A friend was once in what she called ‘bible study by mind-reading’. The leader had some questions – and the right answers – on a piece of paper, and the group was only allowed to look at Question 2 when it had correctly answered Question 1. ‘Correctly’ meant using exactly the same words as on the paper. After half an hour of the group circling round, trying to get the answer exactly right, my friend exploded. ‘Oh, just tell us what the right answer is and we can move on to the next one.’ And so they did. And so the exercise of guessing what was in the leader’s mind happened again.
I think I put that down to the inexperience of the leader, who had come from a well-taught church, where group bible seminars were important, and followed a clear curriculum. There had been a prep. session, covering the questions and the answers. But this inexperienced leader, perhaps nervous at making theological errors, hadn’t realised that when a group happens it has a life of its own, and some flexibility needs to come into the planning.
Over the cycle of the study itself, there are three kinds of questions we can ask:
Discovering questions work to get people into the text, to see what’s in there, de-cluttering their preconceptions and misconceptions, so that the clear issues lie before us. You’ll need to guide people to particular sections, and prod them to see the surprises. These kind of questions provoke intense, close reading of the page. At this point we can be quite directive – although do allow people to get something half-right without squashing them, or completely right but in different words.
Understanding questions are when some pennies begin to drop. Perhaps they make a connection, or follow through on a thought. At this stage people are processing what they have discovered, exploring and analysing it – perhaps questioning it to see if what this passage seems to say is what the Bible as a whole says.
Applying questions are when the implications sink in, and the study moves into its ‘so what?’, and ‘now what?’ phases. Don’t expect any new ideas to be discovered – instead, let them chew on what they’ve discovered.
But you need to be sensitive to the speed that the group and its members are moving. Because different people think at different speeds, know different amounts, and have to unlearn different untruths. And in your enthusiasm for what you’ve unearthed you might move too quickly, and give them intellectual indigestion. So it might be wise to drop two of your four discovery questions, so that what they have discovered for themselves can be processed.
Remember – if the goal is that people learn (rather than that you teach), it’s better for them to get 50% of the way unaided, than 100% of the way carried by you. It’s often wiser to leave some of your questions unasked, and always better not to spoon-feed the answers. Slow down to their pace.