If you teach a Bible study group long enough, someone is going to ask you a tricky question. It’s just bound to happen. It’s one of the most uncomfortable things that happen to group leaders. I’ve seen two categories of tricky questions in the groups I’ve taught. “Category 1 questions” are what I’m going to call “innocent” tricky questions. They are asked with pure motives, but can be hard for a group leader to answer. The second category of tricky questions is what I’m going to call “malevolent questions.” These tricky questions are not asked with pure motives. In fact, these are asked by group members when they are intentionally trying to stir up something in the group. Here are four ways to deal with each category of questions.
Four ways to deal with tricky, but innocent, questions:
- ADMIT – Learn to use three powerful little words: “I don’t know.” It’s OK to admit that you don’t have an immediate response for the person. Use this when you really don’t care to address the question. You’ll earn people’s trust and respect by not simply making up an answer—because everyone knows when we do that.
- AFFIRM – Say something to the person who’s asked the question like, “That’s a good question,” or, “You’ve helped me see this in a different way.” You can affirm their question, but you don’t necessarily have to stop to address it. Move on. Keep the lesson on track. Affirm the person by saying, “You’ve given me something to ponder.”
- ASK – This is where it gets fun! Turn the tables, as Jesus did (Luke 20) and simply say, “Now that’s an interesting question—how would you answer it?” 9 times out of 10, the person is eager to share their insight. They asked you, but now you’ve asked them.
- ACKNOWLEDGE – This is a cousin to the first solution above, Admit. The difference here is that you admit your lack of knowledge and you commit to do further study. You simply acknowledge that you don’t have an answer, but you also promise to do some further study and get back to the person and/or the group.
Four ways to deal with malevolent questions:
If you’ve ever been put on the spot intentionally by someone during a Bible study, don’t despair! This happened to Jesus at various times. In Luke 20 a group of men came to Him to trick Him, and He turned the tables on them. He wouldn’t respond to their question before they responded to a question He decided to throw at them. The result? They dared not ask Him any more questions! I think there is some humor in the Bible, and that’s one of the spots—I would have loved to have been there to see Jesus expertly handle a group of people with a malevolent question!
When you sense that a question has been asked to derail the study or to challenge you, take a deep breath, compose yourself, and choose one or more of the following ways to deal with that malevolent question:
- DEFLECT – Deal with that potential barbed question by deflecting it. Say, “If I have time before the Bible study is over, I’ll get to that question. If not, I’ll visit with you after class. Let’s continue our study…” I never get to the person’s question (imagine that!). If I sense that the question was asked to do me or the group some level of harm, I always want to isolate the person and not give him or her a platform in front of the group. I always meet with the person afterwards.
- DEFEND – On occasion, when I really do want to bring correction to the person asking the snarky question, I choose to respond. Jesus did this in Matthew 24 when He was asked an intentionally tricky question about which was the greatest command in the law. Sometimes the best course of action is to confront the person and give your response. Defend your position. Use Scripture. Stand your ground—but do it humbly and gently.
- DIVIDE – This is a great response that normally puts the person in their place, and causes them not to ask challenging questions anymore. When asked one of those malevolent questions, say: “John has posed a hard question. Let’s divide into groups of 3 or 4 and work quickly to respond based on Scripture. Elect a spokesperson for you group. You have 5 minutes. Go!” What always happens is that the groups of people end up “policing” the person with the malevolent question. They put the questioner in their place using Scripture, and you don’t have to say a word. It also give you, the teacher, time to think about a response while the groups are doing their work.
- DIG – Normally when you are asked a malevolent question, there’s a question behind the question. Do a little digging and find out the real issue. Say, “Wow—I didn’t anticipate that kind of question in our study today. Why do you ask that?” Continue probing with an even more pointed question, “Why is it important to you that we answer that right now?” or, “Help me see how that question connects to our study.” Just keep digging and ultimately the person will either back off, or that person will reveal the true reason he or she is putting you on the spot.
Ken manages the Ongoing Adult Bible Studies and Church Trainers at Lifeway. He has been a group leader for 6 years, and has over 20 years of church education ministry experience. He blogs daily about groups at kenbraddy.com.