Through the years, I have led and participated in hundreds of small group discussions that have followed a similar pattern: The group reads a passage of scripture, and then participants in the group take turns making observations about the passage, aided by questions that the leader has prepared ahead of time. This standard format has been used by countless small group leaders, and when done well, can be used to great effect. A few years ago, I came across an interview with a pastor (I think it was Earl Palmer) that has started to change how I lead small group Bible studies.
In the interview, the pastor was asked how, after so many years of preaching, he was still able to come up with new material for sermons. He said that whenever he prepares to preach on a passage, he “peppers” the text with questions. He explained that after reading the text, he writes down any question he can think of about the passage, and that somewhere in that list of questions is a sermon idea. I liked this as soon as I heard it, and began trying to adopt it into my own study routines. I discovered that forcing myself to ask questions about a passage helped me get beyond my first impressions and assumptions about the text. Asking a lot of questions also helped me to notice things in the passage I had never seen before. As I asked more and more questions, many of which I did not know the answers to, an interesting thing happened: I gained more appreciation for the scriptures I was studying.
After using this method for awhile in my personal studies, I decided to try it in a small group setting: a Bible study I led consisting of about fifteen high school students. We read a passage of scripture together, maybe ten verses or so, and I gave them this task: “Ask any question you can think of regarding what we just read, and I will write it down on the flip chart. Ask until you can’t think of any more questions. No question is too basic.” The response was slow at first as the group struggled to understand what I was looking for, but after a few minutes, the group had come up with about thirty questions. Some were quite basic, but most were great questions, and a few were truly insightful. In our meeting, we did not have the time to discuss even half of the questions the group had posed, but we picked out a few questions and had a great dialogue trying to answer them. “Peppering it” had engaged the students in the passage, and had set the table for me to teach them God’s Word. It had worked.
I have a few thoughts on why it worked. First, instead of asking the students to share their observations, I had asked them to be curious. There was no pressure to know something about the passage. The virtue instead was in NOT knowing. It evened the playing field for the group, allowing everyone to participate. Second, the quantity and depth of the questions surprised everybody in the room. We were amazed by how much we didn’t know about the passage. This had the same effect in a small group that it had in my personal study: it increased the students’ appreciation for the Bible itself. Third, the gap that the questions created in the students’ knowledge increased their appetite for the teaching that I had prepared. After working hard to prepare a lesson to hopefully transform others, who of us wouldn’t want an engaged and hungry group, whose curiosity and interest have been peeked, positioned to received God’s truth for their lives.
I wrote at the beginning that this has started to change the way I lead small group Bible studies. I still use other formats but I use the “pepper it” method consistently in settings raging from our family devotions to our area leadership meetings. It is something I have enjoyed working on and getting better at because it has helped those I lead interact with God’s word in a more meaningful way, and by that, to come to know Jesus Christ better.
Have you ever led a Bible study using a similar method? What was the response? What obstacles need to be overcome in order for this to work?