Are circles better than rows? A new blog series about fresh approaches to church.

office meeting

The majority of churches around the world use roughly the same format and layout, no matter what size, or denomination, or demographic. Chairs are arranged in parallel rows, facing towards a stage. After some group singing, a qualified professional takes the microphone and interprets God’s Word for the rest of the community. No response or interaction is required from those in the rows, apart from 60 seconds of “say hi to the person next to you” and singing along with the worship team. Any interaction which does take place is in a separate area, over tea and coffee, without any structured attempt to facilitate spiritual conversations.

Sure, there are advantages to rows (you can fit more people in, you can deliver a well-rehearsed presentation without interruption, you can minimise the distractions of eye-contact and interaction with the people around you), but there are distinct limitations to what you can achieve when people are seated so they can only see the backs of one another’s heads.

A completely different dynamic comes into play when people are seated in circles, rather than in rows. They can see, hear and interact with one another. They can minister to each other. God’s people are visually positioned as equals, gathering around a central focus, all with equal access to God and to the Holy Spirit. Every individual present  becomes important, rather than elevating a single performer over a passive audience. The meeting is less predictable and less controllable in a circle than in rows, but this messiness comes with the opportunity for great beauty and life-changing interactions.

An ever-growing number of churches around the world are gathering in circles. This week I read about a refurbished church who’ve replaced the pews with rocking chairs around a fireplace – unconventional, yes, but increasingly making sense in this era where we value connection and participation over lecture and monologue.

Over the coming weeks, I am going to talk about different models and methods of “church in a circle” which are happening around the world. I’ve invited some bloggers and readers to contribute articles sharing how they are approaching church in a fresh way, and the value of gathering in a circle. I’m excited to share their stories with you – and I welcome you to contribute to the conversation about how circles are changing your experience of God’s church.

From mega-churches to monasteries, from Sunday school lessons to seminary in a circle, from pastors exploring failure to addicts celebrating recovery, I look forward to a journey over the next couple of months as we hear about different formats of God’s people gathering in circles. I pray these posts are helpful to the many pastors and churches who are ready and willing to explore a new model for meeting together as a community.


24 thoughts on “Are circles better than rows? A new blog series about fresh approaches to church.

    • Twitter has been really helpful for connecting with like-minded people! Also, people contact us through the blog and let us know what they are up to, and my husband reads widely and picks up on interesting techniques in and outside of church circles.

      I would suggest you come join me on Twitter, but I don’t want to add another social media platform to take up your days! 😉

      • Hi Rita, if you click on the blue word “church”, about halfway through the article, you’ll find a link to a blog post about a church that’s trying something out of the box. They meet in a circle, sit in rocking chairs, and are led in facilitated discussions around Scripture. They’ve replaced the pulpit with a fireplace, and the pastor plays a banjo, while the congregation are encouraged to bring their own instruments.

        • Myself, I don’t mind the pushback. I have some wonderful friends, a retired pastor and his wife. They are so invested in church life that coming to our small, often times somewhat chaotic and messy home meetings would be stressful for them. While they persist in inviting my to their events, I hesitate to invite them to mine knowing that it would not be the kind of blessing that registers for them. I have to admit I do not enjoy, nor ever accept their invitations anymore to sit in a pew and listen to a sermon. I used to be able to enjoy the corporate worship part…but because I couldn’t walk out…without distressing them…when it was time for the preaching, I decline their invites. I love them and we often have a meal together and talk about the Lord and this satisfies my definition of communion and fellowship, so that we have a great relationship and over time they have come to trust that I am walking with the Lord in spite of the fact that I don’t “go to church”. There are many older folks and even a few younger that are so steeped in the tradition of their church life, that change would be too much for them and they do have a community that works for them and is an asset to the community as a whole. I think there is room for all the formality…but been there done that and have been led out of it and feel that the liberty I feel is worth learning to tolerate and appreciate the messiness and sometimes chaos of small house meetings without any format. Over the course of a few years together we have actually fallen into a pattern of sorts in our meetings, but there are no mandated parameters and at any time that can change according to whatever and whoever the Lord brings to the meeting. The seasons and weather also govern to a large degree how and where and when we come together to worship and fellowship. I really don’t think that the definition of “decently and in order” excludes spontaneity and the lack of hierarchy other than the Holy Spirit. Works very well for us. A little messiness and chaos (unavoidable when there are children and shall we say “needy” adults even, is a good sign that humans are giving place to the Lord of life, to the Truth and the Way. (Raised in Catholicism, 4 years in Jesus Movement Freedom, 25+ years in an Assembly of God para-church which started out thrilling but wound up in legalism and major error)…10 years alone with the Lord and about 5 years liberated and full of the Joy of the Lord and renewal.) I think the Lord is using the changing approach to the Christian community to reach the younger generations now…and I just happen to have gotten in on the blessings. As a young person in the ’60’s I was caught up in the Jesus Movement…which I consider God’s provision and antidote for the loss of faith in the culture then. It was glorious, though confusing at times and there was a lot of enthusiasm without wisdom. What a journey I have had…being led back to that liberty…having gained some wisdom through much suffering and disillusionment.

