Welcome to the most uncomfortable part of your small group Bible study. Regardless of how energetic the discussion has been, getting personal will be hard work. Your group may float on the momentum of observation and interpretation like a shiny soap-bubble on a breezy spring day, yet that bubble can pop as soon as you transition to application. Safety and abstraction give no further covering. You’re asking people to reshape their thinking and their lives according to the Word of God, and such requests normally feel uncomfortable.
But don’t shy away from the discomfort! When you discuss the work of God to conform us to the image of Christ, any tension you feel is evidence of progress. When you lead your group through the awkwardness, your courage will be infectious.
Lead the Group in Application
First, apply the text to yourself. A leader who hasn’t already made personal application from the text is like a skinny chef, an unkempt barber, or a disheveled tailor. If the text hasn’t changed you, you’ll have little capital with which to invest in others’ change. In fact, the areas where God’s word has most powerfully affected you will likely be the ones that stand out the most to your group. So, as you plan your study, apply the Bible to your own life. Build such application into your preparation.
Second, ask a general question. In my small group, I usually transition to application with a generic, open-ended question: “How can we apply this text?” On this fishing trip, I wait five seconds before cutting bait. I’m looking for any pointed, clear work of the Spirit, because sometimes God will bring conviction and insight for change to the mind of a group member as we meet. I don’t want to bottle that up, but to allow room for spontaneous eruptions of confession and grace-dependent plans to change.
Third, ask specific questions. This work is hard but good. People don’t often respond to big, broad questions but need help to consider specific applications. To stimulate your preparation, consider the two directions and the three spheres of application. Additionally, consider applications for individuals as well as for the group and/or church/ministry as a whole. You won’t have time to touch on every area of application every week, but make sure that you balance the categories over the weeks and months so the group doesn’t list too much in one direction.
Consider an example. Last week I suggested the following as the main point of Isaiah 25:1-12:
Praise God! He will swallow up death, and He gives us glimpses of that now.
Here are some potential application questions that flow from this main point:
- How could you live as though God will swallow up death? What gets in the way? What glimpses do you now see that can remind you of God’s victory?
- What opportunities do you have to speak about God’s victory over death? To your children? To your neighbors? To your coworkers? How do they view death? What glimpses of God’s victory might they now see?
- If God will swallow up death, how will that affect our approach to risk-taking? What keeps you from taking risks? How can we help each other take God-glorifying risks?
- How can we remind each other that God will swallow up death? To what “now” glimpses can we point?
Here are some final ideas to help you ask better application questions.
- Questions belong to you; conviction belongs to the Holy Spirit. By all means, study, think, and pray in your preparation. But remember you cannot convict sinners of their sin. The Holy Spirit holds this job. Your job is to ask questions that lead to applications of the text and to share how God has changed you through this study. You must labor in faith, knowing that you can plant or water but that God causes the growth. (1 Cor 3:5–9)
- Be specific and personal in your questions. As the members of your group get to know each other, you will start to know where others battle against sin. So, as the moment allows, you can ask specific application questions that tap into the group’s shared history. “Jane, a few weeks ago you mentioned that you often don’t know how to offer hope to your coworkers. Can you think of a way to bring the truth from tonight’s passage to anyone specifically?” Be sensitive to personalities and confidences, but leverage this great benefit of a small group: giving and receiving help in targeted, personal, specific ways.
- Ask honest questions. If you ask a question and it is clear to your group that you are expecting only one correct answer, you’re not encouraging discussion, and the group may feel manipulated. See how the group responds to suggestions, but leave room for the Holy Spirit to push the changes through.
- Connect your application to Jesus. Too often Christians leave Bible studies in a rush of grit and determination rather than a dependence on God’s grace. Though a burst of adrenaline may enable you to push a car for a few feet, that’s no way to cross the country. We need Jesus’ life and death for us all the time, both for forgiveness when we fail and for strength to obey. And as the group leader, this must sink deeply into your heart so you can guard your friends against the let’s-go-do-this-woo-hoo application fever.
What have you found helpful in regard to asking application questions in Bible studies?