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.
Restate a question that goes nowhere
Sometimes you may have a fantastic question that no one answers. Find another way to state it so that it penetrates. Maybe the question is, "What role does organized religion play in the development of a national moral consciousness?" That's a good question, but complex enough that it takes some thought. Give your group members time to think about it. Pause for a while, and if you still don't get an answer, rephrase it. You might say, "Can the church as a whole influence what our nation thinks is moral? If so, how? If not, why not?"
Don't just skip a question no one is answering unless even rephrasing it doesn't get a response. Nothing is more frustrating than trying to think through a question when the group leader moves along too quickly. Most of us have to process questions a bit before we can answer-at least to answer wisely.
Communicate love, not judgment
Your group members are not going to want to answer questions honestly if they are ridiculed or shot down for their answers. In fact, they may not even come back. Look for ways to show that you care about the person and not just a right answer.
If a group member answers a question with an obvious heresy, such as he doesn't believe that Jesus Christ is God, then you have to address it. If the person is not in the group to win recruits to his point of view, then you want him to stay in the group so he can learn the truth. To do that, you are going to need to learn how to correct while showing love. So instead of saying, "That's heresy," say, "Even in the early church they had this debate. Let's look at the Scriptures they used to come to the conclusion that Jesus is God." If you need time to look up those Scriptures, as most of us would, tell him you'll come with them next week. In fact, you may want to meet with him outside of the group if the rest of the group doesn't have the same question. That way, you can move the group along but still show this guy that you care about him and his ideas. Most of us cannot separate our thoughts from our feelings about ourselves, so validating another person's ideas goes a long way toward making him feel loved and respected.
Keep the discussion on track
In the first study I led, I had no trouble keeping us on track. In fact, we didn't deviate an iota. When I learned to allow true discussion, I had trouble keeping us on the subject. The group leader has to learn that fine balance. You must allow discussion while making sure it stays on the subject. If it wanders, you need to gently bring it back.
Back to the question, "What role does organized religion play in the development of a national moral consciousness?" Suppose Nancy answers that the church could affect things at a grassroots level, such as Christian teachers in the public school system influencing their students. That's a good answer that fits the subject. But Joe says, "You know, I don't like that new teacher the school system hired." This is off the topic and can lead to a complete disintegration of the study. As a leader, you need to get it back to the subject at hand. An easy way to do that is to restate the question, "Can anyone else think of ways that organized religion can affect the moral consciousness?" That way Joe isn't allowed to take over the study, but it will continue in a direction that people can learn from.
Finally, bathe the whole thing in prayer. As you let God influence your preparation and discussion time, you will create an environment that allows the Holy Spirit to transform people's lives through God's Word.
JoHannah Reardon is the managing editor with ChristianBibleStudies.com. She has written seven novels and a family devotional guide, and blogs at johannahreardon.com.