Tomorrow’s church – Part 7: Learning through shared experiences.

Human tower

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.

This is the seventh post in my 12 part blog series – “Tomorrow’s church: a new formula for a new era“. Subscribe now or follow me on Facebook so you don’t miss any posts. I’d love you to interact and discuss the ideas in these posts, and share your experiences. The next post will be called “DIG (Deeper Into God’s Story) and will outline a tool for collaborative, hands-on study of God’s Word.

If you like what you’re reading, please take the time to share it with your network. Thanks!

10 thoughts on “Tomorrow’s church – Part 7: Learning through shared experiences.

  1. This still requires lots of planning and preparation though does it not?
    Can it not just happen of its own accord?

    For the last 30 or so years, I have tended to do homegroups on a much more random basis. The groups invariably became more like a group of friends having a conversation.
    In chatting about what their week had been like, all sorts of subjects arose, and this becomes the focus of examining scripture to compare our natural traditional reactions to what a biblical viewpoint would show. Sometimes it would be family illness, or job problems. Other times it would be issues heard on the daily news programs.
    This has the advantage that there is automatically a self interest at work to get to the bottom of their circumstances, and apply truth,- whatever that truth might be.
    It does keep people on their toes though because we can never tell what will happen week by week. However everyone learns from real practical issues rather than theoretical ones, and everyone can participate.

    • Thanks for your comments. I agree that informal, conversation-based meetings can be the very best type of “church” – we’ve been part of a home church and several home groups which run like this, and loved it!

      To answer your question – yes, this “Stimulus + Response” model of church requires a little planning and preparation – but much less than a sermon/performance based model. My husband has just left to run church today (on a Tuesday morning) with a couple of props, which will be used in some fun group activities. It gives people a shared focus, which they don’t have otherwise (especially in a larger group), and primes them to then study Scripture collaboratively with an enquiring mindset.

      At the moment, there are only two options for anyone wanting to “do church”. You can attend a larger performance-based, established church, where no interaction and participation are allowed – or you can leave the established church and start up a small home church/simple church. However, many pastors and Jesus-followers are looking for a way for the established church to move forward, without having to close down and throw away all of their resources, buildings, and momentum. There are plenty of blogs and books out there advocating abandoning the established church altogether to start up simple/organic church models. At “Church in a Circle”, we’re trying to cast a vision for established churches to change the way they meet, the way they learn and the way they lead – to create an environment for connection, engagement and empowerment. That way, the church can still maintain an open, public gathering, where visitors are welcome without needing an invitation, but where people are able to go deep, establish trust easily, and participate and interact with each other and with Scripture. Think of it as applying organic church principles within the more organised structure of a larger church meeting. We just want to give permission for God’s people to start being more creative and interactive when they meet, instead of thinking that “sitting + singing + sermon” is the only way to worship and learn about God.

      Blessings in your ministry,

      – Kathleen

    • Great questions!

      Having preached hundreds of sermons and led many home groups and house church meetings, I would say without a shadow of doubt, facilating action-reflection times are very easy to prepare and leading them is both simple and rewarding. The group does all the work – all the facilitator has to do is set up the activity and ask the questions.

      • I should add, the whole point of action-reflection is to create real shared experiences and emotions, which hardly ever fail to lead people to talk about real issues in their lives. This sets up opportunities for real-life transformation.

  2. Pingback: Tomorrow’s church – Part 8: Discovery learning in church | Church in a Circle

  3. Pingback: Tomorrow’s church: Changing the way we meet, the way we learn, and the way we lead. | Church in a Circle

  4. Pingback: Tomorrow’s church – Part 10: Hand them the ball – From performance to facilitation. | Church in a Circle

  5. Pingback: Tomorrow’s church – Part 9: Digging Deeper Into God’s Story. | Church in a Circle

  6. Pingback: Beyond sermons – learning in multiple modalities. | Church in a Circle

  7. Pingback: Take For Example … | Life With Da Man CD

Leave a Reply

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