A number of readers have asked me to describe an actual session of “church in a circle”, so in this post, I’d like to walk you through the three main parts of our weekly meeting. However, what works for us may not work for you. Please don’t take our “format” and try to apply it in your local church next Sunday morning (it will probably go down like a lead balloon). Instead, think creatively about how you can incorporate these three concepts – honesty, participation and empowerment – into your gatherings with God’s people.
We start every meeting by sitting in a circle, reminding one another we meet around a central focus (Jesus) and that we each have something valuable to contribute. We are all able to teach and minister to one another. We then ask if anyone wants to share what God is doing in their lives.
Well, you should hear some of the stories that come out over the next 10 minutes or so. People share their deep joys and sorrows. It can be messy and awkward, but it can also be staggeringly beautiful. Something amazing happens when we encourage people to be honest in a safe environment. The masks come off. The barriers come down. The burdens are lightened by sharing the load.
I can’t overstate how important this part of the meeting is. It sets the tone for the rest of our time together. We rejoice with those who rejoice, and mourn with those who mourn. Each time someone openly confesses their sins and struggles, it sets the rest of us free to face our own problems, and releases us to show love and acceptance for one another.
At this point, we lighten the mood and change gears entirely by getting out of our seats and joining in a fun, hands-on activity. There’s often a lot of laughter, friendly competition and teamwork going on. It may look like a shallow game or an “ice-breaker”, but there is usually an underlying message (for those who have their thinking caps on).
The facilitator then asks three simple questions; “what just happened?“, “how did you feel?“, and “what did you learn?“. There are no wrong answers. It is fascinating to hear the many perspectives on the same shared experience. Often, the most unexpected people come up with the most profound insights.
This seemingly trivial exercise gets everyone bonding, everyone thinking, everyone participating. People become vocal and invested, and start to have a sense of belonging to the community. Those who don’t get much out of a lecture format engage in other multi-sensory ways of learning. People stop seeing “church” as the pastor’s responsibility, and start discovering their voice, their gifts and their capacity to impact others.
After a brief coffee break, the central part of our meeting is gathering around God’s Story. The leader pulls out a Bible – but doesn’t read from it. Instead, he (or she) tells one of the stories in Scripture, using good storytelling skills (setting the scene, using gestures and actions, lots of intonation) to help it stick. We then turn to our neighbour and try to retell the story, checking whether we can recall all the little details. As a group, we explore the story in it’s original context, asking questions such as “how would they have felt?”, “why did that happen?”, etc. We finish by applying the lessons to our own context – “what will you do differently this week?“
The reason we use this approach instead of a sermon is to empower God’s people to have direct access to God’s Word. Many people in our group have low literacy levels and little Bible knowledge, so this is an excellent way for them to learn God’s word and remember it. Even those with theology degrees get insights they’ve never seen before. A sermon from the stage can unintentionally send the message that only the professionals and performers are capable of handling God’s message. In contrast, exploring God’s Word in community reminds us that the Holy Spirit can reveal God’s truths to each and every one of us, not just the “experts”.
Perhaps none of this sounds like “church” to you. After all, we don’t sing or have sermons or sit in rows! We don’t even serve grape juice and a crackers (instead, we eat lunch together afterwards – communion as a shared meal). Like I said at the beginning of this post, don’t try to apply this “format” to your gathering, but seek ways to prioritise honesty, participation and empowerment in every meeting of God’s people. I guarantee these three keys will transform the culture of your church community.