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Peer Learning Groups: Putting your heads together to change hearts

Several Christians learning together as peers will accomplish far more than one enthusiastic reader can do alone--especially when these study groups look for the Holy Spirit's guidance. A feature story exploring the benefits of Peer Learning groups.

When St. Luke African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church formed a peer learning group—to study how their new understanding of worship should shape construction plans—they talked about “waiting for moments of transformation from ordinary space into holy space."

But the Grand Rapids, Michigan, study group experienced a major transformation long before the architect delivered blueprints. The serendipity began at a workshop where Ruth Lumpkins happened to chat with people from Hope Network, which helps churches to value and include people with disabilities in their worship.

Not long after, she talked with a man who’d been recently married at St. Luke. She asked why he didn’t join his wife at worship. “He told me he had to stay home with his severely autistic child,” says Lumpkins, who also directs the congregation’s Sunday school and adult education.

On another memorable Sunday, St. Luke’s choir director returned to church after a stroke. The pastor invited her to direct a song, and members struggled to help the director maneuver from a wheelchair to a walker up the pulpit steps to a chair. The sight was a revelation for Lumpkins.

“Our study group knew about ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) laws. We’d been reading about worship and aesthetics. The piece that was missing was making sure everybody was involved in the worship experience,” she says.

As St. Luke and other churches have learned, peer learning groups that pay attention to purpose, diversity, accountability, and reality get the most from their study.

Define and refine your purpose

It’s normal for a peer study group to narrow in on a topic as members begin reading books together. The St. Luke study group refined its purpose to making sure its new building could include more people in worship, regardless of their physical or mental difficulties.

In Princeton, Indiana, two churches—Broadway Christian and Hillside United Methodist—formed a peer learning group on worship renewal. Through reading, attending a workshop, and visiting other churches, members agreed they were most interested in learning how to serve the millennial generation (ages 14 through 25) in worship.

Broadway’s pastor, John Dunn, had been offering an evening service for people of all ages who prefer alternative approaches to worship. Hillside had also started a non-traditional service.

“Though our study group consists of relatively old codgers, we are honestly quite open and receptive. We plan to spend a day with a group of millennials, sharing what we’ve learned and gathering their suggestions for what makes worship truly meaningful to them,” Dunn says.

Thanks to study group discoveries, Broadway has added new interactive elements to its evening service.

Break out of your bubble

Peer learning groups say you expand chances to incorporate new ideas when you step outside your normal circle of acquaintances. This is especially true when study groups cooperate across denominations, say Marcie Thomas and Joan Wilson, who have involved almost 30 local churches in their Greater Hampton Roads Dance Leader Fellowship.

Virginians studying dance together come from both genders, several ethnic groups, and churches ranging from Baptist to Presbyterian to nondenominational. Wilson and Thomas say that perusing Scripture revealed the difference between biblical and unbiblical dance.

“You can tell the difference by asking two questions. For whom are you dancing? And why are we dancing?” Wilson explains.

Miriam leading a women’s dance near the Red Sea, David leaping before the Ark of the Covenant, and circle dances mentioned in Leviticus 23:41 and Luke 15:25 are examples of biblical dance. Wilson says the Hebrew word used for “festival” in the Leviticus passage is “chag,” which means to move in a circle.

By contrast, the Bible describes unbiblical dance in stories of Israelites dancing around the golden calf and Salome swaying sensually to please Herod and his guests.

“Delving into Scripture brings a humbling realization of our authority as movement artists. Studying together is joyous. It increases our love for God, which is the reason we dance,” Thomas says.

Dance fellowship members meet every other month to study choreography, dance ministry organization, and God’s design for dance and movement. In between they visit as many churches as possible. They also gathered for a two-day conference and share a “library” of books, visuals, costumes, and worship articles.

Marcie Thomas says that visiting each other’s dance ministries prompts them to pray for each other, dance together at local outreach events, and glean new ideas for how to use dance in worship.

