire to unload all that you have learned. Instead, the value that drives our teaching must be one of helping others find joy in truth, not just joy in knowing tons.
But this approach may require a reset in our thinking, so that we begin to value small measures of self-discovery over large doses of learning. Indeed, if we can remember that each discussion is but one stone in the temple God is building, we will be less inclined to say everything, and instead we can feel the freedom of letting others discuss truth and helping them “get it” along the way.
Still, if this approach to leading discussion sounds different or difficult implement, it may require a different way of preparation.
8. Lay aside the burden of “getting through your notes.”
In fact, if you can . . . don’t use notes at all. Or at least, don’t use anything like a manuscript.
In preaching the goal is verbal precision, but in small groups its corporate discussion. And one of the greatest ways to kill discussion is to dislocate the teacher from the group through a wall of paper notes. In fact, the more a teacher must refer to his notes, the more he returns to disseminating information, rather than facilitating discussion.
Certainly, a young teacher will be greatly helped by copious notes. And full disclosure: I usually have multiple pages of notes when I lead a group discussion. But I don’t use them like a manuscript. Rather, these notes are the leftovers of the process of preparation. I might source them to answer a difficult question, but more often I fill my notes with questions and seek to lead the time with questions, not lecture.
In fact, leaving aside the burden of getting through my notes, I am happy when the notes are left behind and the initial questions that led into the Bible bring us to other points of application that people need.
On more difficult subjects or in lecturing on theology, I will approach it differently. But when it is a Bible study on a various passage of Scripture, a bevy of unscripted questions is always the best. But again this approach requires a different kind of preparation. So . . .
9. Read a ton on the subject.
The greatest way to prepare for discussion is not to write a manuscript, but to read copiously on the subject. Because discussions can go in any number of directions, the more a teacher can read on the subject, the more he or she will be prepared for “off the wall” questions.
Like an experienced rafting guide, an experienced teacher should know (beforehand) where the rough waters are and how to answer the question. Therefore, immersive reading on the book, the doctrine, or the subject is the most important thing you can do to prepare for this kind of teaching.
If all we know is the content on our paper, we will be ill equipped to answer the questions that discussion brings. But if we can give ourselves to Ezra-like study (Nehemiah 8:10), then we will be ready to apply all we studied. In truth, there will be questions that we can’t answer, others we shouldn’t answer (Deuteronomy 29:29), and others we should simply say, “I don’t know, but I’ll find out.”
Still, as approved workman we should give ourselves to preparing well so that we can ask good questions and answer them with the wisdom God gives us (Proverbs 2:1–7; 2 Timothy 2:7).
10. Leave the congregation wanting more, not less.
In the end, the goal of any group discussion is to whet the appetite for more. Because God is infinite and his Word, though finite (66 books), unveils infinite realities, we will never be able to say everything. Thus, in our discussions we should set that expectation aside.
The goal cannot be exhaustive instruction, or even comprehensive teaching. Rather, we should give properly proportioned doses of unalloyed truth that lead people to know and love God more. In this way, the old adage, “less is more,” is true.
The worst thing we can do is bore people with the Bible because we overwhelm them with arcane facts, academic debates, or pedantic rules. Instead, because the Word of God is living and active, it should be the teachers greatest joy to discuss the glorious truths of God and invite others to join with us.
Indeed to paint the picture around a dinner table, faithful teachers in small group settings should see themselves not as the expert dinner party speaker who struggles to keep the attention of his audience. Rather, discussion leaders are called to be servants of the feast, who host a conversation around the table. Enjoying a meal with our brothers and sisters, we who lead the discussion do best when we amplify conversation around the table by asking good questions about the table.
In this way, we who teach must be experts on the meal, its contents, and its Cook, but ultimately after partaking of the meal itself, our greatest joy is found in amplifying the conversation, not expounding our knowledge. Rather than quieting everyone so that they might listen to us, we should look for ways to help others understand the Living Bread we are feasting upon.
In this way, group discussion leaders complement the preaching of the Word—which does require singular attention to one speaker—by hosting conversations where the Word preached can be the Word digested and discussed. Amazingly, when this is done well, such leaders play a key role in creating an appetite in the church for the Word of God preached.
For this reason, we need small group discussion around the Word and we need leaders who, by God’s grace, know how to lead such discussions. To that end, let us give attention to how we amplify conversation around God’s Word. And may God be pleased to raise up an army of such leaders in his churches, so that the Word might be magnified—whether discussed in homes or proclaimed from pulpits.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds