Small Group Insights: Closed Questions vs Open Questions


If you’ve used material from Bible Studies for Life this fall, you understand that things have changed in a major way compared to recent years. But you may not have noticed all the subtle shifts and tweaks that separate Bible Studies for Life from other curriculum options. More important, you may not understand why we made those changes in the first place.

I’d like to help. In the months to come, I will post a number of “behind the scenes” articles that help explain the main features of the re-launched Bible Studies for Life — and why those features make our material ideally suited for group learning and transformation.

To get started, let’s talk about questions.

Open and Closed

As a former editor of, I’ve reviewed a lot of curriculum over the years. Unfortunately, most of the resources I’ve seen include discussion questions that don’t actually spark discussion.

These studies typically include a lot of “closed” questions that only have one correct answer, such as: “What did Jesus say is the greatest commandment?” They also include a high number of questions that revolve around intellectual information—the goal is to help people learn a definition or regurgitate a principle rather than actually wrestling with the core themes of God’s Word.

These questions are more than frustrating in a group experience because they cause a lot of awkward, extended silence. I’m sure you’ve been there. The leader asks a question and then waits, uncomfortably, while group members look around at each other and try to figure out what to say. Then one person blurts out the “right” answer, and everyone moves on.

Who needs that?

That’s why Bible Studies for Life only features questions that are lovingly crafted to create conversations. We use questions that are open-ended, which means they have more than one answer. We use questions that help people explore their emotions and express themselves in ways beyond intellectual information. We use questions that focus on application in addition to intellectual understanding. And we use questions that give people a chance to tell their stories.

See What I Mean

Here’s a quick example of the difference between good and bad discussion questions. In Session 3 of “When Relationships Collide,” we study Abram’s confrontation with Lot in Genesis 13. Part of the study highlights Abram’s actions in vv. 8-9:

Then Abram said to Lot, “Please, let’s not have quarreling between you and me, or between your herdsmen and my herdsmen, since we are relatives. Isn’t the whole land before you? Separate from me: if you go to the left, I will go to the right; if you go to the right, I will go to the left” (HCSB).

Here are the kinds of questions you might expect to see in a typical curriculum resource. You’ve probably seen similar queries in a number of studies:

  • “How did Abram avoid conflict with Lot?”
  • “How did Abram demonstrate unselfishness in this situation?”
  • “What principles for conflict resolution are present in these verses?”
  • “Why did Abram choose to resolve the conflict in this way?”

The point of these questions (and many others like them) is to help people interact with the text—which is a noble goal. The problem is that most of these questions are closed; they only have one answer, which is a major buzzkill for group discussion. The only question that isn’t closed (“Why did Abram choose…”) is one that can’t be answered because the text doesn’t tell us what Abram was thinking.

Now, here’s the question we used for these verses in Bible Studies for Life: “What keeps us from approaching conflict the way Abram did?”

Notice how this question is open—it doesn’t have a “right” answer, which means discussion is possible. The question also encourages personal reflection; it makes us think about our actions and attitudes. It also offers group members a chance to tell a story: “Just last year my neighbor threatened to sue me because my fence was two inches over his property line, and I….” Finally, this question is bursting with opportunities to apply and obey the principles embedded in the verses, rather than just identify them.

In short, questions like these burst the doors wide open for group members who want to experience meaningful, life-changing conversations.

samSam O’Neal is Content Editor of adult resources with Bible Studies for Life. He has a passion for seeing discipleship and full-bodied Christian education done right in the local church. The author of several books, including The Field Guide for Small Group Leaders, Sam also serves as the Bible Expert for



  1. Betty Bell says:

    Yes, open questions are lots better than closed questions. BUT among all of the resources available in the previous curriculum there were LOTS of alternative questions, many of which were open questions. Then we could choose, under the leadership of the Holy Spirit, which ones would be most helpful for our group. Now, there are VERY limited questions, many of which are not helpful at all. For example, this week, the suggested opening question is “How far are you willing to go to get your own way?” In my very diverse group of ladies, that would be guaranteed to get a lot of silence. It sounds as though we are asking for confession time right at the beginning of the exploration of Biblical truth. Not a good way to engage.

    If you wanted to explore that topic to engage the learners, a better way would be, “How far have you seen someone go to get his or her own way?” With prayerful preparation, the Holy Spirit will do the transition of convicting individuals of similar actions they have done.

    There are lots of other similar examples. Please give MUCH MORE thought into the suggested questions. I finally have found some “possible alternative questions” on the website after MUCH looking. Please publish those in the teacher’s guide instead of just making it a duplicate of the learner’s guide.

    • James Jackson says:

      Thanks, Betty, for the comments and suggestions. I hope you will continue to see this website as a place where you can suggest alternative questions and teaching ideas. We very much want this to be a forum for users of the material to dialogue with each other.

  2. bible studies for life extra, I used to be able to use this for starting discussions in my small group. Now I can’t even find the thing!

    • Extras are now located at Once there you can use the search tool to find things quickly or you can use the dropdown to find by age level or topic.

  3. Rev. Carl Connelly says:

    I have been using Bible Studies for Life for many years now. I have always taught adults as I am currently. I have like this series until the changes that were made. I always have taught using discussion questions to bring in those whom I taught. This new change in the way the lesson is set up to the Leaders Guide to help, has lost a lot of the questions that I used. There are two other adult classes in my church that use this same series and they do not like the change either. I have talked with some other pastors and church SS teachers that have told me the same thing. The only thing that I like about it is the binding. The books don’t come apart during a quarter. Please consider going back to the old format for this series. There was nothing wrong in the way it was written or designed for teaching. I don’t desire to change to Explore the Bible Series but I may have to make a switch.

