The problem with circles (why many churches will continue to meet in rows) – Part 1.

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The problem with circles.

There is no perfect formula for doing church. Until we get to heaven, we will find it hard to be in true community with God and with each other. Humans are imperfect and self-centred, and when we get together, there are always problems.

That doesn’t mean it’s too hard or not worthwhile trying. Jesus inspires us to follow his example and love God, love each other and impact our world. That is why we meet together regularly and encourage each other to keep going.

Throughout this blog, I have talked about meeting in a circle as an idealistic and simple concept. In practise, it’s not so simple. Meeting in rows is actually a much easier way to do church. It is more rehearsed, polished, tidy, predictable, comfortable, sanitised and packaged than meeting in a circle. This is why most churches are still meeting in rows and will continue to do so, even if they are not seeing the kind of passion and growth they want in their people.

There are many reasons it can be hard to do church in a circle. That doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile. I’ll outline 3 reasons in this post, then continue on with a few more points over the next few days. Feel free to jump in with other reasons some churches will never move from rows to circles.

Circles are new.

Well, they’re not really, but they feel new to people who have sat all their lives in rows. Many people don’t cope well with change, even when it brings improvement and benefits. Some people may lose their status when the format changes. Others may be nervous about losing the status quo. People from different generations, cultural backgrounds and personality types will feel different about change. It may take lots of encouragement, sensitivity and support to help these people through their fears and begin to enjoy a different way of approaching church.

In the 16th century, Niccolo Machiavelli wrote; “he who innovates will have for his enemies all those who are well off under the existing order of things, and only lukewarm supporters in those might be better off under the new.” In other words, those who are happy with the current system will fight any changes, and even those who want to change will be half-hearted in their support. That makes it very difficult for the person trying to implement the changes. It takes courage, communication skills and maybe a little bit of foolishness to take on the established system and try something new. But if we don’t try, we won’t succeed.

Circles are now.

This time and culture is right for circles. Hardly anyone I speak to outside of the established church feels a need to place themselves in rows and allow someone to speak at them and tell them how to think. Generally, most people believe we all have equal value and that we earn the right to be heard when we have something worth saying. We live in a time where interactivity and participation is valued, where people long to have a voice and a value, where authority and performance are mistrusted, and where anyone who has a computer or mobile device has access to a wealth of information and opinion that expands exponentially. But we also live in a time where community is fractured, relationships are fragile, and connection is more accessible online than in real life.

Everyone I have spoken to relates to the deep desire to connect, discuss and grow together with other humans. Our main problem in moving people out of rows and into circles is the years of entrenched church culture which prevent people from realising that the method should not be the message. God’s story is as real and vital and relevant to every human being today as it has been throughout history; lets not obscure it from the world around us by suppressing and muting it through our reluctance to change.

Circles are flat.

When we sit in rows, the focus is on the front of the room. All eyes are on the performance on the stage. The pastor, musicians and worship leaders get kudos for the effort they put in. Those who lead have a higher status than those who listen.

In a circle, everyone is equal. Even those who lead and facilitate put their energy into empowering others and giving them status. Everyone can be seen and heard, not just the “professionals”.

Human nature means that many people will struggle giving up their status and lifting up those weaker than themselves. Lets not be naive about it; flattening the hierarchy could get a bit ugly when people are asked to come off the stage and join the circle. There will always be some who will continue to grasp for power and undermine the atmosphere of community. But a functioning community can redirect and manage these people so they don’t upset the balance, and an empowered group of people are able to handle the occasional disruption.

Tomorrow I’ll continue this discussion with a few more reasons churches don’t want to move to circles. Can you think of any?



12 thoughts on “The problem with circles (why many churches will continue to meet in rows) – Part 1.

  1. From an engineering standpoint, rows are more efficient use of space. Unless your circle has multiple ROWS…there you are again…the radius would get to where people couldn’t hear each other. Is your argument predicated on a maximum number?

    Then the existing architecture often can’t be easily converted…I did visit a church in a geodesic dome where the challenge was to get the rows of chairs into some order…THAT building could have been converted.

    We have no data as to how the 4000-5000 were seated when Jesus addressed them by the Sea of Galilee, but I would expect a multi-row half circle…and it WAS a case of one individual doing all the speaking as far as we can guess.

    In the church in Corinth we have no data as to how things were arranged…unless it modeled the synagogue…but there was apparently a high degree of disorder with participants jumping in on each other.

    I would suppose the primary reason churches don’t want to move into a circle for large groups is the presence of at least 1800 years of tradition!

    • You’ve made some excellent points, Tom – rows are going to win out over circles in many churches because of efficiency, building structure, size of audience, the messiness and disorder of interaction, and 1800+ years of tradition! And the list could go on…

      – Kathleen

      • The one thing I still haven’t heard is how a circle model can work with a large number of people. Your picture shows 7 sets of feet…nice polished shoes, by the way, you must be in the south…with knees touching. There must be a practical upper limit.

