student ministry, youth ministry, small groups, leading discussions

Give Students a Voice without Losing Control of Discussion

By Guest Contributor September 4, 2014

By: Phil Bell 

As leaders, we all want students to “get it” and to apply God’s truth to their lives. Sometimes the answer is so obvious to us, but no matter how hard we try to drum it into their heads, they just don’t seem to get it! The truth is, we can’t make them get it. Instead, it’s our job to lead and help them get it. So it’s time to step out of the spotlight and hand the microphone over to your students. What’s the best way to do this without losing control of the dialogue?

I tell my volunteers, “Don’t just preach it—let good questions help you teach it.”

Why questions? Above anything else, the adolescent brain desires autonomy. We can’t expect that they will arrive at good conclusions by simply telling them the right answers. Yes, Millennial’s will give time to listen to adults, but they still need to feel like they are a part of the learning process. This is why it is important to ask good questions within a biblical framework (not simply a student’s opinion).

Think of it this way: Imagine you’re leading a group of hikers across a swift river. You can’t just carry each hiker across—their combined weight is too heavy, and you’ll likely lose a few on the way. But you also shouldn’t leave inexperienced hikers to cross on their own or they’ll get washed downstream. Your best option is to guide each hiker across, letting them use their own legs, but offering a shoulder to lean on and a hand to catch them if they slip. In other words, use questions to subtly guide dialogue, and be prepared to push back gently if the conversation starts veering off-course.

Here are a few ways questions will help you lead students without carrying them:

1. Ownership. When we ask good questions, we include students in a process and learning experience. As they think, struggle through, and come to answers, they are expressing their autonomy. However, the ownership factor is even more important. An honest and thoughtful answer from a student can mean more than any well-crafted message or teaching. Even if a student has to struggle to get to the final answer, it’s more likely to stick with them because the process has helped them own it. Ownership is key!

2. Critical Thinking. When we spoon feed students the answers, we are not allowing their brains to exercise critical thinking. Ever meet students who agree quickly that they’ve made a poor decision, yet continue making similar mistakes again and again? It’s quite possible that their brains have not developed channels of thinking to consider the consequences. When you and I ask good questions, we are helping students develop patterns of critical thinking. (See this article by the NEA for information about critical thinking and brain development.)

3. Community. Good questions in a small group setting can be one of the best ways to connect students with one another. Good questions can get the whole group involved and give opportunities for students to hear other points of view or to be affirmed. Ultimately, you will see a greater sense of community when they talk and you listen.

4. Partnering with the Holy Spirit. I firmly believe that the Holy Spirit works through questions just as much as when we preach to students. Just look at how many times Jesus asked his disciples questions and gave them critical issues to talk through. Again, when we ask good questions within a biblical framework, we are partnering with the Holy Spirit. In my opinion, it is somewhat shortsighted for any of us to say, “I just preach it and leave it to the Holy Spirit.” I prefer to say, “I preach it and my questions partner with the Holy Spirit to continue teaching it.”

The bottom line is, we can preach it, but good questions help students to own itbelieve it, and ultimately live it.

About the Author

Guest Contributor

The LeaderTreks Blog is proud to share the hard-earned wisdom of student ministry leaders from many different backgrounds and professions. From time to time, we will feature guest blog posts from writers other than our regular contributors. We include these posts to provide additional perspectives and insight that we’re sure will help develop you and your ministry…  Read More