I’ve led Bible studies with teenagers pretty much weekly for the last 14 years or so. I still have a lot to learn and a lot of improving to do. But one thing I have learned is what to do when teenagers simply won’t respond or participate in a discussion. I’ve learned this because over the years, it happens. Not a lot. But it happens.
And I’ve learned that you don’t have to freak out or automatically assume you’re a terrible teacher.
Here are five thoughts to help you process those semi-dreaded moments when you find yourself facing a silent group of teenagers staring back at you.
1. Don’t panic. There’s (probably) nothing out of the ordinary with your students or your teaching.
Here’s a truth you probably already know: Depending on how old your students are and how comfortable they are in their own collective skins, they just might never respond in a group. Your students’ unwillingness to jump into a discussion may have more to do with their identify formation and self-esteem than anything else.
I’ve been teaching a group of seventh graders this year. In the beginning of the year, the girls and guys were both super responsive. But as this year has gone on, the girls have almost completely stopped discussing. Talking to some of our female leaders, it seems to be due to the fact that they are simply more scared of saying something “dumb” or being embarrassed in front of the guys. This is a pretty normal part of adolescent development. It isn’t a reflection on their spiritual depth or on my teaching. It’s just a byproduct of where these girls are in their social development.
2. Don’t stop asking questions. Silence doesn’t necessarily mean disengagement.
When we teach groups that fall on the more silent end of the spectrum, the tendency can be to lecture more and ask fewer questions. This is not a good response on our part. Asking good questions is a part of helping teenagers wrestle with and apply God’s truth in their lives.
Just because people are quiet doesn’t mean they aren’t listening and processing. It doesn’t mean the Holy Spirit isn’t doing awesome things in their hearts and minds. Group dynamics differ. I have lost count of the different groups to whom I’ve taught Bible study over the years, both adults and teens. But I can tell you that there were some groups that were super-responsive, other groups that were really quiet, and a lot of other groups that fell somewhere in between. I have learned to keep being engaging and interactive, trusting that silence doesn’t mean disengagement.
3. Fight the tendency to answer your own questions.
This is the fallback for us when we encounter the wall of silence. But we have to resist it. Some students just need more time to process a response. Our job is to be comfortable with silence.
Ask good, clear questions. Then wait five to seven seconds for a response. While you’re waiting, think about the question you asked. Was it clear? Did you ask one question or two? Does it need to be rephrased? If you need to rephrase it, do so and then wait another five to seven seconds. Then, and only then, is it OK for you to answer your own question.
4. Consider changing your format to provide a “safer” place for discussion.
I have learned this year that while our girls won’t stand in line to answer questions in our larger group (we average about 20 or so), when we break up into small groups the last 15 minutes of our class time, they are all into discussions. They simply feel safer with a small group leader, which makes total sense.
If you have a group that tends to be less responsive, think about how you might change up your format to help create a safer place to open up.
5. You MIGHT need to rethink your teaching style.
If you consistently over time struggle with groups that won’t engage, you might need rethink your teaching style. There are plenty of good resources online about leading group discussions. If you’re at all interested in what I have to say about it, there is an entire chapter devoted to leading good discussions in my book The 7 Best Practices for Teaching Teenagers the Bible. It’s a pretty practical resource that will really help you rethink how you lead discussions, among other things.
A quiet group doesn’t mean failure, if you know how to handle it.