        • Fair question. There are a number of churches who get groups gathering around tables, working through questions together such as the Discovery Bible Study method advocated by Steve Addison. I’ve been in sessions like this with 200 or more people which were very powerful. Other set-ups include a flower pattern (tables arranged in a horseshoe shape around a central focus), and flexible seating (where people are encouraged to shift into small groups of 2 or more).

          The truth is, I haven’t personally seen this applied in a very large church setting – except for training workshops, Alpha meetings and special/social events. The success of these type of events leads me to believe that there is still a place for circles – but it would take a brave church leader to throw away the status quo and shift gears so dramatically in a mega-church environment.

          I don’t want to see the end of church in rows. I just want to encourage those who are discouraged by the limitations of the current model.

          Sorry about the photo – I was just looking for one which represented people in a circle.

          We’re in Australia, so I guess we’re a bit further south than you meant. G’day from Perth. 🙂

          – Kathleen

  2. We’ve been combining organic church with an outreach since the summer. Our little group has been amazed on how things have gone and the way people have responded.

    Even though we’ve greatly enjoyed it, it hasn’t been without its challenges. We have one lady who is very vocal and doesn’t always rein it in when others are trying to share. We’re struggling a bit on how to maintain the open flow and letting the Spirit work without clamping down and resorting to human control.

    I wonder if any readers here have any suggestions?

    • Hi Jason, it’s great to hear about your journey – and the challenges. Organic expressions of church can be pretty messy, and there’s always one noisy talker in every group…! A few ideas;

      – take a deep breath and listen to her. She may be loving the opportunity to finally have her voice heard, and may “calm down” a little once she realises you’re listening and accepting her as she is.

      – ask the group as a whole to brainstorm guidelines for interaction – as few as possible and as general as possible.

      – talk about “pushing the ball” out to others (I’ve written another post about this here You can even use a real ball to demonstrate turn-taking. This visual demonstration can be really effective at helping some people realise they are interrupting and talking over others, or hogging the ball (only the person with the ball in their hand can speak).

      – keep demonstrating empowering listening and facilitation. The more empowered the whole group are, the more they will directly address issues within the group. Hopefully, you won’t ever have to directly intervene in this situation.

      Good luck. I know how frustrating this situation can be – but if you relax and are patient with her, the whole group will relax and be patient too.

      – Kathleen

  3. Pingback: The problem with circles – Part 2. | Church in a Circle

  4. I just swerved into your blog from a post by Alan Knox.
    I like this: “…and where anyone who has a computer or mobile device has access to a wealth of information and opinion that expands exponentially.”
    Perhaps there was a time in the Dark Ages when church was about the dissemination of knowledge by professionals but that is not the case today. However, in the reading about the early church, it seems that the main purpose was relationships and that any learning took place within the context of those relationships.

  5. I think that you are right about the need for more face to face interaction, but can this not be had through small group fellowships? As others have commented, the circle idea is limited in how many people can be involved.

    My observation that the lack of interaction between people in a congregation is not primarily due to the seating arrangement. It is due to the culture of the church as determined by the leadership. I recently left a church that was cold and unwelcoming because the pastor was cold and unwelcoming. In that church’s system, the pastor made all the decisions and so the culture took on his personality. It had nothing to do with the fact that we sat in rows.

    • Thanks Mark, you are right; it’s not just about the seating arrangement – it’s about the culture. The church you describe had a disempowering culture – all based on the one man and his personality (or lack of it).

      The reason I see a place for circles in the church is because it steps it up to a whole new level from small groups and adult Sunday School classes. It’s one step towards creating a culture of empowerment, inclusion, participation, acceptance and equality. The current model of pulpit & pews sends a subtle but strong message that trained clergy are more spiritual, special and capable than the rest of God’s people. You don’t have to look far to see the disempowering effect this model has on the majority of people sitting in rows, who do not see that they have something worthwhile to contribute to the church and to the world around them.

      I do agree that for many people, small groups are a wonderful opportunity for face to face interaction and spiritual growth. I love Andy Stanley’s emphasis on small group ministry alongside a slick, multi-campus, performance oriented model. His catch-cry is “Rows are good – but circles are better.” This can be a very healthy approach for those who continue to enjoy the performance-oriented, passive church experience. I just think it’s ok for churches to start thinking outside the box and looking at other models of meeting. At the moment there is one universal model applied to most established churches – and it doesn’t suit everybody. In this day and age, people are getting used to having a voice, being able to participate, and not needing “experts” to talk at them.

      Thanks for your comments – you make some valid points. Blessings in your ministry and writing,

      – Kathleen

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