“We do not learn from experience … We learn from reflecting on experience.” – John Dewey
For many hundreds of years, the main teaching tool in churches has been the sermon. After all, a didactic lecture can appear to be the most efficient way of passing on lots of information to lots of people in a short space of time. However, any beginner’s business book will point out the difference between efficient and effective. A tool is only effective if it achieves the purpose it is designed for. If the pastor’s goal is to teach people, challenge them, empower them and disciple them, the sermon is a very blunt instrument indeed.
The concept of “Church in a Circle” came about when we observed the difference in the quality of learning and empowerment which takes place when God’s people meet face-to-face, and participate directly in hands-on, collaborative learning. We’ve seen people learn information and grasp concepts faster than we ever achieved through sermons, but better still, they take ownership of their learning, pass it on to others, and take responsibility for their own learning journey with God.
How do you reverse the culture of monologue teaching towards dialogue? We’ve all been in those awkward meetings where people sit in a circle and only one or two people contribute. How do you get everyone involved, everyone engaged, everyone talking?
The answer is surprisingly simple and obvious – give them something to talk about. We have found the best way to do this is a technique we call “Stimulus + Response“. It’s a type of action – reflection learning. We get the entire group involved in a shared experience, which leads to an opportunity to reflect and discuss what they have learned together.
A Stimulus is more than an “icebreaker” to get people bonding and talking – it is a learning opportunity. A Stimulus is literally anything that triggers a response. Where a sermon only stimulates the ears, a stimulus should involve all the senses, and get people thinking and sharing. A good Stimulus should be;
ENGAGING – preferably involving movement, emotions, problem solving, interaction and multiple senses. Active learning involves the whole body, not just the ears!
PROVOKING – stimulating thoughts and feelings. Ideally, the stimulus should unsettle people a little bit. It should challenge their mindset, and trigger them to explore their response in a safe environment and learn from the Holy Spirit, as well as from the community of God’s people.
FUN – wait a minute! Fun in church?!!! Is that even allowed?!!! The truth is, laughter leads to learning. As Arthur Koestler cleverly put it, “ha-ha leads to aha“. Creating a fun, relaxed environment will bring the barriers down, get people talking and bond them together quickly. It will also open up their creativity and lateral thinking so they are more likely to come up with new ideas and concepts.
A Stimulus creates a common ground and a context for collaborative learning to occur. It allows people to build a shared experience together, at an emotional, physical, spatial and intellectual level. It creates a bond and connection amongst the group, who are able to discuss a real and recent event, not a hypothetical situation or long-distant memory. A Stimulus opens up a space for reflection and interaction, and allows the group to discover “aha moments” together. Sometimes they will learn what the leader wanted them to – and they will have learned it more deeply, and have more ownership of it, than if it had been spoon-fed to them. However, if the group end up learning something completely different, that is still worthwhile and still counts as learning. In fact, if the leader is truly open to allowing people to learn in different directions, there will be room for the leading of the Holy Spirit, who is a real and present teacher in the life of every one of God’s people.
I pray that you have lots of fun (and a few laughs along the way) discovering new ways to learn together as God’s people.
The following posts in the series are now up;
- Introduction: Changing the way we meet, the way we learn and the way we lead.
- Part 1: Welcome to a new era.
- Part 2: Participation changes everything.
- Part 3: Rethinking the seating arrangement.
- Part 4: Connecting through story.
- Part 5: Food and fellowship.
- Part 6: From spoon-feeding to hands-on learning.
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