Leading the Discussion
Leading the Discussion
This session shows us how to be good facilitators of discussion by affirming the members of the group and encouraging them to participate.
How to lead a Lifebuilder Study

Good Bible study leaders are facilitators. They strike the match that ignites the group—primarily by affirming the members of the group and encouraging them to participate. Your attitude as the leader is one of the most significant factors in determining the spirit and tone of the discussion. Your respect for the authority of the Bible will be contagious even though you may never express it in words. Your love and openness toward people in the group will quickly infect those around you. Your relaxed attitude and genuine enjoyment of the discussion will spread to every group member from the start of the discussion.

Guidelines for Discussion

At the beginning of your first time together, explain that these studies are meant to be discussions, not lectures. Then read or summarize the following guidelines for Bible discussions from the LifeBuilder leader’s notes.

Agree on how the guides are to be used by the group members. Do you want them to prepare before the study? If you have group members who want to prepare ahead of the study, that’s great! It will allow you to go deeper in the study session. At the same time, one of the nice things about these studies is that group members can get a lot out of them without any preparation. So I never push preparation, and I always encourage people to come whether prepared or not. As a matter of fact, I’ve never been in a group where people did consistently prepare—but I’ve been in groups with consistent (guilt-free) attendance, and we’ve had lots of great discussions.

Reading the Questions

As you begin to ask the group the questions in the guide, it will be helpful to keep several things in mind. First, the questions can often be used just as they are written. If you wish, you may simply read them aloud to the group (but omit the question number). Or you may prefer to express them in your own words. However, unnecessary rewording of the questions is not recommended, as the questions have been field-tested by various groups and revised prior to publication. Although I have led studies for many years, I find that when I attempt to reword or create a new question on the spot, I often create a yes/no question that doesn’t generate a strong response.

There may be times when it is appropriate to deviate from the study guide. For example, a question may already have been answered. If so, move on to the next question. Or someone may raise an important question not covered in the guide. Take time to discuss it! The important thing is to use discretion. There may be many routes you can travel to reach the goal of the study. But the easiest route is usually the one the author has suggested.

If your group does prepare ahead, beware of people getting their noses stuck in their guides and saying, “I wrote for question 8.” You want to create a discussion with dialogue and interaction. People will discover more as they listen to one another. If necessary, you might ask the group to put away their guides.

Talking Points

A professor once told me, “The hardest thing about teaching is not answering your own questions.” Indeed, it is hard when you read the carefully crafted question and the group members just stare at you. Here are a few tips for helping people to talk.

  1. Avoid answering your own questions! If necessary, repeat or
    rephrase the question until it is clearly understood. An eager group
    quickly becomes passive and silent if they think the leader will do
    most of the talking. The exceptions can be the group discussion
    question at the beginning and the application questions. It may
    help if you open up first.
  2. Don’t be afraid of silence. People need time to think about the
    question before formulating their answers. But try to discern the difference between fruitful silence (when people are thinking) and
    blanks (when your question seems unclear or irrelevant).
  3. Don’t be content with just one answer. All of these questions should
    have more than one answer. Additional contributions will usually
    add depth and richness to the discussion. Ask, “What do the rest
    of you think?” or “Anything else?” until several people have had a
    chance to speak.
  4. Be affirming! People will contribute much more eagerly if they feel
    their answers are genuinely appreciated. One way to be affirming is to listen attentively whenever anyone speaks. Another is to verbally acknowledge their contribution. Respond to their answers by saying, “That’s a good observation” or “Excellent point.” Be especially affirming to shy or hesitant members of the group.
  5. Be willing to admit your own ignorance or faults. It is easy for
    leaders to feel that they must have answers to all questions raised. If
    a wrong answer is given, or if a leader makes a mistake and fails to
    admit it, community spirit will be hindered. Admitting our faults
    and weaknesses will often release the entire group to a new level of
    openness to God’s grace and to one another.
  6. Periodically summarize what the group has said about the passage.
    This helps to draw together the various ideas mentioned and gives
    continuity to the study. But don’t preach.
  7. Foster group ownership by asking people (who you think would be
    comfortable) to read the study introduction, read the passage or pray.
    The healthiest group Bible studies are those in which all participants
    consider the study theirs. Invitations of “Come to our study” rather
    than “Come to Jane’s study” are a sign that members have a sense of
    ownership. Generally, members who consider the study theirs will
    contribute more responsibly, prepare more thoroughly, invite others
    more freely and pray for the study more faithfully.
  8. An ideal Bible study group includes eight to ten people. If the group
    experiences growth, as well-led groups often do, members should
    consider dividing into two groups when there are more than twelve
    people. In the smaller groups, each member will have an opportunity
    for more frequent participation. To make a successful division,
    prepare carefully and openly well in advance. Groom a new leader
    who will have an opportunity to lead the group before the split so
    that those who will be joining that leader’s group will be acquainted
    with him or her. If space allows, some groups avoid the trauma of
    separation by meeting together in a common place and then
    splitting into different groups for the study. Others occasionally
    reassemble to share what God has been teaching them, thus keeping
    ties with the original members.

