A discussion class is quite popular with some people, especially the younger generation and baby boomers. While a discussion class can be a useful period of time for Bible study, there are pitfalls to avoid. Before one decides upon a discussion class format versus other formats, one should ask: "What is my goal in this class?" If your goal is to share technical information, a discussion class may be inappropriate. If your goal is to spark a dialogue between certain individuals, a discussion class may be helpful.
The following pitfalls might apply to a discussion class to various degrees depending upon the desired goal of the class. If the goal of a class is to get people to express their problems or hurts, to get to know one another, or to ask questions, the following pitfalls may not be important. If one's goal in a class is directed more toward transmitting information, the following pitfalls are more likely to be a real danger.
(1) Lack of preparation by the teacher. If a teacher has not prepared well, a discussion class format can be a way of covering up for this. If a person is skillful in getting people to speak up, the time allotted for a class can be eaten up quickly by a continuous flow of comments from various class participants.
(2) Lack of genuine discussion. Listen to the conversations of most people in ordinary settings. Ego-speak is overwhelming. Most people can hardly wait for the other person to shut up so that they can say what is important to them. "I did this," John says. "I did that," Jane replies. John is not really listening to Jane any more than Jane is listening to John, since they are either speaking about themselves or planning ahead what they are going to say about themselves. The same thing can happen in a Sunday school discussion class. "I believe this," John says. "I believe that," Jane replies. And few people are listening to what the other person thinks or believes, because they are planning out what they are going to say, or what they would say if they dared to speak up.
(3) Lack of real Bible study or Christian training. A discussion class can easily became, to use a common description, a "pooling of ignorance." The teacher says what he "thinks." Various class participants say what they "think." Nothing new is learned. Old thoughts may be restated. Old truths might be reinforced, but careful examination of the Bible itself is unlikely.
(4) An unsuitable classroom setting. A discussion class can work well in a smaller room, especially if people can see one another's faces due to a circular or semi-circular arrangement of seats. A good discussion class in an auditorium is unlikely, though. People are dispersed in their seating and feel distant from one another. Comments from class members may be hard for others to hear.
(5) A promotion of relativism. Maybe more important than any of the above pitfalls, discussion classes can easily become a tool of relativism via existentialism. The discussion format can be a subtle attack on the existence of absolute truth. A survey asked American adults: "Is there absolute truth?" Sixty-six percent responded: "There is no such thing as absolute truth; different people can define truth in conflicting ways and still be correct." For those between the ages of 18 and 25 the number was seventy-two percent! (Walt Russell, "What It Means to Me," Christianity Today, 26 October 1992, 30).
What does a discussion class format have to do with this? Possibly nothing, but do not many discussion classes become a matter of scanning a text of scripture and having a "teacher" ask: "What does this verse mean to you?" Virtually no linguistic, grammatical, historical, or contextual study is given to the text. The class immediately leaps from a brief "study" of the passage to a possible significance of the passage in each person's life.
A caricature of this sort of Bible study is found in the following captions from a Christianity Today cartoon:
Teacher: "So Paul says in verse 14 that, because of his chains, others have been encouraged. What do you think he means?"
Student # 1: "Oh, I know. Paul's writing a letter, right? So this is a chain letter, like the one I just got!"
Student #2: "No, no, you're missing the point! I'm a chain smoker, and God is speaking to me through this to tell me I am to encourage other chain smokers!"
Student #3: "Well, it reminds me of that Aretha Franklin song, 'Chain of Fools'. Maybe Paul means we're fools for Christ!"
Teacher: "Um...Those are...very interesting insights....But do you think Paul could simply be referring to his prison chains, in Rome?"
Student #2: "I told you this Bible study wasn't about practical living."
I remember a discussion class where the text for "study" was the "you are the salt of the earth" statement of Jesus (Mt. 5:13). Real contextual examples of first century use of salt for flavoring or preservation were quickly passed over for a lengthy perusal of modern usages of salt. The class discussed the use of salt to melt snow and ice on the highways. One student shared an "insight" about the greater relative beauty of salt water fish over fresh water fish.
The class was really excited as someone reminded us of salt being used to make homemade ice cream! Other uses of salt were offered. The teacher kept the discussion moving. He paced the floor. Many people participated. Hands were being raised. It was lively. It was interesting. The teacher kept saying: "Keep firing those ideas. You make the connection. I am not going to explain how all of these apply." Most people left thinking it was a good Bible class. But at the end of the class, I told the person sitting next to me: "You have just seen an example of how not to do exegesis of the Bible."
What Jesus meant by "you are the salt of the earth" was anything and everything, depending on the context of each class participant's experience. The shift from the author's intent (Jesus and Matthew) to the reader's perception as a standard of what a text means is common in our culture. The question usually asked is: "What does this text mean to you?" Russell's article, noted above, says our question should be: "What does this text mean?" There is only one meaning of a text, and the meaning is what the original author intended for it to mean.
While an unkind, unloving, rigid dogmatism is not desirable, neither is a flexible relativism where a text means several different things to different individuals. If the felt needs of discussion class members become the context by which a text is interpreted, then the original biblical context will be obscured. Russell concludes: "We find few contextual safeguards in this land of `what-it-means-to-me' and probably very little of God's voice" (Ibid., 32).
What guidelines can help to make discussion classes more profitable? A teacher must prepare. Even if the students do not prepare, a teacher must. If a teacher has prepared well, a discussion can result which is either preceded by or interspersed with meaningful direction from the teacher. Otherwise the class will profit little. Students must either prepare ahead of time or be prodded to study during the class. They must be given information to think about and be guided in logical thinking. Otherwise they will "pool their ignorance" or use up class time in ego-speak.
A reinforcement of relativism can be avoided by a teacher who kindly reminds the class that there is only one meaning of a text and that meaning is what the original author intended for it to mean (see Walter C. Kaiser, Jr. Toward An Exegetical Theology [Baker, 1981] 24-34, 88, 106-14, 246). The one and only meaning must be sought out by diligent study. Then, and only then, can a useful discussion of "how does the passage apply to you" result. While there is only one meaning of a passage of scripture, there may be a wide variety of situations, problems, or issues to which application of the passage is relevant.
A good discussion Bible class teacher will guide the class toward an understanding on the meaning of the text, and then be prepared to help the class explore relevant applications of the truth of the text. If Bible study is your goal, a discussion class can work, but only if it is handled properly.