One of my roles as pastor of student ministries at Community Covenant Church in Santa Barbara, California, is to help young people develop a deep curiosity about God’s Word. To do that, I have learned it is essential to ask good questions.
But what happens if I don’t quite know how to do that well?
Before I read Karen Lee-Thorp’s How to Ask Great Questions, I didn’t realize I was asking questions that didn’t help me achieve my own goals for the group. It turned out, I was focused on head knowledge, as if I expected students to simply regurgitate what I was teaching them as a sign that they understood the text. My small group questions ran along the lines of “Why do you think Jesus said this?” Or “What do you think Paul meant here?” Those questions aren’t bad, but they are focused on an intellectual response.
Lee-Thorp’s approach is transforming the way I lead those discussions. She teaches leaders how to unpack biblical passages and draw participants in deeper—engaging not just the brain, but the heart and gut as well.
“Many of us find that the stories of the Bible sink deeper into our hearts when we let ourselves empathize with the characters,” she writes. “When we feel the leper’s loneliness and despair, then his wonderment at Jesus’s compassionate touch, the story affects us more profoundly than if we simply analyze it.”
Her illustrations of how head knowledge tends to dominate our conversations about the Bible are helping me realize how my questions were reinforcing the idea that intellectual knowledge of Scripture is the only valid approach—completely negating emotional and spiritual understanding. When one is valued over the others, we perpetuate the notion that intellect is the highest form of biblical study.
“So many study groups settle for educating people about God and the Christian life,” Lee-Thorp writes. “Many people don’t believe it’s possible for them—ordinary, full of faults—to become like Jesus.” By focusing on intellectual knowledge, we make the Christian life more about biblical intelligence and less about living like Jesus. My role as a minister is to help people engage with Jesus using their entire selves. That means developing their intellectual, emotional, and spiritual knowledge of the Bible.
Crafting questions that speak to the heart is deepening the spiritual life of small groups at my church. Conversations last longer and invite students to reflect on their own lives in more profound ways. I’ve started asking students, “Imagine you were there when Jesus said this. How would you feel?” And, “What feelings come up for you when you hear Paul saying this?” Shifting my questions has transformed one-word responses into 10-, 15-, 20-minute conversations. After one discussion, a couple of students spent an hour with me talking more in depth about the Bible story we had read that night.
Lee-Thorp’s approach also has implications beyond ministry. Interactions with my wife and close friends are benefiting as I learn how to ask questions that evoke deeper and more profound conversations. I am becoming more aware of how to create opportunities to engage on a holistic level—with the mind, heart, and soul.