          • Rita, I so enjoyed reading of your journey. Thank you for sharing! Blessings,

            – Kathleen

  1. I came across this site through a friend of friend on Facebook. It seemed interesting to me – not because I think that a change need be made throughout the church, but because I find how people think through this kind of stuff and why to be interesting.

    I hope you don’t mind a bit of push back.

    “The majority of churches around the world use roughly the same format and layout, no matter what size, or denomination, or demographic…” Although the use of seating in rows may be true for the majority of churches worldwide (and I’m not sure I agree with that) the rest of what follows belies your experience, not the reality of the majority of churches.

    First of all, you would have to reject the Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox as “no true church” (and I would sympathize) in order for your paragraph to be true. The 60 second say “hi” thing is not a part of their liturgy and the entire service is very interactive following forms. Also, most Orthodox communions (the Greek excepted) do not have seats except for the elderly or unable to stand.

    But, rejecting those – the Anglican Liturgy is very interactive. Walk into almost any conservative Presbyterian church on a Sunday and you will find that part of the order of worship is congregational responsive reading of Scripture and in many churches, responsive prayer.

    What you describe is a brand of American (and American influenced) Evangelical services.

    “… without any structured attempt to facilitate spiritual conversations.”

    I’m sure that the reason for that is because corporate worship – from the call to worship to the benediction – is meant for something other than “spiritual conversations.” And, I’m sure, that corporate worship being a time dedicated to specific things has been the practice of the Church for over 2000 years for good reason.

    “A completely different dynamic comes into play when people are seated in circles, rather than in rows. They can see, hear and interact with one another.”

    I can see, hear, and interact in rows – unless you mean something different, like carrying on a “spiritual conversation” which, I would argue, is not the purpose of corporate worship.

    “They can minister to each other.”

    They can in rows, too. Christians do, right now, minister to one another in various ways even in churches that have rows.

    “God’s people are visually positioned as equals, gathering around a central focus, all with equal access to God and to the Holy Spirit.”

    Is God in the center of circle? C’mon! This makes the crazy assumption that sitting in rows means that individual Christians have more or less access to God based on where they sit? As if Christ’s mediation is first for the people in the front row, then for the people in the second row, etc… What if there’s a balcony – back further but closer to heaven, right? This is simply ridiculous.

    In rows, everyone is positionally equal (seated unless addressing the group) gathered around the central focus of the Word preached and seen.

    “Every individual present becomes important,”

    It’s not much of a church if that isn’t already the case. A circle can’t fix that.

    “..rather than elevating a single performer over a passive audience.”

    If worship in song, word, and sacrament is a performance, it’s not much of a church, is it?

    “The meeting is less predictable and less controllable…”

    This is preferable? Because?

    • To my last question concerning less predictability and less control I meant to add a verse concerning worship, ” But all things should be done decently and in order.” (I Corinthians 14:40)

      And also, “messiness comes with the opportunity for great beauty and life-changing interactions”

      I’m not sure why sitting in rows isn’t life changing if the word of God is being faithfully preached.

      Anyhow it seems to me that the messiness and life-changing interactions you are looking for are great opportunities and a great way to organize some fellowship and a wonderful way to facilitate discussion. What you aren’t describing is corporate worship.

    • Thanks for your pushback, Ray. Some churches do find a beautiful balance between corporate worship (vertical relationship) and fellowship (horizontal). But Jesus and the New Testament church emphasized the horizontal, interpersonal relationship between God’s people far more than most church services reflect. That is why some of us are finding ways to restore that balance.


      – