The Learning Circle: The Discipleship Lifestyle

This is a long post for a powerful tool.  The original material on it can be found in the book Building a Discipling Culture by Mike Breen available at 3dm.  Much of what is below are things I’ve discovered using it in my context.  I highly recommend the nearly classic study Experiencing God by Henry Blackaby as a companion – available at LifeWay Christian Stores.

Quick summary: The Learning Circle is built from Mark 1:15 where Jesus says, “The  time (kairos) has come.  The Kingdom of God is near.  Repent and believe the good news of the Gospel.”   Key words for the learning circle are kairos (the little x), repent, and believe. The goal of the learning circle is to hear from God and put what God says to us into practice. It is about having faith followed by the works God had in mind (Ephesians 2:8-10). It is hearing the word followed by doing the word (James 1:22). It is like being the wise man who built his house on a rock (Matthew 7:24-27).


This is perhaps the most complex tool in the Life Shapes, but it is also one of the more powerful ones. Essentially, it is as powerful as a sermon. God can use this to open up peoples hearts to his activity and invitation for their lives. Like a sermon, though, it can also be misused. Many of us have witnessed preachers make points in sermons that went beyond what God has said—sometimes in harmful ways. The key to good preaching – and the key to good handling the Learning Circle—is to avoid confusing our own ideas and ambitions with God’s.

Let us take a journey around the Learning Circle.   Imagine you are walking through life following a path. The path is symbolized by the arrow. Then you have an encounter with God. For example, you hear a sermon, you read a scripture, you find yourself in a challenging set of circumstances, a friend encourages or challenges you. Encounters with God come in a variety of ways. The Experiencing God course reminds us that God is at work all around us. When we recognize that God is at work, that is an encounter with God. That is what we call a “Kairos moment.” The x on the line marks the kairos moment.   That is a moment when “the Kingdom of God is near.” At that point, you can ignore it and keep going like nothing ever happened (take the straight line), or you can “repent” and “believe”,  and work through the circle.  Growth as a disciple is not very likely unless we learn to recognize and reorient our lives when we have kairos moments.

Clearly, the learning circle won’t help us unless we learn to recognize kairos moments. What does one look like or feel like?   How do you know it’s from God and not you mind playing tricks on you? Kairos moments are as unique as each person’s relationship with God. There is no formula. It is a good idea to spend some time learning to recognize them. There are resources for learning to discern them. Here are several:

1) The best resource is the Bible, especially stories of people’s encounters with God. When we read the Bible, especially the gospels, the book of Acts, and the story sections of the Old Testament, we read inspired accounts of other people’s Kairos moments.   Their encounters with God were kairos moments. Sometimes it was God speaking, or sending an angel, or sending a challenge. Some of the kiaros moments are dramatic—like the conversion of Saul in Acts 9 or Jesus calming the storm in Luke 8. Some seem ordinary by comparison—like the disciples coming to Jesus to ask him to teach them to pray in Luke 11 or Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet in Luke 10.   The gospels show the variety of these moments—because whenever someone encountered Jesus, they were having a Kairos. Also, as you the story books of the Old Testament in Genesis, Exodus, Judges, Ruth, I Samuel, and Esther, you find stories of people who encountered God and changed their direction (and a few stories of those who didn’t.) To learn to recognize kairos, read the Bible!

2) The spiritual graph tool (included in this booklet) can help us think about our personal Kairos moments. Whenever we have a major turn in life, whenever there’s a change in our spiritual highs and lows, it is very likely that God was at work. This can be very encouraging to those who are wondering if the Lord is real and personal. The spiritual graph allows us to look back to see the hand of God in friends that he sent our way, in unexpected provision, in experiences, and in what happened during seasons of joy or hardship.

3) A third tool is the Experiencing God course. The course has been a powerful force for helping ordinary Christians wake up to the activity of God all around us, helping us learn to hear and respond to God’s voice. When we learn to see God at work and/or to discern his voice, those are kairos moments.

4) A fourth tool is prayer. Ask God to help you to be aware of his activity so that you may respond. God will answer that prayer!

Identifying kairos and helping others do the same is a skill that develops over time. Keep at it.

Back to the circle: When we have a Kairos, we have a choice. We can keep going like nothing ever happened or we can repent. The Greek word for repent is metanoia. It can also be translated turn or reorient. A Kairos is an invitation to stop and reorient ourselves to what God is doing.

Once the decision is made to turn, the circle guides us to two things: 1) the repent side is aimed at hearing and understanding what God is saying. 2) the believe side is about putting what God is saying to us into practice. The steady path of discipleship is really captured in learning to do those two things. Jesus talks about this at the end of the sermon on the mount. He says if we hear what he says and put it into practice, we are like the wise builder who built on a solid rock foundation—and the house stood through the storm. But if we hear and do not put what God says into practice we are like the foolish builder who built a house on sand—and it collapsed in the storm.

Mike Breen suggests three steps and three questions for the Repent side. First the steps:

  1. Observe: What was happening when you had a “Kairos”, or a God encounter? Make notes or an objective list of what was going on when you had the kairos. Avoid drawing conclusions too quickly. If you are leading another person through the circle, you will notice they often will try to rush ahead. Slow them down with questions like these: Who was there? What did they say? Where were you? What had just happened? What was on your mind? Etc.
    1. Reflect: What did it mean? Focus on the observations that seem important (pray to yourself while you do this). Ask yourself what it means.   If you are discipling, ask the disciple what they think it may mean and try not to help too much.   It’s okay to connect dots for folks, but let them figure it out on their own. It’s their kairos!
    2. Discuss: Talk it over. Include others. Pray. Seek the Lord’s help. Be sensitive to the leading of the Spirit. It may help to give the disciple an assignment to ask other people about the experience. If you are alone, using the circle for yourself, talk it over with God.

    Lead the discussion toward these questions:

    1. What do you think God is saying about Himself?
    2. What do you think God is saying about you?
    3. What is God saying about your relationship with him?

    It is important to try to answer those questions clearly and well before you decide what to do in response to a kairos. Too often, people want to jump past it and go straight to “what do I do about it.”   We can miss the heart of what God has for us if we do this. Slow down and receive what God is offering! If you are working with someone help them slowdown and reflect.   Also, It helps to be able to get the “What is God saying” down to just a few, clear words. Clarity at this point usually leads to wiser steps as you move from repent to believe.

    An example may help. Someone may suggest, “I wonder if God is saying that I have been too hard on Tom at work and I’ve been complaining about what he does instead of appreciating him and he needs support rather than criticism, and God put me in his life to be an encourager.” Encourage them to shrink that down to “I wonder if God is saying, ‘I sent you to encourage Tom.’” And then follow up with a confirming question: “Does that ring true?”

    The Believe side is straight forward. It begins with a question:

    Given what God has said, what will you do about it?

    If you have done the hard work on the Repent side, ,if you have a clear sense of what God is saying, what to do about it is usually pretty obvious.

    The more clearly it can be stated the better.   Here’s the summary of the Believe side:

    1. Nail down what you are going do in response to what God has done. Keep it short.
    2. Make a plan. A few steps to carry it out. This shouldn’t be too complex.
    3. Agree to some accountability (gentle accountability—like “Is it okay if I ask you how it’s going next time I see you?”
    4. And finally Act! Put it into practice.

    Here’s an example.

    Tom got into the habit of finding his self-worth and identity in his job. Then Tom lost the job.   Tom uses the learning circle with his small group and over a period of weeks, they conclude God is saying, “Tom, what matters most is that you are my child.” What will Tom do about it? A number of responses to what God has said are possible. It could be everything from finding a new career path to developing a few simple, sustainable habits that reinforce his identity in Christ. Which choice is right? The one that helps Tom to be faithful to what Christ has said. (There could be several right answers. The key for Tom is to act on what he heard. Neither the easiest nor hardest choices are usually the best.)

    So Tom chooses to implement new habits. He makes a plan. He decides to tape a reminder to his bathroom mirror—a note that says, “I belong to God.” He decides to memorize a verse of scripture, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (I Corinthians 5:17). Finally, He resolves to try to explain it to his wife and kids. He shares this plan with his group, and asks them to pray for him and to ask how it’s going at the next meeting for accountability. Then, he acts. He goes out and does it!

    Finally, a warning: Recognize the potential to use this tool to be misused for manipulation. We don’t want anyone to confuse our words with what God actually says. Employ scripture, prayer, confession of our own limitations, and accountability within the group and in the church as guards against manipulation. This is one reason it is best to have several people in the huddle.

    The Learning Circle and the Seven Realities of Experiencing God

    If you’ve studied Experiencing God, you may notice some cross over in the learning circle.   These are the seven realities.

    1. God is always at work around me.
    2. God pursues a love relationship with me that is real and personal.
    3. God invites me to be involved with Him in His work.
    4. God speaks by the power of the Holy Spirit through the Bible, prayer, circumstances, and the church to reveal Himself, His purposes, and His ways.
    5. God’s invitation for me to work with Him always leads me to a crisis of belief which requires faith and action.
    6. I must make major adjustments in your life to join God in what He is doing.
    7. I come to know God by experience as I obey Him, and He accomplishes His work through me.

    Draw a blank learning circle.  Try placing the seven realities where they belong on the learning circle.

    Questions for reflection:

    1) Can you share a time when the learning circle was helpful for discerning what God was saying and calling you to do?

    2) What are some of the temptations the leader faces with this tool? What about the disciple? What are some signs that manipulation is slipping into the process?

    3) One goal here is to help the disciple make “a decision with energy” – in other words, we want the disciple to hear from God for themselves and choose how to respond. How can the leader help with that?

    4) People often want to jump from the Kairos to the Believe. They say, “I’ve had a God moment so I have to do this ________.” What are some gentle ways to slow people down to pay attention to what God is saying? How can you use the shape can you slow people down?

    5) Is God saying anything? What will you do about it?



4 Responses to The Learning Circle: The Discipleship Lifestyle

  1. Harry Robinson says:

    Outstanding. However, Mike Breen stresses to teach each life shape from 5 to 10 mins. This is a tough one to do that with. I really like your definitions of the important words, Kairos, repent, believe.


  2. Pastor Jesse says:

    Thanks Harry, I appreciate that. 5 to 10 minutes is plenty of time for most of the shapes, but I have found this one definitely takes more time. An effective way to pass this one on is to use it with a group to think through Bible stories, especially the stories you find in Acts where people hear and respond.


  3. rose dirden says:

    This was really helpful. I drew it and will apply it to my life


  4. Pingback: The Grace of the Pivot | LoveFirst Coast

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