This first article is a guest post by Ryan Higginbottom, Associate Professor of Mathematics at Washington & Jefferson College in Washington, PA. When he’s not solving differential equations or blogging at A Small Work, he loves spending time with his wife and two daughters. He also leads a small group Bible study for his church. If you’d like to write a guest post for Knowable Word, please see the guidelines page.
When reading the Gospels, have you noticed how often Jesus asks questions? His disciples must have been incredibly frustrated. They wanted answers; he served up another round of questions. Why? Through intentional interrogation, he often showed them to be asking the wrong questions entirely.
Because Jesus bound up so much of his ministry with inquiries, Christian faith and discernment will lead us to develop the ability to ask good questions. Such questions (and willing answers, of course) are a key part of healthy marriages, vibrant classes, joyful homes, and thriving mentorships. But in particular, good questions are the engine that chugs effective small group Bible studies into the station.
The Function of Good Questions
Perhaps you’ve been in a Bible study with a skilled and wise leader, whose questions guide the group through the critical parts of a passage. You may not even remember these questions, however, since good questions are almost invisible. But without them the group would function like a legs-up turtle. These are not the clever, witty, eloquent questions of the orator or debater. They don’t draw attention to themselves.
Bad questions, on the other hand, are as subtle as a fire alarm. Instead of encouraging discussion, they shut it down. They interrupt the flow of dialogue and generate silence, while the leader squirms and the group members wonder what’s for dinner.
What is the difference between a good question and a bad one? What are some characteristics of good questions?
Observation Questions for Small Groups
The foundation of any Bible study lies with careful observation of the text. This is no less true for group study than it is for individual study. So how do we ask good observation questions?
Let’s take Acts 19:1–10 as a sample passage. Imagine you are preparing to lead a discussion on it, and you want to draw people out by drawing them into the text. Your questions will make all the difference.
Bad Observation Questions
- What baptism did the Ephesian disciples receive?
- What was the first thing Paul did when he arrived in Ephesus?
- When did Paul move to the hall of Tyrannus?
Good Observation Questions
- What experience of Christianity did the Ephesian disciples have before Paul arrived?
- How does Paul interact with the Ephesian disciples?
- How is the passage structured?
Though the bad questions require observations for answers, the dialogue goes no further. These queries focus on a single detail, and the group members serve only to fill in the blanks left by the leader, who diligently steers clear of the conversation highway. Let’s be honest: While this approach offers a safe and easy way to create an appearance of participation, it also safely avoids the powerful, spontaneous, and unpredictable work of the Spirit in the minds and hearts of others.
The good questions, however, encourage meaningful discussion and interaction, while still drawing out specific observations. They are more open-ended, enabling group members to pick up on the important features of a passage and leave the smaller details alone. These questions simultaneously engage the group and open the door to interpretation.
What about you? What are some examples of effective observation questions you’ve asked (or answered!) in a small-group setting?