Take charge of your learning

The word “peer” is crucial in getting all you can from a learning group, according to members of Asian-American Pastoral Ministry (AAPM).

“The group had met for several years, mainly as spectators to lectures by ‘experts.’ Everything changed when we restructured as a self-managing peer learning group. In our first generation Asian ways, we have accumulated a lot of lessons. It’s been very empowering to become a learning group with plans and accountability,” says Fernando del Rosario, founding pastor of Living Faith Fellowship Christian Reformed Church in Hayward, California.

Del Rosario, a “tent-making pastor” who also works full-time training public health leaders, says the group’s Asian-American pastors are separated by language, experience, and culture—Cambodian, Filipino, Hmong, Korean, Laotian, and Vietnamese.

But these Christian Reformed ministers, he says, “share a common faith and love for the Lord Jesus. Most of us are mature pastors who will retire in 7 to 15 years.” Except for believers from the largely Catholic Philippines, most Asian-American Christians wrestle with the tension between honoring non-Christian parents and following Jesus.

Since becoming a peer learning group, AAPM members have studied how to improve preaching and retain the next generation. These ministers and their older church members didn’t grow up speaking English. As churches mature and immigrants’ children learn English, congregations must resign themselves to watching the kids move on…or figure out how to become multigenerational and bilingual…or work toward becoming pan-Asian.

Del Rosario says that while learning patience “in understanding different, sometimes strange, ways of speaking and writing English,” most AAPM ministers have become better public speakers of English.

“Laughing, crying, encouraging each other, breaking bread, learning, planning, visioning, sightseeing, fellowshiping with other congregations—done together in a peer learning group—all do wonders. A good restful and constructive break for a pastor and his wife matters, especially for struggling, isolated, sometimes almost-quitting Asian pastors,” he adds.

Match your tasks to your time

The people who join peer learning groups are extremely busy with church, work, and other responsibilities. That’s why Fernando del Rosario doesn’t expect each group member to read every book. Instead, he says, “Each one reads a book and teaches the others.”

At St. Luke AME Zion, Ruth Lumpkins says, “My time is so stretched. I take advantage of every way available to share what we’re learning and gather input.” Attending conferences together lets her study group members learn from many churches at once.

Lumpkins asks class leaders to communicate group news at class meetings, the Wesleyan form of small accountability groups. On a church bus trip to a sister congregation, Lumpkins got permission to use the bus microphone so she could bring members up to date on plans to make their new worship space more inclusive.

In Princeton, Indiana, John Dunn says peer learning group members have more time to read articles than books. “Reading a four- or five-page article opens up a worship issue. The rest of the learning comes discussing the issue together,” he says.

Early on, the millennial worship learning group also decided to develop seasonal worship teams. Teams alternate between three months of designing worship services and three months off, but work together to plan creative approaches.

Expect spin-off benefits

Peer learning has produced unexpected ideas and benefits for each group. “Focusing on inclusive worship has made us rethink what our Sunday school needs to do to improve teacher training and lessons. We have some rather hyper children,” Lumpkins says.

John Dunn says learning with people from another church helped his group recognize and respect authentic differences among worshipers. “We hope to pass on this understanding so our congregations see new forms of worship not as gimmicks or ‘selling out to culture,’ but as faithful responses to people who want to connect with God. As individual group members, we’ve learned we’re not alone in this desire.”

Marcie Thomas believes that fostering working relationships among dancers from so many congregations does more than enrich worship in separate churches. “These relationships will bear fruit among area churches and throughout America and other nations,” she predicts.

Fernando del Rosario says that as Christian Reformed Asian-American pastors have grown in “mutual respect and honest-to-goodness desire to learn God’s amazing work among us,” they’ve developed a shared vision. Their proposed denominational program would reach out to peers not in their learning group. It would also promote culturally respectful ways to grow existing churches, start new ones, and include more Asian-Americans in denominational leadership. 

