Skip to main content

Do you desire to lead vibrant discussions centered on the Bible but never have any success making it happen? If you grew up in Sunday School or spent much time in small group Bible studies, you’ve probably had this experience—the Bible study leader begins the lecture and it drones on for fifteen or twenty minutes. However, not wanting to miss the opportunity to have a discussion, the leader throws out the question: “I’ve been talking too long. What do y’all think?”

Part of the group stares back with glazed eyes. Others look down at the floor. The leader quickly begins to feel uncomfortable. Everyone in the class already feels uncomfortable. After about two seconds of increasing misery, the leader resumes talking and everyone breathes an internal sigh of relief. If you have ever participated in this painful experience, there is good news. You can have a great Bible study discussion. Whether it’s in a missional community, small group Bible study, or even Sunday School, you can lead great discussions. But before you get there, you may have to re imagine a few things.

Great discussions are possible

For the last ten years, our ministry has run discussion-based Bible studies. Many things have changed in our ministry over those last ten years, but discussion-based Bible studies have been a regular fixture. Our ministry model relies on building disciple-makers through missional communities. But in a majority of group meetings, students are discussing the Bible together.

Ten years ago, our team found that most college students weren’t gifted lecturing to a group of students. But we found that many of them could become great discussion leaders, even those without the gift of teaching. Additionally, Scripture tells us that sanctification happens through (at least) two means: the application of the Word of God (2 Timothy 3:16) and the community of believers (Hebrews 10:24-25).

At the beginning of my ministry, I worked with a mentor of mine, Tim Peabody, to equip college students to lead great discussion-based Bible studies. We found that by handing a leader six questions and having them ask their groups these questions, most college students were able to lead an hour-long vibrant discussion centered on God’s Word. Here are some principles that we developed to help them get there.

Preparing great questions

Being a great discussion leader begins with crafting great questions. Here are two tips to help you do that.

Only ask questions that have multiple possible right answers. “Who wrote the book of Acts?” is a test question, not a discussion question. If your question only has one right answer, then just tell your group what you want them to know. Consider this question: “Luke authored the book of Acts. What are some of the things that you think Luke may have felt as he followed the apostles of Jesus?”

After preparing a question, write out some possible answers. If you can quickly think of four or five answers, then you likely have a good discussion question.

Create the right kind of questions. To create a great discussion, the questions asked must move towards a purpose. You need three types of questions: questions that help group members articulate what they think about a topic, questions to help them study the Word and questions to help them apply the Word. We have found that asking two questions under each of these categories facilitates great discussions that don’t drag on too long.

Lead great discussions

Creating great questions is only half the battle. When you get in the room with questions in hand, follow these tips to cultivate a great discussion environment.

Ask the question like you mean it. If you spent time preparing questions, then you should want to hear people’s answers. Don’t sabotage your questions with a statement like, “This might be a bad question, but . . .” Instead, ask every question as if you’re excited to hear their answers. For example, avoid saying something like, “I’ve got an icebreaker question for you” because it implies that you feel obligated to ask an icebreaker question. Instead, ask the question like you really want to hear their answers: “If you could travel back in time to any decade, what decade would you pick and why?”

Have everyone answer at least the first question. Since we’re on the topic of icebreaker questions, know this: One of the best things you can do is have everyone answer the very first question. I like to make this first question a fun one and I always ask everyone to share an answer. I do that to create the expectation from the beginning that this is a group where everyone talks, not just me as the leader.

Aim for the 10 percent rule. Make it your goal as a discussion leader to speak no more than 10 percent of the time. Your group should do the other 90 percent. Keep working at it until you get there.

Be a great listener. Make eye contact with individuals to encourage them to talk. As they share answers, nod and encourage them. When they finish, wait to see if someone else jumps in.

Don’t fear the awkward pauses. Seriously. Sometimes people need a moment to collect their thoughts. If they think you will jump in and answer if they just wait long enough, then that’s what they’ll do. Make eye contact while you wait. If they make you wait for more than a few minutes, try asking the question again.

One exception—when a question invites participants to share a personal story, I often see great discussion leaders share first to set the tone. If the Bible study leader prefaces the answer with “while you think, I’d like to share a story of this happening in my life to give you an example of what I mean,” it gives participants time to process but also sets the level of transparency for everyone who follows.

Great discussions are within everyone’s reach

If you don’t have a great experience at first, keep at it. While not everyone has the gift of teaching, I find most people can lead great discussions if they simply ask great questions and then stay quiet as the group talks. Vibrant spiritual life happens as groups learn to center discussions on the Word of God. It’s worth the work.