The first small-group discussion I led took approximately 15 minutes. I raced through the questions as if I were a greyhound near the finish line. No one had explained to me how to get a discussion going. Instead I was handed a list of questions and Scriptures to look up. My goal was to get through all of it as quickly as possible so that we could have our snacks and go home.
Needless to say, no one was very excited about coming back to my small group.
Since then I've learned a few principles about how to lead a good discussion.
It's about questions rather than information
Any good discussion is dependent upon the questions. A good study will include open-ended questions that require more than a yes or no answer. However, you can have a great question that is perfect for garnering all sorts of discussion but kill it in an instant by providing the answer.
Sometimes we leaders prepare for a study with anticipation, looking up the answers ahead of time so that we feel qualified to teach, and that's great. We should be prepared. We should feel confident about at least most of the answers so that there can be a final word of authority in the discussion. But if you are so anxious to provide an answer that you don't allow discussion, you will kill the effectiveness of the question.
For example, perhaps your text is Psalm 139:13, "For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb," and the question is, "What does this verse tell us about unborn babies?" It could be that you are adamantly pro-life and feel that this verse seals the issue, which is fine. But perhaps there is a woman in your group who has had an abortion. She may feel great pain or uncertainty as she reads this verse, and she needs time to process it. When we give or accept simple answers to complex questions, we leave our group members with confusion and doubt. Realistically, this woman may not confess to the group that she's had an abortion, but she may begin to ask a few questions, which will help her deal with this complicated issue. Giving her the freedom and time to question and express some of that confusion and doubt will go a long way toward allowing the truth of God's Word to work in her.
Another problem is when you assume you understand a Scripture passage better than you do. Suppose your text is Matthew 6:14-15, "For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins," and the question is, "What do you think this verse means?" Perhaps you've been taught that this verse means that you have to make sure you have nothing against anyone the moment you die, or you'll go to hell. But maybe someone in your group thinks it means more generally that we are not to knowingly hold grudges, or we won't know and experience Christ's forgiveness in this life. If you push your point of view without allowing the others to express their points of view, you will not win them to your side; you will simply discourage them from speaking what they think. Better an all-out discussion where everything is on the table, and you can support your point of view with other Scriptures, than to assume you know all the answers.
In fact, avoid giving your opinion until the end of the discussion. Be willing to let God's Word and Spirit be the ultimate teacher. Encourage the further study of God's Word and offer advice on where to find more information without giving pat, simplistic answers. God is full of mystery, and we should not be too anxious to make everything fit into our theological paradigm. As leaders, we need to allow God's Word to challenge our presuppositions too.