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Change Your Boring Bible studies into Exciting Times of Sharing
by Joel Comiskey
Cell Church Magazine
Winter, 1999, 2000
Silence. The cell group leader’s attempt to stimulate discussion failed. “Is there anyone else who would like to comment on this verse?” Still no response. The agitated leader decided that it was best to break the silence by launching into an ad-hoc homily of the Bible passages. “At least they’re receiving God’s Word,” the leader assured himself.
I know what this cell group leader felt like. I’ve faced similar periods of strained silence as I’ve attempted to lead the lesson during my own Thursday night cell group. I’ve found myself thinking on more than one occasion, “Why are my own discussion times so dry?” I’ve lectured and written extensively about cell group ministry. “Shouldn’t I be an example in this area?” Shouldn’t my own discussion times be filled with participation?” What’s the missing link?”
I’ve discovered that often the difference between effective cell group discussion and the type that fizzles into embarrassed silence has more to do with the type of question asked than how well the leader listens, gives positive feedback, or deals with the rabid talker.
It's the Question
I’ve been leading my Thursday night cell group for the last two years. Lately I’ve been encouraging others to lead the cell lesson. Paul accepted that challenge and has led the last four lessons. Two of those lessons were as dry as a bone while the other two stirred exciting discussion.
The difference? Paul’s questions. Paul did everything else perfectly. In all four lessons, he listened intently, called individual members by name, was careful not to dominate, etc. In other words, I couldn’t fault him on any other point. Rather, on two occasions his use of closed-ended, one answer questions killed participation and jolted the group into a stunned silence. 
During the two sub-par cell meetings, Paul focused almost entirely on the Bible passages. He asked the group to tell him what the Bible passage said. We covered the book of Jonah, so Paul asked: Where did Jonah flee? “To Nineveh,” a member replied. “Great answer,” said Paul. “Anyone else.” Silence. “Why did Jonah flee?” asked Paul. “Because he was disobedient,” said another cell member. Paul tried to get more people to talk. “Would anyone else like to share?” A few mumbled a variation of the same answer, but when all was said and done, there was only one answer: Jonah was disobedient. Now, Paul listened well, gave positive feedback, and did everything right. What more could the group say? There was basically only one answer to give. Jonah fled because he was disobedient. Someone might have added a few more adjectives like, “Jonah was gravely disobedient” but the why bother? Even a superb, highly trained cell group leader couldn’t get much more. Paul could have waited in silence for one hour, hoping for someone else to talk, and we would have sat there in silence with him.
I talked to Paul a few days after the dry, boring cell group. I shared with him my own failures and discoveries—especially in the area of asking questions.
Something clicked in Paul and the next lesson was excellent. We covered Psalm 46:1, “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble,” and Psalm 46:10, “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.” Paul began with a few closed, observation questions to help us understand the Biblical text. Yet, this time he quickly applied the Biblical passage to our own lives with questions like, “When have you had a crisis and how did you handle it?” Paul followed with another application question, “Share with the group how God has been your refuge through a difficult time.” Everyone had something to share. “Many years ago I administered the most successful tailoring business in the country,” Jim began. “I loved my job and even made suits for the president. At the height of my success, the doctors told me that it was either my health or my job, so I had to leave it. But God. . . .” Then Mary shared, “Recently, my daughter Nancy said she’d be home at 10 p.m., but at 1 a.m. she still hadn’t arrived. I’m a nervous person anyway, but this time I was beyond myself. Yet, through prayer God began. . . .” Our group shared deeply that night. We bore each other’s burdens. We went away edified, encouraged, and eager to come back for more.
Preparing the right questions before you start the meeting can give you assurance that the cell discussion will be lively and dynamic.
Cell leader, I encourage you to reflect on your current cell group experience. What kind of flow are you experiencing during the Word time? Do your cell lessons overflow with participation? Do you have to stop the excited conversation due to time constraints? or does it naturally fizzle out as agitated members long for a concluding prayer? The type of questions asked can make the difference between a cell group full of life, fun, excitement or one of boredom, frustration, and silence.
See Yourself as a Facilitator rather than a Bible Teacher
Cell leader, the first thing to do is rid yourself of the mentality that you are a Bible teacher leading a Bible study. Neither is true. Cell leaders are enablers, facilitators. Synonyms for facilitate include: help, aid, assist, ease, empower, lubricate, and smooth the progress. Your job, cell leader is to empower others to share. Your role is not to preach or teach the Word of God. This is where most cell leaders fail. I cannot count the number of cell groups that I have attended in which the cell leader dominated the entire meeting. “That cell was more like a mini-Sunday church service with the pastor performing his preaching role,” I’ve often thought to myself on the way home from visiting cell meetings. God has blessed His church with gifted teachers and preachers, but that’s not your job, cell leader. The cell group stands in contrast to the “preacher—congregation” mentality. Cell leaders who teach the Bible in the small group can actually hinder the development of new leadership because few group members will ever feel qualified or gifted to teach the Bible.
I’m assuming, therefore, in this article that you desire a dynamic cell meeting in which everyone is participating. I’m assuming that you believe that the role of the cell group leader is not to preach or teach the Word of God. Assuming that we’re on the same page, let’s now look at how to improve your ability to ask questions.
