The point of this post is to challenge leaders and teachers. To be effective in leading your class, make sure to ask application questions that lead your group to spiritual growth. This is perhaps one of the most quoted passages in the Bible Study business:
But don’t just listen to God’s word. You must do what it says. Otherwise, you are only fooling yourselves. For if you listen to the word and don’t obey, it is like glancing at your face in a mirror. You see yourself, walk away, and forget what you look like. But if you look carefully into the perfect law that sets you free, and if you do what it says and don’t forget what you heard, then God will bless you for doing it. (James 1:22-25)
To study the Bible, or to take a class on prayer, or discuss compassion for the poor but not do anything about what one has learned, is a waste of time.
The Word of God holds up a mirror in which we can see our own face: our character, values, attitudes, and habits. It offers us a perspective on our situation and relationships that we can’t get on our own. It also opens up a window into the realm of God, in which we see the face of Christ looking back at us. We get to compare our face to that of Christ, noting the similarities and differences. The Bible promises that we can change (2 Corinthians 5:17).
Extensive psychotherapy doesn’t change most people all that much. When change does happen, something on the order of a miracle is occurring. But the gospel insists that the Spirit of God (through the Word of God and with the help of the people of God) can and will perform this miracle in any person willing to cooperate.
So many study groups settle for educating people about God and the Christian life, but they don’t believe it’s possible for them to really become like Jesus. People like the idea in theory, but the actual process scares them.
- Do we really want to take a hard look at ourselves in the mirror, week after week? Can we bear to see and examine the face of Christ?
- Do we really want to give up our familiar paths and strike out on the uncharted territory of God’s ways?
- Do we really want the Spirit breaking up our concrete habits with a jackhammer?
Likely, your group contains decent people who sort of want to follow Christ but aren’t all that eager to see their lives disrupted. They are busy people who have jobs, families, bills, and housework that don’t leave them hours and hours to contemplate Christ and their lives. Discussion questions that invite them to apply the Word of God to their lives need to take into account both the mandate of the gospel (big changes) and the realities of the human condition (big obstacles to change).
Go Slow and Deep: People who are asked to take drastic action too often and in too many different directions eventually go numb in order to survive. Consider the person who hears a Sunday sermon, reads the Bible even once or twice a week, and attends Sunday School each week. If this person encounters three, four, or more calls in one week to change drastically, it’s overwhelming. Over time, people learn to tune out the guilt feelings triggered by such calls.
In your small group, learn to ask, “So what?” regularly and systematically, but ask, “Now what?” sparingly, yet with focus and detail.
- “So what?” invites group members to think about the implications of what they are studying. “Now what?” asks them to take action individually or together, to do something concrete about those implications.
- “So what?” is theoretical, general application. “Now what?” is practical, specific application.
- “So what?” helps people think an issue through. “Now what?” guides them step by step in a realistic plan to be doers of the Word.
- “So what?” questions work in at least two dimensions.
- The first dimension is when: helping the group bridge the gap between when the passage was written (then) and our current situation today (now).
- The second dimension is who: discerning how a passage applies to people in general, to them as individuals, or to them as a group.
Then and Now: One common error in Bible study is to assume that something God told someone to do in 605 B.C. is what God wants each of us to do today. A related error is to assume that God wants us to imitate everything the first Christians did without regard to the differences of situation. These errors overlook the fact that God deals both in timeless principles and in unique situations.
- “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3) is a timeless principle.
- “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household” (Genesis 12:1) is an instruction to a particular person, Abram.
When we get the particular and the timeless confused:
- We may conclude that God wants all men everywhere to be circumcised and all women everywhere to cover their heads.
- We may conclude, like many 19th-century Americans, that because Paul treated slavery as OK in A.D. 50, it was still OK in A.D. 1850.
- We may decide that since God told Joshua to practice genocide against the utterly degenerate Canaanites, then maybe our enemies deserve genocide, and maybe we have been called by God to imitate Joshua.
1. “So what?” questions always begin with what was then. The first “So what?” question should point to the original purpose of the writer or speaker in the passage:
- What do you think Jesus wanted His audience to do in response to this parable?
- What action does Paul tell the Galatians to take?
With a story, it may be more helpful to ask about how the various characters responded to the challenges they faced:
- How did Abram deal with his doubts?
