In my 20 plus years of leading Bible study groups, here are six tips for leading a discussion that I have learned the hard way.
1. Be careful how you ask why.
Think about the times you have been asked why, and you will discover that most of the time you became defensive. There is just something about the way why gets said that puts us into that mode. We can ask why in a different way to remove the defensive mechanism. Some examples are: What factors contributed to your decision? What were the possible causes of that? Explain how that speaks to this situation.
An Experiment: Ask a friend if they would consider themselves to be more of a Mary or a Martha (Luke 10:38-42). After they respond, simply ask them the one-word question: why. Listen to their response. Then ask them a second time if they would consider themselves to be more of a Mary or a Martha. After they respond, this time ask them to identify the factors in their life that point to them being either a Mary or a Martha. Compare the responses. Chances are, the second response will different from the first and less defensive.
2. Sit when you call for discussion.
If you tend to stand when you lead a Bible study group, trying sitting after you ask the group to discuss a question or issue. When we stand, we are in control, and that control tends to limit discussion especially if that discussion is in pairs. Sit down and join a pair in the discussion time. When you are ready to continue, stand up and move the group forward. (Thanks to David Francis for helping me with this tip.)
3. Be aware of married couples in the group.
Leading a Bible study group that includes married couples creates a different dynamic. If the husband speaks up, the wife will not counter his statement because she doesn’t want to embarrass her husband in front of the rest of the group. If the wife speaks up, he will not challenge her because he just knows better. They may talk about it on the way home, but that doesn’t help the group discussion. Depending upon the question, there are times when it may be best to pair couples for discussion so that the rest of the group is not privy to their conversation, or to place men in one discussion group and ladies in another to encourage more fruitful conversation.
4. Seating arrangement matters.
In some groups, how the seating is arranged limits discussion. Discussion requires some face-to-face contact. Face-to-face also helps build trust. If possible, arrange the seats so the group can see each other. If the group is large, arrange the seating in smaller circles where each circle can discuss and dialogue face-to-face.
5. Keep it small.
Most of us will not reveal our true responses to a large group. We just will not take that risk. Creating groups of 5 can make a world of difference. There is nothing wrong with smaller groups being created out of a larger group so that real sharing can take place. Not every group has to report back to the larger group. In fact, there may be times when the discussion that took place in the smaller groups should stay in those groups.
6. Get personal without being personal.
We may be tempted to ask for a public response to a private event or question, but that is a sure-fire way of stifling discussion. Instead of asking “What keeps you from sharing Jesus with your neighbor?”, you could ask a more general questions, such as “What keeps people from sharing Jesus with their neighbor?” People will most likely share their reasons if such a question was asked in a non-threatening way.
G. Dwayne McCrary is the team leader for Adult and Young Adult group resources at LifeWay, leads two weekly Bible study groups (one for empty-nesters and one for 4-year olds), serves as an adjunct professor at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and carries 20-plus years of church staff experience. He is married to Lisa (both native Texans), and they have two children and one grandson. Find him on Twitter: @gdwayne.