Begin with Observation to Get Better Interpretation

In some small-group discussions, people like to leap into discussing what a passage of the Bible or a chapter of a book means to them personally without examining what it says. Such discussions can quickly lose sight of the topic or passage you’re studying. By zeroing in on the details—characters, events, setting, key words, and phrases—we see things in a text that may alter our preconceptions.

It’s not feasible to ask all potential observation questions during a group meeting. Hence, you’ll need to do your own careful observation ahead of time and then select a few key questions that you think will draw out the most important things the group needs to observe in the text. Beyond those, you may find it most economical to state some of your observations on the way to asking an interpretation questions.

When a writer says why something happened, that’s something you observe. When you have to draw your own conclusions about why something happened, that’s an interpretation. Interpretive “why” questions are the meat of a discussion. But let’s begin with observations.

Observation Questions

Journalists learn the five W’s and one H that form the basis of all good reporting: Who? What? When? Where? Why? and How? As you read and reread the text, ask yourself:

  • Who are the characters in the story? Who is the writer of the book? Who are the recipients of the letter?

Make a list of all the people mentioned. If necessary, look up their names in a Bible dictionary so you know who they are and whatever else the Bible says about them.

Make another list of the key words and phrases. Notice the main nouns. Notice the verbs. Notice words that are repeated—writers often repeat words that are central to the point they want to make. Synonyms are a form of repetition. Ask yourself:

  • What are the most important words and phrases in the passage? What are the main events? What action verbs are used? What happens to whom?

Interpretation Questions

Sometimes the meaning of a passage or story is obvious, but often we need to dig for it. Batting around possible interpretations of a key sentence or the possible explanations for a character’s behavior is part of the fun of discussing the text. There are many types of interpretation questions used to draw out the “why.”

  • What does it mean?

  • How is it significant?

  • What’s the point?

  • How are they alike? How are they different?

  • What’s the cause? What’s the result?

Let’s take a closer look at the comparison questions how are they alike and how are they different ?

Like repetition and key words, comparison and contrast are important clues to the meaning of a story or argument. You can invite the group to find these in a wide-open way by asking, for example:

  • What comparisons does Paul make in this passage?

  • What contrasts do you observe in this story?

Or you can focus your questions more precisely to give the group some help, such as:

  • What are all the differences between flesh and spirit that Paul mentions here?

  • How is Mary’s response to the angel different from Zechariah’s?

  • What is similar about the way Jesus deals with each of these people?

These are just a few tips from How to Ask Great Questions : Guide Discussion, Build Relationships, Deepen Faith by Karen Lee-Thorpe. This Bible study resource is ideal for small-group leaders, Sunday school teachers, and anyone who regularly leads group discussions or committee meetings.