Can churches move from sermons to interactive learning?


Harvard physics professor Eric Mazur has developed a learning technique which he has found to triple students’ learning in comparison to a conventional lecture. Instead of trying to explain complex physics concepts to students, he asks them a question which will show who already understands the concept. He then gets the students who got the answer right to explain it to those who got it wrong. There’s a lot of noise, but also a lot of learning that goes on in this interaction. Within minutes, the recent learners have taught the rest of the class how to solve the problem – while the lecturer could have spent the whole class on the same concept without the same results. Follow-up studies show that students recall the information for much longer using interactive learning than they do in standard lectures.

Mazur has tapped into  the power of peer-to-peer learning. Learners make the best teachers. Someone who has recently grappled with and understood a new concept has fresh ways to teach others. The lecturer, on the other hand, learned the concepts so long ago they have forgotten which aspects were hard to understand, and can’t communicate as effectively to someone at a different level on the knowledge ladder. Mazur explains that when you become an expert in an area; “it becomes harder to teach, because you’re unaware of the conceptual difficulties of a beginning learner.” It’s easier to talk to a peer than to someone of higher status, so students are more able to admit their difficulties and ask questions when they need help. The students doing the explanation also benefit, as teaching is one of the most powerful ways to solidify learning.

If we could grasp this concept and use it in church, it would radically change the methods we use for teaching. Sermons simply aren’t tapping into the ability of God’s people to teach each other. If we re-structure the church meeting to facilitate people to share with one another what they have learned about God, it would engage people, empower people and challenge people. God’s people can learn more from each other than from any sermon.

9 thoughts on “Can churches move from sermons to interactive learning?

  1. Thanks for posting this article and its references. I am wholly convinced of the benefits of interactive learning for the gathering of the saints. I’m not just talking about Sunday School Settings or Symposiums or even “Workshops” or Conference Breakout Sessions. Why are those settings so much more effective than non-particapatory pew sitting? The answer to that question only serves to make your point.

    Personal Experience:

    Each week at 6:30 in the middle of the Ecuadorian Andes Mountains Cloud Forest Region, we have a group that gathers. We call ourselves “Discipleship Group.” It’s a wonderfully noisy time. I do a lot more guiding into mutually beneficial discussions than actual, direct, and one-way teaching. That’s fine with me. We look into each other’s faces. We discern who is sad or suffering, who needs encouragement or prayer, who doesn’t quite get it, or whose countenance is changing based on a “learned concept.”

    This group is made up of pastors, leaders, and people from all walks of life. One day I suggested that a pastor of a local church duplicate out group setting in his church. He went and arranged his congregation in a circle and encouraged group participation. It was a dud. He didn’t give up. He tried it again and the awkwardness dropped away and he said “it totally changed the dynamic of our fellowship.” The congregation, for now, practices this format once a month. The traditional setting is addictive and hard to let go of. I’ll have more to say on this in the future, but appreciate the opportunity to comment. I’ll also be happy to answer any questions.

    Peace & Grace

    • Miguel, I enjoyed your comment so much that I’d like permission to use it as a post in future. People are encouraged to hear how it works in real life. Your experience matches ours – it’s the reason we’re so inspired to write about it and share it with anyone who is listening. Until you’ve experienced the Holy Spirit at work in an interactive community of believers, it’s hard to understand the need to change.

      I’ve just launched a Facebook page – because you suggested it to me. It’s called Church in a Circle (unsurprisingly). I hope you find it.

      Blessings in your ministry – it sounds wonderful!


    • Thanks so much for the link, Chris. Jess was recommending this approach to me after you told her about it. I will look it up and learn more.

      It’s very encouraging to see so many creative approaches to active learning happening in churches worldwide, and with all different age groups. I think we live in a creative age of participation and interaction, and we can learn from each other as we experiment with new ideas and approaches.


      – Kathleen

  2. Dear Kathleen and Mike, What a lovely mesgase from our sponsor and indeed a wonderful reminder of who and what is important in life especially at this time of giving. Such a warm and peaceful photo of you, Kathleen enjoying the lights and beauty of your Christmas tree. I am thinking that Ms. Betty and Mr. Orville must like the tree as well. Very happy to hear that you are all in the company of your loving family. Sending big hugs, lots of love and all good wishes to you all from a most beautifully snow covered Ottawa.xo

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *