Have you heard the one about the Sunday school teacher and the koala?
The teacher asked her class, “What’s grey, furry, and lives in Australia?”
As the class returned blank looks, the teacher prompted with, “It lives in trees and eats eucalyptus leaves. Does anyone know what it might be?”
At last one brave kindergartener put up her hand and offered, “It sounds like a koala, but I know the answer must be Jesus.”
Predictable answers to predictable questions
It’s a common joke among Christians that the answer to any question is either "God", "Jesus", or "The Bible", and like any good joke, the humour is found in its uncomfortable truth.
The reason children’s answers tend to be so predictable is because as their teachers, we tend to ask predictable questions. When we only ask the most basic comprehension question, and when the Big Idea of every lesson is ‘Jesus’, then it is understandable that this is the only answer our students know how to give.
However, this type of lesson with these types of questions sell our children short. The children in our groups are capable of a much deeper engagement with the biblical text and its application to their everyday lives than we often allow for in our lessons.
We need to practice asking better questions.
Ask more open questions
The majority of children are motivated by a combination of two principles: they want to be right, and they want to please their teacher. Therefore, most children will give the answer that they think we want to hear.
When we ask a closed comprehension question, there is generally only one correct answer. For example, “Who was in the boat with Jesus?”, “What was Jesus doing?”, “What did Jesus say to the storm?”, or “Who’s the only one who can save us from sin and death?”.
Comprehension questions are valuable for evaluating the listening and retention of the students. However, they are limited in a number of ways. Generally, only one child gets to be ‘right’, which limits the number of responses and engagement by other children. Additionally, the child will generally give you the answer they think you want to hear, which is not necessarily an indication of what they actually know and believe.
By asking more open questions, we are able to engage more students in the conversation and we can begin to explore what they genuinely think, feel and believe.
Some examples of these kind of questions that you could use with Mark 4:35-41/Luke 8:22-25 include:
Why do you think Jesus didn’t wake up during the storm?
What did the disciples already know about Jesus?
I wonder what the people in the other boats were thinking?
If this were true, how might your life be different?
Provide ‘wait time’
What’s the driving force in your lesson? Is it to get through the allotted curriculum in the time given? Or is it that students genuinely engage with, learn and are shaped by the content of the lesson?
If we’re primarily concerned with getting through the content in a particular set time, then we will ask simple comprehension questions, take the first hand up (thank you Pastor’s Kid!), and then move on to our next point.
However, if we are primarily concerned with child engagement, then we’re going to ask questions very differently. We will ask open and imaginative questions as above. But we will also allow the children time to think and ponder, before asking them to respond.
Research has shown that by giving five seconds of ‘wait time’ before asking children to respond increases the length of student responses, the number of responses by slow learners, and more questions asked back by the students . In other words, we get better engagement and better answers from students if they are allowed to think about their answers, rather than spitting out the first thing that comes to their mind.
Listen to the answers
While visiting a church youth group one evening, I sat in on one of the small group Bible studies. The young leader was going through the questions that had been prepared for him and was doing an admirable job engaging a bunch of 13-14 year old high school boys.
As we got towards the end of the study, the leader asked a fairly typical youth group question, “So, how do we become friends with God?”, to which one of the boys gave a typical youth group answer, “By trusting in Jesus”.
So far, so good. The leader, having heard the response he was looking for, then looked down to his notes to find out what the next question was that he was expected to ask. However, the student hadn’t finished talking and went on to say, “…and by trying really hard to be good.” The leader, having now disengaged from the student, gave some affirming sounds and nods, while continuing to read his notes.
Once again, the leader’s main priority had been to get through the material in the allotted time. Because of this, he ended up (unknowingly) affirming for this student that our relationship with Jesus is both grace through faith and by good works. If he had slowed down and given his full attention to the student’s answer, he would likely have picked up on, and been able to refine the youth’s understanding of salvation.
If we are asking good questions, and we are motivated primarily by student engagement and formation, then we are going to stop and genuinely listen to the answer given.
This does three simple but profound things:
We show that we value the child and their contribution to the class.
We hear all that they are saying.
We can engage with the student’s response, building upon it and affirming or correcting where necessary.
Getting beyond "God", "Jesus", "the Bible"
Yes! "God", "Jesus" and "the Bible" are three of the most important topics that we will be teaching in youth and children’s ministry, and SRE. But, how do we get better answers from our students? Quite simply, we need to be asking better questions.
Ask open, imaginative questions, wait for a response and genuinely listen to the answers given. This will allow students a much deeper engagement with our lessons, will go further in forming their faith, and will give us a better understanding of what they genuinely think, feel and believe.
This article is based on training offered by your Ministry Support team. Contact us If you would like your children’s, youth, or SRE team to be better trained ministry.
 Richard Feynman, cited in Paris S. Strom and Robert D. Strom (2013) Thinking in Childhood and Adolescence, (Greenwich, US; Information Age Pub.), p.252.