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.