- How did the apostles handle the conflict between the Greek- and Aramaic-speaking believers?
2. Next we look for bridges between then and now by asking how our situation is like and unlike the situation addressed in the passage:
- What conflicts do we face in our ministry? In what ways do they resemble the conflict described in Acts 6? In what ways are they different?
- Do you identify with the Galatians in any ways? In what ways are you similar or different?
As the leader, you should always ask yourself, “How is our situation different?” This question will help you guide the group away from erroneous applications. Joshua’s conquest of Canaan was in many ways a unique situation. The founding of the first Christian community in Jerusalem was also unique in many ways.
3. Finally, with the similarities and differences between then and now in mind, we can ask whether the passage offers any timeless (always) principles, like, “What can we learn about good and poor ways of handling doubt from Abram’s example?”
Principles can include a sin to avoid, a promise to trust, an example to follow, a command to obey, or a truth to believe. It is essential not to generalize a universal principle from a specific situation without careful thought about the differences between then and now.
Sometimes you’ll want to help people apply the passage to their personal lives. At other times, you’ll draw out a group application. Most of the Bible was written not to individuals, but to groups. The “you” in many passages is plural.
Another way of asking, “So what?” is to point people toward listening to the Holy Spirit:
- What do you sense the Holy Spirit is saying to us about how we relate to others in our lives who don’t know Christ?
- What is one key truth from this passage that you sense the Spirit is urging you to embrace?
Set aside 15 minutes at the end of your group meeting to contemplate questions. Pray, asking the Holy Spirit to speak. Then talk, with ears open.
Now What? “So what?” questions are general and ask for relevance. “Now what?” questions are pointed. They ask us to take action.
- How can you put this insight into practice this week?
- What can you do to cultivate this into a habit?
- What will it mean, in practical terms, for you to seek God’s kingdom first this week?
- How can we, as a group, obey Isaiah’s call to a true fast?
Many of your discussions will end with “So what?” questions. It is not a waste of time to help people think and feel more biblically. But sometimes, action is called for.
“Now what?” questions require specific, realistic, and measurable answers.
- Specific means that definite actions, rather than general goals, are specified.
- Realistic means that the person has devised a plan he can reasonably carry out within the limitations of his life, with the power of the Holy Spirit and the help of the group to back him up.
- Measurable means something concrete will be done, and at the end of a month or a year, the shift in the person’s attitudes or actions will be noticeable by an observant outsider. We shouldn’t become obsessed with measuring spiritual growth, since the most important changes are internal and may take time to affect our behavior dramatically, but it is possible to ask ourselves. What can I do to become a significantly more compassionate person by this time next year?
Bear in mind that questions about the future are often more intimate than those about the past or present. Most people don’t talk about their hopes and goals casually. When the group has been together for about six sessions or more, members will find it extremely bonding to begin discussing their hopes for who they want to become and how they plan to pursue their goals. One way of formulating this question is, “In what ways do you want to be different as a result of our studying Philippians?”
Counting the Cost: Jesus told a parable about two sons, in which one son agreed to do what his father asked but then didn’t follow through, while the other balked but eventually obeyed (Matthew 21:28-32 ). People frequently talk about how a passage applies to them but don’t do anything about it after the discussion. One reason for this is that they don’t consider the risks and costs of living the gospel. Jesus urged His followers to count the cost and to be sure they knew what they were getting themselves into before embracing the kingdom of God. Here are some questions you can use when studying a passage that you know asks something difficult, such as turning the other cheek:
- What are the risks of doing what Jesus says here?
- What would it cost you to do that?
- What obstacles hinder you from living that way consistently?
Then, having looked squarely at the downside, invite people to weigh it against the upside:
- What would be the benefits of living like this?
- What would motivate a person to take those risks?
- How can you overcome those obstacles? How can we help?
Not Just the Facts: Application questions provide the potential for spiritual growth. They take us beyond learning facts about a passage of Scripture. We discover how the passage applied to its original readers, how that ancient situation connects with our modern world, and how to do something with what we’ve learned. This process helps us become doers of the Word, not merely hearers, and as the Scriptures promise, such people (and such small groups) “will be blessed in their doing.”
Thanks to Karen Lee-Thorp, Discipleship Journal, July/August 1998 [print_link] [email_link]