Change Your Boring Bible studies into Exciting Times of
Cell Church Magazine
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.
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
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.
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 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.
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.
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
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:
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
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.
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.