Ideas for worshiping with millennials

Thanks to study group discoveries, Broadway Christian Church in Princeton, Indiana, has already used its evening service to:

  • Project song lyrics, Scripture, sermon highlights, and maps or scenes relevant to the sermon.
  • Hold two-way discussions between the pastor and worshipers.
  • Invite worshipers to break into smaller groups for table talk and sharing.
  • Create Mardi Gras masks during worship and discuss hiding from God and each other.
  • Ask worshipers to move among stations for reflection and prayer in a candle-lit sanctuary.
  • Share a Seder meal to reveal connections between Passover and Easter.
  • Offer food during the service, such as a birthday cake for someone turning 18, which leads to good talks on rites of passage.

Myriad ways to use dance in worship

Marcie Thomas, dance minister at New Life at Providence Church in Virginia Beach, Virginia, suggests more than a dozen ways to use dance in worship:

  • Dance during a prelude to call people to worship.
  • Join musicians and pastors on a platform to raise praise song intensity.
  • Do simple dances in the aisle and invite worshipers to join you.
  • Experiment with both spontaneous and choreographed dance.
  • Vary the number of dancers—solo, small group, and large group.
  • Remember that the Creator has given ideas for many dance styles appropriate for worship, including classical, ballet, modern, lyrical, interpretive, folk, tap, urban, Latin, and hip-hop.
  • Combine dance with puppetry.
  • Dance with music…and without.
  • When you dance with music, accompany it with lyrics sometimes…but not always.
  • Offer a dance during the Lord’s Supper or the offertory to promote contemplation.
  • Use dance costumes to further convey an emotion.
  • Dance to clarify the pastor’s message, either before or during the sermon.
  • Move interpretively to proclaim the Gospel during public evangelism events.
  • Offer dances as nonverbal prayers for salvation, healing, and restoration.

“Dance is a language. It has a message all its own. It is an outward expression of an inward emotion or intent of the heart. Therefore, it is expressed by all mankind. For the believer dedicated to obeying Romans 12:1-2, dance is an expression of our bodies as living sacrifice unto God.

“Like all good gifts, dance comes down to us from the Father above. Zephaniah 3:17 tells us that God rejoices over us with singing and dancing. Because he is Lord of All, he is also Lord of the dance,” says Marcie Thomas’s mentor, Joan Wilson.

Wilson began the dance ministry at Kempsville Presbyterian Church in Virginia Beach, Virginia. The Evangelical Presbyterian congregation now includes dance groups for children, males of all ages, and a mix of teens and adults. Wilson has also trained dance and drama teams for evangelism and outreach in Albania, Cuba, Israel, Romania, Russia, and Ukraine.

Learn More

Help your church build a common vision in specific ministry areas by forming peer learning groups. For a good overview of the group study process, read the book a guide to resources for building congregational vitality along with the online Congregational Resource Guide. Also use the online tutorial on vision and the church.

Check to see what’s already been written on your peer study topic. Peer study groups also recommend these resources on:

Read stories on how Hope Network helps churches to value and include people with disabilities and how Asian-American pastors learn from each other.

Ruth Lumpkins advises church leaders who live in or near Grand Rapids, Michigan, to make good use of the Ministry Resource Center in the Calvin College library.

Browse related stories on designing worship together, learning across denominations, and pastoral renewal.

Start a Discussion

  • What significant changes are affecting your church? How might forming a peer learning group help you adapt to and grow through this change?
  • Many pastors have found that joining a peer learning group has helped them and their congregations. What obstacles of time, money, or assumption would your church have to overcome so that your minister(s) could try peer learning?
  • What’s the difference between a peer learning group and an adult education class or book club? 

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you’ve found to get the most from peer learning groups? 

  • If your pastor joined a peer learning group, what changes did you see in your pastor’s peace of mind, preaching, leadership, and ability to relate to church members?
  • If you wrote a handbook on how to form a peer learning group—and how to share its findings with the church as a whole—will you share that with us?
  • Did your peer learning group develop a resource list of books, audiovisuals, art, and conference recommendations related to a specific topic? If so, will you share that with us?