Handling Problems

Problems may arise in any discussion. If they are handled properly,
however, they need not hurt the quality of the study.

What do you do, for example, if someone tries to monopolize the discussion? You might respond by saying, “Why don’t we find out what some of the others think?” You might also direct your next question to those who have not been able to participate: “Why don’t we hear from those who haven’t spoken yet?” If the problem persists, try talking with the person privately after the study. Help the person to understand the importance of balanced participation. Ask for his or her help in drawing out the more quiet members of the group.

How should you respond to answers that are blatantly wrong? Never simply reject a comment. If it is obviously wrong, you could point the person back to Scripture, saying, “Which verse led you to that conclusion?” Or let the group handle the problem. Ask, “What do the rest of you think about this?” Their response will usually be sufficient for clearing up the misunderstanding.

What if the group goes off on a tangent? Encourage people to return to the passage under consideration. It should be the source for answering questions. Unnecessary cross-referencing should also be avoided.

Don’t ignore problems. Deal with them in the group or in private, but do deal with them. Confronting one another in love requires God’s grace and wisdom. But if someone is regularly frightening off new Christians or continually harangues the group with his or her own pet ideas, action may be needed. Always communicate acceptance of the person but realize that if nothing is done, the group could wither and die.

Following the suggestions given in this chapter should help you lead an enjoyable and profitable discussion. But leading a study should also be a learning experience for you. Even the most effective leader can always find room for improvement! It is helpful, therefore, to evaluate the study and your leadership once the discussion has concluded.


A good small group Bible study is like a popcorn popper. At first there are only a few pops as one or two people warm up to the group. Pretty soon, however, there is an explosion of sound as everyone begins to comment.

A poor Bible study is like a popcorn popper with a damaged heater. The group never warms up. Awkward silences are broken only occasionally by a cough or a lifeless, one-word answer.

What makes the difference between a good Bible study and a poor one? This chapter will help you and your group to discover the qualities of a great discussion.

The Leader

An evaluation is not a score of your performance. (“And here are the judges’ votes: 6.0, 5.5, 5.5, 5.8 and 5.9.”) It is primarily a learning experience that helps you identify the strengths and weaknesses of your leadership so you can do even better next time.

After the discussion, answer the following questions as objectively as possible. As you do so, ask God to show you any improvements or changes you need to make. If you want to, you could ask one or more of your group members to help you answer. Or if you have a small group coach, ask him or her to visit the group, and then work through this list together.

These questions can also help you mentor a new discussion leader. Talk these items through before (as preparation) and after he or she leads a study

The Group

The members of the group also have an important responsibility. An eager group can make the difference between a vibrant, dynamic discussion and one that administers general anaesthesia. After your group has completed a series of studies, or if the discussions tend to drag, spend a few minutes evaluating their participation together.

Working through these questions together will help the group to bond more deeply and to become more aware of how they can take initiative in the life of the group.

The Agony and the Joy

You will probably have your ups and downs with small group leading. I know I do. Some weeks I feel frustrated with the planning and with the personalities. I wonder: Why is she always late? Why does he forget it’s meeting night unless I call? Why doesn’t she ever pray? Does anyone in my group really want to grow in Christ?

And yet despite all the questions and frustrations, once we are gathered and small group begins, I’m always glad we are together. I learn something. I am drawn to Christ. I am reminded of my sin. I am grateful for the experience of community.

So keep leading. Small group life is just a taste of the rich community we will have in heaven. Its goodness enriches our lives here on earth and helps us find our way to God.