The one word answer.
It’s the stuff of dry conversation, and boredom. It makes you feel like you’re 8 years old again, in the middle of a spelling test.
It leads to all of the awkward silences in Bible studies, small groups, holiday family dinners, and let’s face it: trying to drag conversation out of teenagers.
Yes. No. Uh-huh. Jesus. God. Love.
This isn’t a quiz.
The point of conversation is to dive both deep into information, as well as relationship. It’s not reporting data. It’s seeking to understand what that data means.
Especially when leading a group discussion, I try my best to avoid asking questions that set up the 1-word, data-only answer. But then every May, I talk to a high school graduate at our church, and I say, “So, what’s your plan for next year?” They’ve only heard that question 300 times that day, so they’ll give you the quick sum up. This college. That college. The end.
Awkward silence. Where do we go from here?
The same goes for leading a Bible study?
“What’s the name of the person…”
“Who was the king at the time?”
In groups that are really comfortable with each other, you can often get away with opening up the floor: “What did you think of this verse?”
But if not, the silence is deafening.
The Conversation Solution
When I trained to be a tutor for middle schoolers in classical studies, I was introduced to a technique for conversation that was developed by Aristotle. Don’t be scared, it’s super easy, and surprisingly effective.
He developed something called “5 Common Topics.” They are basically 5 categories of questions to get the conversation going. Not just any conversation, but conversation that leads to connecting pieces of information together, and understanding them deeper.
I’ve been using them in class. I use them in Bible study. I’ve actually found that when my kids have their teen friends over, and I’m trying to get to know them, and hit the 1-word wall, I can pull out a 5 common topic question, and all of a sudden they have a ton to say.
It might seem super obvious, but ask a question that defines a term.
How do you think “love” is defined in this passage?
When it says “patience” what does that mean?
Define <insert slang word> for me. I’m old.
Defining terms makes us think. So many words in our language have multiple meanings, and when we get on the same page, it opens up our minds to connect even more.
Pick 2 things, and ask them to compare them. Whether they are in a Bible study passage, or if you’re just hanging out with your kids’ friends. This question also demands that we clarify things we think we know.
So, this passage compares Moses and Jesus. How are they the same? How are they different?
Compare faith and hope. Are they the same thing? How are they different?
Did you like the new Star Wars movie? Was it better or worse than the last one? How?
Think of this as a zoom-out question. Your topic is in the center of a bullseye. Zoom out to the next ring. What’s going on there? Zoom out again. What’s going on there?
In this passage, Paul was in jail. What was going on outside that jail? What was going on in that town? What was going on in that country?
Moses was on Mt. Sinai. What was going on all around him? What was going on in Egypt while he was there? What was going on in Canaan?
Think of this as a cause-effect type of question. How do these 2 things effect each other? What came first? What did that cause?
Jesus rode the donkey as he entered Jerusalem. What happened right before then? What happened right after them? Did one cause the other? Why did it go in that order?
What’s the relationship between Moses and Jesus? Does one serve the other? Who came first?
Did Joshua act differently because of something he saw Moses do? How do you think Moses effected Joshua?
What caused them to blow up in class? Do you think that’s the real reason?
This is a “check your sources” question, but also a time to reiterate what you know to be true.
How do we know that Herod was in power?
Well, what does the rule say?
Have you had any experience in this?
Do you know of any instance where love was shown?
These 5 common topics, or categories for discussion questions have helped me so many times. Not all questions apply to every situation. But when you are in an awkward silence, run through these categories, and find a kind of question that would apply and get the conversation going again.
These questions are designed to connect facts together to make them meaningful, and to put them in context for other people to understand. They often usher in these epiphany moments, when someone in the group, most often whoever is answering the question, understands how things fit together better than before.
If you want a quick download of these questions to hand out to Bible study leaders, or just have on hand for your own uses, I have some printable PDFs available for you to just print off. Sign up for that here.
These questions work great with the Simplicity Bible Study method. I have found that the LTCP method in that post can work in groups, but works best in personal study. The 5 common topic questions can work in person study, as we ask them of ourselves and journal the answers, but really thrive in group discussion.