    • James Jackson says:

      Hello Rev. Connelly. Thanks for your comments. I understand why a lot of leaders are missing the additional discussion questions in the new format. One of our goals for the new format was to make it as easy as possible for a leader to lead a small group. One of the complaints we got in the previous version of the material was that we gave too many questions, and people felt they couldn’t possibly deal with all the questions in the given amount of time. For that reason, we narrowed down the number of questions, and have spent more time in crafting five great questions. Our number one goal is to connect the unconnected: to help churches get people who have not been involved in small groups to become involved. We know that there is a pretty wide gap between worship attendance and small group attendance. Many of those who are not part of a small group are new Christians and non-Christians. We want to help close that gap. So while the material is deeply rooted in Scripture, we move pretty quickly from “this is what the Bible says and means” to “let’s talk about the difference this makes in your life.” For groups that are accustomed to a lot of heavy exegesis without a lot of application, it may come across as “dumbed down.” But information without application leads to stagnation.
      I hope this helps. Blessings!

      • Betty Bell says:

        You are missing the point of Rev. Connelly’s comments. I have people come into my class who have been in church all of their lives and I also have some come who have never been in church before and don’t own a Bible (usually Mothers of bus children). With both and with everyone in between the emphasis has always been on “What difference does this passage make in my life.” But with a wide variety of questions, NOT JUST FIVE in the learner’s guide with the same 5 in the teacher’s guide and the same five in the Young Adult and Senior Adult helps on the CD we can prayerfully select the open-ended questions that will help our learners apply the passage. Occasionally there will be a couple of alternative questions in the blog. Put a whole lot more there or somewhere. The teachers who want the lesson planned out for them with have the five questions and those of us who want to spend time individualizing a teaching plan for are specific learners with have help in doing so. We teach individuals, not material. Give us variety that we can fit to our individuals!

        • Lynn Pryor says:

          Betty, I applaud your desire to make the Bible study fit the individuals in your class. Of course, no one can do that better than you; no one on the Bible Studies for Life team knows the individuals in your group like you. Bible Studies for Life chose to limit the number of questions to five, but we seek to craft those questions in a way that will connect with all members of a group. Nevertheless, the strength of those questions will come out as leaders adapt them to their particular group.

          Right now there are no plans to create an additional list of questions from which to choose. However, the Small Group Member Book has quite a few more questions In the leader guide section. (Bible Studies for Life is available as ongoing curriculum and as individual six-week studies.)

  4. Judy W. Smith says:

    Although I am 67 years old, I am not yet in my second childhood. That was my immediate reaction, however, when I picked up the Bible Studies for Life book. “What? Am I back in the fourth grade,” I thought. I did not think it was possible for the Sunday School literature to get any more “dumbed down” than it has been for too many years, but I was wrong.

    Please! Won’t someone at LifeWay listen to the cries of those of us who want the meat of the word and not the milk. Please don’t refer me to the so-called “advanced” literature. I sampled that.

    I am a senior citizen, yes, and I’ve pretty well worked out how to live life.

    • James Jackson says:

      Thank you, Judy, for your comments. I’m sorry you feel that the new material is dumbed down for those who want deeper Bible study. I understand that as a senior adult, you feel like you have life “pretty well worked out.” However, our number one goal for Bible Studies for Life is to connect the unconnected: to help churches get people who have not been involved in small groups to become involved. Whether your church calls them Sunday School classes or small groups, we know that there is a pretty wide gap between worship attendance and small group attendance. Many of those who are not part of a small group are new Christians and non-Christians. We want to help close that gap. So while the material is deeply rooted in Scripture, we move pretty quickly from “this is what the Bible says and means” to “let’s talk about the difference this makes in your life.” For groups that are accustomed to a lot of heavy exegesis without a lot of application, it may come across as “dumbed down.” But information without application leads to stagnation.

      We understand this approach is not for everybody. If you like, you can email me at, and we can have some conversation about other curriculum that may meet the needs of your group better than Bible Studies for Life. You can also watch this video to get an overview of some of the other options LifeWay offers. Blessings!

  5. 2 things for Personal Study Guide:
    1. Please consider dating bottom margins as you did Explore Bible series, much easier for students to find current lesson.
    2. Please consider breaking the scripture up as you do Explore Bible series instead of having it all one page at beginning of lesson. My students are not going to flip pages……I teach Young Adults 22-35. We just moved from Explore Bible to Bible Studies for Life and so far so good.

    • James Jackson says:

      Hello Susan– thanks for your suggestions, and also for the good word about how your young adults are responding to the new format.

      We made the decision early on that these would be “one point” sessions. Again, this was in response to what we were hearing from users who said they never had time to get through three points. Therefore, we put all the Scripture on one page, in order to reinforce that we were making one point, not three. While we know that this is making group members flip back and forth, we are also hearing from people who are happy that the change is causing people in their groups to follow along in their Bibles rather than in a lesson book. There’s been a contingent that has wished we would remove the Scripture from the books altogether, in order to get their group members into the Word. So, the decision to put the entire passage on one page hopefully finds some middle ground between those groups.

      As to dates on the sessions, this is a nod to the small group audience that doesn’t always follow the calendar that Sunday School classes do. However, I can also say that I have been part of “traditional” Sunday School class all my life, and nobody hits every date for every session 100% of the time. Sometimes discussion goes longer and you continue a session over two weeks. Sometimes groups do something special on fifth Sundays. Whatever the reasons, I am now part of a class in which the teacher has simply learned to say “We’re on Session 4 on page 56″ instead of “We’re on September 29.” It took a little getting used to, but it’s been a pretty easy adjustment.

      I hope this helps at least understand why we did it the way we did it. Blessings!


  1. […] Note: this post is second in a series on the different features of Bible Studies for Life that make it ideally suited for group learning and transformation. The first post focused on Closed Questions vs. Open Questions. […]

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