The problem with circles, Part 2.

Circle of Friends

Yesterday, I blogged about the problem with circles. Here are a few more reasons that some churches will never be able to move from rows to circles. Let me know if you can think of any more. 

Circles are unpredictable.

You never quite know what might happen when you meet in a circle. Every person in a circle changes the dynamic. Every newcomer changes the circle, every missing person affects the circle. In rows, the only people who make their presence felt are the performers on the stage. The show will go on exactly the same as long as the key performers are present. It’s not like that in a circle. The facilitator can plan beforehand, but they have far less control over the outcomes than they do when they stand in front of muted masses in rows.

Predictability leads inevitably to boredom. Our brains are happy to switch to “auto-pilot” when they know exactly whats up ahead. Circles allow and even encourage people to make mistakes. To explore. To go where they haven’t been before. To get used to not having the answers. This can frighten people initially, but most people grow to like it, because thats how real life works. When Jesus told us to be like children, this is what he was talking about.

Circles are challenging.

Non-participation is a very comfortable experience. Sit back, relax, let someone else do the talking. Agree with them if their opinion matches your own, critique them if it doesn’t. There is no room for such holding back in a circle.

Meeting with God’s people in a circle and exploring God’s Word together will take you our of your comfort zone, I guarantee it. If you have ears to hear, it will spur you to love and good deeds. It will broaden your mindset and challenge your assumptions. It will make you grow, if you embrace the experience and allow others to impact you. I can’t promise you will always enjoy the journey. But I can promise it will be worth the risk.

Circles are challenging for the leader as well as the participants. Sermons are presented as a neat package, with clever catch-phrases and an answer for everything. In real life, when people bring their messiness and difficult questions, it is much harder to find an answer. You have to be prepared to look foolish. To admit you don’t know everything. To promise to think about it. To ask others what they think. You have to be prepared to learn from others, not just teach others. You have to learn to trust God’s Spirit more than your own wisdom.

Circles are sensitive.

Because they are so deeply relational, circles can easily be affected by anyone and everyone in them. One person’s bad mood can negatively affect the whole group. Differences in opinion can lead to relational conflict. Even subtle influences like the weather can change the mood and interaction of the group.

A bad experience in a circle is more painful than a bad experience in rows. Circles are relational. Relationships can be painful if they go wrong.

It is also a good thing that circles are sensitive. When a group sits in a circle, they are sensitive to each others’ needs. They are sensitive to each others’ moods. And they can be sensitive to God’s Spirit as they share the journey together. In rows, the sensitivity to each other is blunted. The ability to stop and minister to each other is missing. The capacity to sense and meet the needs of others is reduced.

Circles are undervalued.

People devalue their own contributions. Ironically, even when people have been shown to learn more and enjoy more in an interactive environment than in a didactic lecture, they place more perceived value on the lecture format. Our consumer mindset conditions us to place higher value on commodities than our own contributions. “Shop-bought” seems more precious than “home-made”.

This is one of the strongest underlying assumptions that will make the job of changing from rows to circles a difficult one – congregations believe that they have “bought” the pastor’s time and energy to present them with a beautifully presented, neatly packaged, pre-prepared message. They don’t realise they may get far more out of being actively involved and contributing to the conversation – it just doesn’t strike them as good value for money! They may struggle with the concept of paying the pastor when they can’t see the “product”.

It takes a mindshift for people to start to appreciate how much more they can learn and grow when they are actively involved in the process, when they take responsibility for their own learning and pass it on to others. Once they have experienced it in action, it is hard for them to go back to sitting still and passive in rows.

Circles are organic.

The modern church is more mechanical than organic. It has infrastructure and momentum, but it requires resources and maintenance to operate. Circles are more organic than mechanical – they are like a living organism. Organic ventures are more susceptible to the seasons. They have periods of intense growth, where they flourish, but they may also wither easily during the “dry times”. They replicate and reproduce easily and spontaneously, but also fade and die more easily. They require less resources to start-up and operate, but can unravel quickly through interpersonal conflict or poor communication.

Many people have left organisational church structures to form circles, but in so doing they have robbed the church of the unique opportunity to incorporate circles into the organisation. Something wonderful and creative can happen when the organised church, with its resources and infrastructure, embraces the organic and human nature of circles. The reeds grow fastest where the land and water meet. There is an enormous untapped potential for the church in the Western world to grow deeper and more connected and fulfil the mandate of Christ to love one another, if they change the hidden messages of rows and move into interactive circles.

The biggest problem with circles.

The biggest problem with circles is that we don’t know what we’re doing. Pastors have been trained to perform, not to facilitate. Congregations have been conditioned to passively listen, not actively participate. Hundreds of years of doing church in rows has led us to think thats what “church” is. Changing the format may even shake the faith of some people, who have confused the method with the message.

We are all scared of trying something new. Looking foolish. Stuffing up. Losing people. Upsetting people. Having to learn new skills. Falling down. Getting up and starting again.

I want to tell you that it will all be easy, and that you can follow a formula and demonstrate success, and that people will wildly applaud you. But I can’t promise that. I can’t even tell you exactly how to do circles in your church. Hopefully I given you some ideas and concepts to think about. But it’s going to look different in every group, and your learning curve will probably be as steep as ours has been.

What I can tell you is that it is worthwhile. And that it isn’t as hard as it looks. After all, we’ve been interacting in circles since we were born. In our families, in our playgrounds, in our friendship groups, and in our close relationships. We know how we would like to be treated relationally by others, so we instinctively know how to interact with others. So, go ahead. Try it in your church. See where it leads. Hand over the power to the combined community and see what they do with it. Empower them, give them a voice and a value, and keep focussing on Jesus as the centre of everything you do together. And trust God through it all – he loves his church, and he wants great things for it. And he wants to use his empowered church to change the world.

3 thoughts on “The problem with circles, Part 2.

  1. I see several problems with meeting in circles. First of all how do you seat 250 people in a circle? Does this mean that large gatherings are obsolete? Aren’t we already meeting and engaging in small group study settings? Secondly many people are not skilled in group dynamics or to how to communicate in such settings. Large groups are even more complicated by nature.

    • I would never seat 250 people in a single circle, but I’ve seen plenty of environments where this many (and more) were successfully seated around tables and had the opportunity to interact with each other during the process (this approach is often used at conferences and some churches). However, group dynamics are harder to control in very large numbers, and it can require a lot of skill and sensitivity by the facilitator. Not impossible though. Just an entirely different skill set than “pastors” currently leave seminary with.

      – Kathleen

  2. The main job that pastors do each week that is visible to the congregation is to give the weekly sermon. I am guessing that some pastors might feel that their job is in jeopardy if they no longer do the traditional weekly sermon…some congregants might feel why are we paying the pastor if he no longer does the “sermon.”

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