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How to Ask Transformational Questions in Your Small Group

I’m in conversations all the time about “deep” Bible study. Educators and group members alike refer to the “meat” of any stream of content and how they want to go “deeper” in their devotional lives and biblical knowledge. Hopefully this is true of all growing disciples. That is, that we strive for a point in which our knowledge of God is, as Isaiah claims, as water covers the sea. But what does “deep” really mean? Unfortunately, most often it becomes commensurate with facts. Only the most insightful and mature of us know about the “urim and thummim” or “the synoptic problem,” right? Without a doubt, the facts—historical timelines and dates, precise language, the backstory of biblical personalities, and historical context—are good in and of themselves. But are they transformational?

Within the context of church education, curriculum, and group life, I believe the facilitators of transformation are best articulated as knowledge, community, practice and modeling. Knowledge of the Bible, particularly Scripture and Scripture memorization, is inherently transformational. The same can be said of relationships developed and played out within redemptive community. Although practicing spiritual disciplines and belonging to a disciple-maker/disciple relationship are also effective transformational tools, for the sake of this post I want to stick with knowledge and community as they relate to the importance and art of asking great questions.

In my role at LifeWay we put a great deal of emphasis into the questions in the content. This aspect of group bible study is crucial because, ultimately, it points group members to biblical truth. Additionally, a great question generates discussion and conversation that leads to the kind of community that best facilitates transformation. Here are a few things I’ve learned about asking great questions. Some of these will only be reminders while others, I hope, will bring new approaches to group discussion.

Right away you’ve got to cut out any trace of the yes/no question. We all know these questions absolutely kill discussion, yet I’m always surprised at how often they still show up. Another easy one is the question that has one answer. These are sometimes called “closed” questions. The opposite is an “open-ended” question. This is the difference between “What was Paul’s occupation?” and “How do you think Paul’s occupational choice as a tent maker applies to us today?” We coach our writers to consider the desired discussion first and then craft a question that drives the group to that conversational destination. We call it Small Group Engineering.

When engineering a group Bible study, I start with the four question types:

  1. Observation Questions ask: “What is the action of this passage?”
  2. Interpretation Questions ask: “What is this passage revealing to me?”
  3. Application Questions ask: “How can I incorporate the truth of this passage into my life?”
  4. Self-Revelation Questions ask: “How am I doing in light of the truth of this passage?”

Knowing the four types of questions will help you manage the content, navigate time, and move the group toward a given conclusion. For instance, if you have too many observation questions the group time becomes mechanical and rote. Too many self-revelation questions, on the other hand, leave people exhausted and looking for an escape route. One or maybe two of those and you’re hitting the right notes. It’s helpful to plan your questions ahead of time using the question types as a way of keeping the discussion fresh and interesting. Diversity is important.

I have, however, invariably found myself “stuck.” That is, for the life of me I just can’t find the right question that meets all my expectations. This happens for various reasons. When I find myself here I’ve learned to begin with the question that I would least like to be asked in this moment. It requires the emotional commitment of projecting myself into the group space, which is admittedly demanding. Rarely is the result of this exercise the question that I use, but it does get the ball rolling toward a sound solution.

In his book, Field Guide for Small Group Leaders, Sam O’Neal gives us some additional question types that will be helpful to know:

  • Emotional Questions ask group members to consider how the text makes them feel.
  • Thoughtful Questions are questions that pass the “five-minute rule.” That is, this is a question that a person could possibly explore for at least five minutes.
  • Follow-Up Questions come after someone makes a point. An example would be “Dave, I hear you saying that James is using hyperbole throughout these verses. Does everyone agree with that idea?”

These are just a few tools for you to have at your disposal as you create group experiences. As an additional resource, I encourage you to check out Sam’s book. It’s a great resource for more than just asking great questions.  

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Brian is the editor-in-chief of The Gypsy Road.