Two kinds of good bible study question – and the critical difference


27/06/2013 by Chris Green

Bible study questionsYou’ve probably been in a bible study where the leader asks a question and there’s that awkward silence. Is the question too hard, too easy, or too badly phrased? Often it’s down to the kind of question that’s been asked.

In particular, we need to know the difference between an open and a closed question.

A closed question is simple, direct, and has only one right answer. For instance, ‘What had been Onesimus’s position in Philemon’s household?’ It’s a good question, because knowing his status (a slave) is the key to understanding the letter.

But it’s not a good discussion question. Why? Because the moment someone answers it, everyone else in the group shuts up. It’s the right answer. And at best, you have to ask another question. And another. And before long the Bible study has become a quiz, with you asking a question and the bright kids in the class finding the right answer first. Not good.

It’s also not a very difficult question. It comes right off the page – so you might have a silence because people suspect it’s a trick question. ‘Well, it’s obvious that he’s a slave but I’m not going to say that because I’ve probably missed something more subtle’.

Or, if you’re dealing with people who don’t know their bibles very well, it might even be too difficult: ‘Who are these people with impossible names? I’ve never heard of either of them before.’

An open question, by contrast, is one where there is more than one right answer. Take a breath – I’m not saying that all answers are right, just that there are some questions which allow some exploration and discussion.

For instance: ‘In what ways had Onesimus’s conversion affected his relationship with Philemon?’ Now, simply by using the plural (‘in what ways’) I’ve flagged up that there’s more than one answer here, and I’m allowing people to dig into the text. More than that, we can spend five minutes on one answer, and then I can gather us all back on the track. ‘OK, has anybody found another way that his conversion affected their relationship?’

Or: ‘Why do you think Philemon would find this letter hard?’ That’s also open, but this time I’m allowing different members of the group to express an opinion, right out of the text but impacting them. So it leads into application.

I was in one memorable bible study where the leader had only one question, and kept asking us to look closer into the passage to find more and more answers. It was hard work, but fun!

There are two implications for our preparation.

1. We’re probably going to need both open and closed questions. Sometimes we need to gather information and get some facts in public. Closed questions are great for that. Don’t run away from them, but remember they are a particular kind of tool.

2. Good open questions will mean that you can probably predict a number, or even all, the right answers, but not the order they’ll come in. You therefore need to take a more ‘guiding’ role to your leadership. Nudge people towards the verse they’ve overlooked, be open to someone spotting something you haven’t, or putting it in different words to yours. That’s OK –this is a Bible Study, not an exercise in reading your mind!

I’m going to think more about that ‘guiding’ role in the next post.

Have you seen some good examples of Open Questions? Share them in the comments section below.

Details of The Message of the Church here.

2 thoughts on “Two kinds of good bible study question – and the critical difference

  1. Levi says:

    Thanks for that Chris. You’ve pulled together some stuff I’ve been trying to get my head around recently. I wonder if it’s better to use the answers to the closed questions as statements to kick off more open discussion? E.g. “Onesimus was previously one of Philemon’s slaves: how might that affect their relationship now?”

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