Words that come in threes can be very powerful. Phrases like “I love you” or “Please forgive me” can change the course of people’s lives. As a Bible study group leader, there is a set of 3 words that I must be comfortable saying to my group members. The three little words can change the culture of my group in a heartbeat. They free me as a group leader, and they liberate the members of my group. What are those powerful 3 words?
“I – don’t – know.”
The words “I don’t know” (if I’m willing to say them and if the people believe my sincerity when saying them) can change your ministry as a group leader faster than just about anything else. I am a Bible study group leader – I lead a group of empty nest adults weekly as we explore the Scripture, talk about how it intersects our lives, and how we can allow God’s Word to transform our hearts, attitudes, and actions. I’ve learned to say “I don’t know,” and guess what? Gravity still works. The sun still comes up. The world doesn”t end. Life goes on. The 3 little words change me and my group, and they’ll change you and your group, too, for the following reasons:
1. I no longer have to be the expert. If I refuse to say “I don’t know” when someone asks a question of me during a Bible study, then I have exalt myself to a place where I have all the answers. I make myself to be the expert guide who has figured out the deep mysteries of God’s Word. I make myself out to be the brilliant teacher whom my group members will never be. But if I am comfortable telling my people, “I don’t know,” then I can step down from my pedestal and sit among my group members as a fellow sojourner, someone who is deeply in love with the Lord and who sometimes struggles to have all the answers my group members need. But that’s ok, because together we can search the Word of God for them, and we can enjoy the journey of transformation together.
2. I no longer have to lecture. True, lecture can be a valid, effective way to teach. But I have a personal conviction that too many of our churches have struggling Sunday Schools or small groups because group leaders lecture way too much. People get turned off by long, boring lectures, and they decide to vote with their feet. Why would teachers choose to lecture all the time, you ask? Because to lecture is to maintain control over the group. I control the pace, I control the flow of information going out to them, I control what questions (if any) we deal with. Control, control, control. If I do what Jesus did, though, and use a wide variety of teaching-learning approaches, I can anticipate that there are going to be rabbit trails and unexpected questions that pop up during a Bible study. Lecture decreases and other methods increase. My sense of control is greatly diminished by this because I have no idea where the group study might go (of course I know what I want them to learn any given time we study together!). But if I am open to teaching in a new way for the sake of the people I lead, and if I trust the Holy Spirit and His sovereignty over my group, and if I trust His ability to lead and guide us into all truth, then I’m perfectly fine not lecturing and allowing spontaneous questions and discussion to surface. I can now guide my people and help them think more deeply and critically about the Word of God and its implications for our lives. But as unexpected questions come up, and if I truly don’t know the answers, I must be comfortable (and willing) to say “I don’t know.” It doesn’t mean I’m stupid, and it doesn’t mean I’m not prepared. I just means I don’t have the right information at the moment – that’s all! I love it when I tell my group, “I don’t know how to answer that question – but I’ll find an answer and get back to you next week.”
3. I no longer have to major on minutia. Saying “I don’t know” means that I don’t have to have the answers to a hundred questions that might be asked during a Bible study. I can focus on what really matters – people! Don’t mishear me on this. I believe we should diligently study God’s Word. I believe we should search the Scriptures and be prepared to lead people in Bible study. But I don’t believe we should spend every waking hour doing so. I don’t believe we should be on such an information hunt during our personal time of study that we neglect meeting the needs of the people in our groups in between our group studies. I don’t have to study, study, study in anticipation of every kind of question that might arise – questions that I naturally want to answer so I don’t look like I’m unprepared or even worse, ignorant. But being comfortable saying “I don’t know” means that I can stick to the central focus of my Bible study, become informed about it and help people engage in active learning, and sidestep unexpected questions until I have time to find the right answer. It gives me time (and I give myself permission) to become the shepherd-leader my group needs, not the fact-giving lecturer they tolerate.
The next time you teach your group, be ready to genuinely say “I don’t know” when you don’t know, and think about changing the way you prepare and lead your group. Make room for those 3 important words!