Not All Questions Are Equal

What an amazing opportunity we have Sunday after Sunday. God’s people gather to worship the Lord, listen to the preaching of the Word, and then it’s off to Sunday School where we get to teach our young ones the glorious truths of the gospel.

As teachers, we spend the week in preparation, making sure we know the nuances of the passages and the best way to share the lesson. Perhaps we’ve thought of a game to either reinforce the lesson, or to help build vital relationships among the classmates (much more than classmates, but fellow members of the covenant community!). Maybe there are dozens of little shapes that are all cut out and ready to be glued on an activity sheet that will go home and hang on the fridge as a reminder of the Scripture passage. Oh, and prayer. Time has been spent praying for each dear child to understand God’s great love for him or her. Seems like all is ready to go.

Wait…maybe we aren’t ready yet. Questions! Teachers need to have a good list of questions ready to engage the hearts and minds of the children. After all, Jesus asked lots of questions. I mean a whole bunch of them.

So, what kind of questions did he ask? It seems to me if the greatest teacher of all asked questions, it would be good to look to His example. Some of His questions were rhetorical. He asked them to make a point. For example, in Luke 11:11-12, He asks what father would give their child a serpent rather than a fish or a stone instead of an egg. The point: no father would do that! Therefore, God, who is better than earthly fathers, can be trusted to give good gifts.

Other questions he asked were to avoid the traps laid for him by the Pharisees as in Matthew 21:23 where the Pharisees ask by whose authority he is doing these many wondrous things. He answers with a question about John the Baptist. Was John from God or from man? How poignant it is that rather than examining the evidence and the motives of their hearts, they give an answer designed to save face with the crowd of onlookers when they say, “We do not know.”

Probably the most significant questions for us as teachers are the questions Jesus asked to challenge those around him to search their hearts, questions that demanded them to either deny or acknowledge him as Savior and Messiah. Think about Mark 8:27-29. He first asks the disciples a fact question. “Who do men say that I am?” They report the answers they have heard. But then he goes in for the zinger. He asks a question that will reveal what they really believe. The question that will show if they are, in fact, trusting in him as the Messiah. The question that will reveal their hearts. “But who do you say that I am?”

When asking questions in the classroom, it’s fine and good to ask some straightforward content questions. You know, those questions that show if kids are paying attention. Good ol’ who, what, where, when, why questions. Content and context is important. Especially the content of the Bible! We want them to know Moses from Noah, from David, from Paul and to know their Bible facts! But let’s also  make sure to go deeper, helping the children to put pieces together, even allowing for awkward silence as they wrestle to figure things out. We want them to know Jesus!

The other week we were reviewing memory work during our large group time. In the room sat several children, Kindergarten through 5th grade. We had just quoted John 3:16. I asked a fact question. “What does perish mean?” Hands shot up. “Die!” Yes. It means die. So, time for the trick question. It seemed straight forward, but there was nuance to it if one were to answer it correctly. “So, if you believe in Jesus will you die? “No!” responded several children. “Really? You mean you won’t have a funeral?” Children looked at me wide-eyed. We’ve had a lot of funerals at church lately. They knew that people, even people who loved Jesus, did die.  “Well, yes, everyone dies…my grandma died…we went to a cemetery…” I pushed them, “But if the Bible is true, how can it say we will not perish, but have eternal life?” There was silence as they searched how to explain it to me. Suddenly a little girl in 2nd grade shouted out, “I HAVE A SOUL THAT WILL NEVER DIE! MY SOUL IS GOING TO LAST FOREVER!!!!! THE BIBLE TELLS ME SO!!!!” (From the First Catechism, Questions 20 and 21) “Yes!” I exclaimed. The children grinned. You could see it on their faces: these bodies of ours aren’t meant to last, but my soul, well that’s another story! They owned it. They had sat in silence as they sorted through what they had learned, synthesized it, and shouted it out.

Yes, questions are a great teaching tool. But not all questions are created equal. Inviting children to answer questions can lead children to develop a good hermeneutic, or a bad hermeneutic. The kinds of questions Jesus asked challenged his followers to respond to his teachings, to examine their hearts, and to look to HIM! While he did invite people to examine their hearts, he did NOT invite them to search their own hearts to determine the truth for themselves. No. And why not? We know from Jeremiah that “the heart is deceitful above all things (Jer. 17.9).” Instead, His questions directed the listener to remember the Scripture, asking, “Have you not heard?” or “Have you not read?”  These questions directed the listener to remember and apply the Scripture to the current circumstance.

Neither did he invite them to “wonder” about the content of his stories. Many times when Jesus tells the parables, he surprisingly has no questions for the crowd. He leaves them with a, “He who has ears let him hear (Matthew 13:9).” Later he interprets the parables for his close followers, but he does NOT invite them to wonder what the name of the sower might be, or how the seeds laying on the rocky soil felt. He doesn’t invite them to imagine the “what ifs.” Instead, he teaches them how to think about this parable. He wants them to listen and learn. He, the teacher, simply teaches. He passes on His knowledge while the student listens and learns.

When he did ask questions during the parables, it was to help those listening apply the parable. For instance, in Matthew 21 he shares the parable of the vineyard owner whose tenants kill his son. He asks them what they think the vineyard owner will do to the tenants. The crowd answers that the vineyard owner will surely put them to death! Listening in, the chief priest and the Pharisees perceive that he was speaking about them.  They rightly apply the story to their own hearts.

Of utmost importance to Jesus was that his followers understand that the Scriptures point to him. Remember the two followers of Jesus, walking the road on the way to Emmaus after Jesus had risen. They were discussing the events of the past few days, trying to make sense of them. Jesus, whom they do not yet recognize, asks them, “‘Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself (Luke 24:26-27).” All of Scripture points to Jesus. The old story that the answer to every questions in Sunday school class is “Jesus” is not far from the truth. Good questions point the students to Jesus.

Questions that teach a poor hermeneutic invite the student to look within, to imagine, or to use sources other than Scripture to come up with answers. In short, they encourage the student to use extra Biblical thought to understand more about God. Contrast that with questions that help develop a good hermeneutic. These questions direct the student to a greater understanding of God’s Word. They invite the student to interpret Scripture with Scripture. They encourage the hearer to apply the Word to their hearts. Good questions point children to Jesus and their need for Him.

Just learning how to ask questions? Here are some golden standards used by Bible teachers.

  • What does this passage tell us about God?
  • What does this passage tell us about people, or about myself?
  • How does this passage teach us about Jesus and the need for His gospel?
  • How has sin affected the story or circumstance?
  • Is there a command or instruction for us to obey?
  • Is there a truth for me to believe?
  • How can I apply this passage to my life?

Questions! There are all kinds of questions that spark creativity and imagination in our little ones, but we need to be careful with our questions when it comes to understanding the Word of God. We need to have a solid list of biblically informed questions ready to engage the hearts and minds of the children with the gospel, questions that teach that the Bible is our source for truth, rather than our own clever thoughts. After all, not all questions are equal!

Lisa Updike, Director of Children’s Ministries at Covenant Presbyterian in Harrisonburg, VA, has been in love with Jesus since she was a little girl and has always been passionate about sharing the gospel with others. She has extensive ministry experience which includes homeschooling, teaching in Christian Schools, working as a learning disabilities therapist, leading children’s choirs, and spearheading children’s programs in several churches over the last 30 years. Lisa and Kevin have 4 children (3 through adoption).