Closed Questions Only Have One Answer
Closed questions expect one correct answer. Often the purpose of a closed-ended question in a cell group is to discover what the Bible verse or passage says. This type of question is effective immediately after reading a new verse or passage of Scripture. People want to know the context or the meaning of the verse. Yet, too many closed questions convert the cell group into a school examination. When a leader uses lots of closed-ended examination questions, he positions himself as the Bible expert who is trying to discover the brightest, most Bible literate students. Some will shine as they show-off their Bible knowledge, while the majority will try to hide from the piercing gaze of the cell leader.
Focus on Open-Ended Questions
Open-ended questions, on the other hand, elicit discussion and sharing. There is more than one right answer. Open-ended questions stir cell members to apply the Biblical truths to their own lives.
Let’s look at an example from the familiar passage in John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
You could start out with a closed-ended observation question like: How did God demonstrate his love for us? The answer lies within the text. In this case, you’re simply asking the people to observe and answer what they see in the verse. Even a Hindu who had never read the Bible could read the verse and answer that God demonstrated his love by sending His Son. There really is no other answer. You could call on the silent ones in the group to express their opinion, but they’ll probably say the same thing. Trying to expand on the meaning might help a little, but not much. Again, it’s good to include a few of these questions to start off the cell lesson. Such questions will help your members understand the meaning of the Bible passage.
You could go one step farther and ask your cell members to interpret what the verse means, yet for the most part this is still a closed-form of question asking. For example, you could ask: What kind of love did God demonstrate? Some might talk about God’s sacrificial love; others might refer to God’s Fatherly compassion. The leader might be ready to talk about the Greek word agape, which refers to Christ’s self-sacrificing on the cross. While there is room for a few such interpretation type questions to better understand the Bible, this is not the goal of the cell group. If you use this type of question too frequently, your people will leave with lots of knowledge but little transformation in their own lives.
Observation and interpretation questions help us understand the Bible, but for the most part they’re closed questions. They reach the head but not the heart. They can provide useful Biblical information, but they’ll generate little interaction. The cell group discussion, in fact, might come to a screeching halt. Some empathetic cell members might even try to help you out by guiding the conversation into another direction, simply to get others talking.
Let’s look at an open-ended application questions covering the same verse in John 3:16. You could say: Describe your experience when you first understood that God loves you. You could then call on one of the believers in the group, “Susan, would you share what happened when you first experienced God’s love for you?” This type of question/exhortation takes the well-known verse in John and invites members to apply it to their own lives. Many will share. You could also ask a question like: How did you come to know that God loves you? Did someone talk to you about God? Were you alone in your room? Share your experience.
Grab the Heart through Application Questions
Cell leader, make sure that you grab the heart during your cell lesson. Make sure that you allow hungry cell members to share. Don’t allow your people to leave the cell group without having applied the Bible to their own lives. I know of one cell leader who likes to conclude the Word time by using saying: “In light of what we’ve read and discussed in this passage, how do you think God wants to use this in your life or the life of this group?”
Several years ago, I visited a cell that was discussing the parable of the unmerciful servant in Matthew 18:21-35. The cell leader asked question after question about what the text said (observation) then a few more questions about what the text meant (interpretation), but not once did he ask the people to apply these verses to their own lives. He missed a perfect opportunity. He could have asked group members to share an experience when they had to forgive someone. He could have said: “Share an experience when you felt bitterness toward another person.” He could have followed with, “Share how you overcame those feeling and were able to forgive that person.” Most likely there were people that very night that needed freedom from pent-up bitterness and that were longing to share with others. I left that cell meeting feeling dry and weak, longing to shout from the house tops: “Cell leader, the place of the cell group is for intimate, application based sharing. Sunday sermon is the place where people sit and listen to the anointed, gifted man of God. The cell group should encourage the members to sit-up and speak. Prepare open-ended application questions and let your people share!”
You don’t have to be an expert to prepare dynamic, life-changing questions. Just remember a few basic facts:
Ask Yourself the Questions before the Cell Starts
Ask yourself the question before asking others. If you had to answer your own question, could you freely share? Does the question generate more than one response?
Does the question reach the heart or only the head? Phrase your question in such a way that it generates heart-felt sharing. A good way to do this is to start out with: Share an experience when. . . . or How does this passage make you feel about. . . . ?
Again, not all questions have to be the open-ended, heart-reaching type. Some will simply clarify the Biblical passage. Yet a large proportion throughout your lesson must be application based. Don’t wait until the end of the lesson to apply the Bible passage. It will probably be too late. By that time, your people will have fallen into a deep slumber.
Many churches base the cell group lesson on the Sunday morning sermon. This is convenient because the cell leader doesn’t have to create his or her own lesson. However, even if the lesson is provided, you still have to work on the questions. Examine them. Determine if there are too many closed/observation type questions. You might have to take a question that was included at the end of the lesson and move it up toward the beginning.
It’s the question, cell leader. Before beating yourself over the head, thinking that you lack communication skills, examine the type of questions that you’ve been using. Just maybe, the lack of participation in your cell group is the result of too many closed-ended questions rather than your skills as a cell group leader. Begin now to make sure that you include open-ended application questions toward the beginning of your cell lesson and watch your cell group come to life.
Examples of questions that generate discussions
- How do you feel about . . . .
- Share your experiencing concerning. . .
- Why do you feel this way?
- How would you . . . .
- What does this passage say about. . .
Example of closed question that elicit one answer:
- Do you agree with this passage?
 In reality our pastoral team was to blame for preparing poor lessons based on the pastor’s Sunday sermon. Effective cell leaders, however, take liberty to test, adjust, and even change prepared questions to make them user-friendly.