Seven Suggestions For Handling Controversial Topics In Small Group Studies
by Stephen Witmer

Leading a small group Bible study is a complex and demanding task. Leaders must be skilled in understanding the meaning of the Bible passage and applying it to the lives of those in their group. More than that, they must aim to engage the hearts and stir the affections of those they lead. And this is all meant to happen in the context of a group discussion, a conversation in which each member is invited to contribute something. That’s a lot of things happening all at once! Small group leading requires an ability to interact with people of all types, backgrounds, personalities, and levels of Bible knowledge and spiritual maturity, and to encourage, redirect, affirm, or disagree, as needed, all in real time. In the small group setting, we really never know what’s going to happen next. That’s the excitement (and terror) of small group leading. It’s kind of like piloting an airplane and inviting all the passengers (our small group members) to enter the cockpit and take a turn at the controls ­– all while not crashing and aiming to arrive safely at our desired location. This means that, while our main goal as small group leaders is to convey God’s grace, our main need as small group leaders is to experience God’s grace. We need his empowering grace to lead well, and his forgiving grace when we don’t. Small group leaders are major consumers of grace.

Complicating the already-complex task of small group leading is the assured reality that sensitive and controversial topics will arise in the course of our discussions. Those in our groups will raise sensitive matters of politics, theology, religion, social issues, and sexual ethics. They may even launch critiques of our church. How will we deal with these topics when they come up? I’ll offer here seven suggestions. The first three concern how we teach in our small groups; the last four concern how we respond when controversial issues surface.
1. Ask for the help of the Holy Spirit
All too often, we enter ministry situations relying on our own wisdom, strength, insight, and skill. This results either in pride (because we’re confident in our abilities) or fear (because we’re not). 1 Peter 4.10-11 points us in a better direction: ‘As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks the oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies – in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ.’ We’re to steward grace and to serve in God’s strength. So, let’s regularly ask for his help.
2. Cherish biblical truth
We can model glad submission to biblical authority in the ways we lead our small groups. The best way to do this is by consistently ensuring that the main point of the study we’re leading is the main point of the Bible passage we’re studying. We can also teach and model for our groups that it’s always good news to live as the Bible directs. We can share stories from our own lives of how God has blessed us when we obeyed him (or disciplined us when we didn’t). We can talk about how life works better when we obey God. We will also cherish biblical truth by addressing hot-button issues as they arise in the course of our study. If we’re teaching on Romans 1, we should talk about homosexuality. If we’re teaching on Ephesians 5 or 1 Timothy 2, we should discuss male/female roles in the home and church. Since all of God’s truth is good news, we needn’t fear discussing any of it.
3. Model gospel humility and charity in presenting biblical truth

When I preached a sermon series on marriage and sexuality several years ago, I was reminded of the importance of proclaiming biblical truth and modeling gospel humility and love. We convey the gospel through awareness of our own sin, our own need for grace, and our glad extending of grace to others. We convey love through our willingness to speak, but also through our willingness to listen and learn. When we address controversial topics, we’re dealing not just with ideas but with real people. So, we should listen carefully to hear the struggles and difficulties they face. We should seek to understand those we disagree with and to present their views fairly, never caricaturing, exaggerating, or mischaracterizing. We should speak with a tone of respect (not disdain) when we disagree.

Those are three suggestions for teaching controversial topics in our small groups. But how can we most helpfully respond when others raise them?
4. Study the Bible and grow in your thinking about important issues

If we’re to help people in our groups engage productively with controversial issues, it’s important to have thought about the issues beforehand and have a biblically-informed view. We can do this by seeking to:

  • Read the Bible every day, sometimes with the help of a good study Bible or one-volume Bible commentary (I recommend the New Bible Commentary)
  • Study particular topics (g., homosexuality, transgender, immigration, other religions, divorce/remarriage)
  • Bookmark and regularly visit websites such as The Gospel Coalition and Desiring God to develop our Christian worldview
  • Read good Christian books (Sam Allberry’s Is God Anti-Gay? Andrew Walker’s God and the Transgender Debate)
  • Listen to podcasts (Ask Pastor John from Desiring God is particularly helpful).
5. Choose wisely when to engage with a controversial comment from your group

One of our jobs as leaders is to guide people through the study we’ve prepared, which means we can’t possibly address every single issue that is raised along the way. We shouldn’t feel guilty about not saying everything about everything. But sometimes we should respond. Here are some diagnostic questions to help us know when to engage with the issues raised in our group:

  • How significant is the mistaken view that’s been shared? If it’s heresy, or clearly wrong, or seriously offensive to others, we should respond.
  • Is it something we personally disagree with (g., mushrooms are delicious), or something the Bible disagrees with (e.g., sex outside the marriage covenant is okay)? If the latter, we should respond.
  • How confidently did the person say it? Was it a bold assertion or a meek question? This will shape the content and nature of our response.
  • Will not responding produce confusion or hurt among other group members? We undercut our profession of the Bible’s truth and authority if we consistently ignore badly mistaken comments with a friendly smile. That communicates that we think unbiblical views are no big deal, that it’s more important to get along and not offend others than to cherish biblical truth.
  • What’s the motivation of the person raising the issue? Are they coming from a place of personal hurt or confusion? Are they trying to stir up controversy? Or do they have a genuine question? Are they arguing for their position or simply assuming it? We need to engage each person pastorally.
  • Do we have a clear, helpful, immediate answer to the question or issue that has been raised? If we don’t know how to respond in the moment, we should say so and promise to follow up later, either in the group context or with the individual on their own. It’s better to say we’ll give a future, considered response than to give an immediate, unhelpful one.
6. Respond to a person, not just an issue
The above diagnostic questions remind us that we should consider the person who’s asking the question, not just the question they’ve asked. This will help us to care about their lives and their hearts rather than simply solving a problem or managing a situation. As small group leaders, we’re hopefully getting to know the people in our group outside of meetings. If someone asks a question about abortion, it’s helpful to know that they’ve had one, or that their daughter is considering having one. As we come to know our group members, we’ll have a better sense of whether engaging in the context of the group or one-on-one at a later time will be most helpful.
7. Respond in a gospel-soaked, truth-loving way
When a controversial issue is raised, it’s important to ensure that we’ve properly understood the viewpoint that has been shared. We should begin by asking clarifying questions. This models humility and charity. In many cases, we should acknowledge that there’s legitimate room for disagreement on important but secondary issues. Even in cases where someone expresses a clearly unbiblical view, we can thank them for sharing while acknowledging our differing view, as well as the position of our church. Their expressed viewpoint provides an opportunity for us to consider the deeper assumptions and presuppositions behind their comments. For example, what is their ultimate source of authority? Is it the Bible, their own sense of what’s loving and kind, the views of the broader culture, or something else?  No small group leader will ever lead perfectly. The task is too big, and we’re too flawed to hope or expect that we’ll never make mistakes. But, by God’s grace, we will grow in this important work and be used by God to help and serve people.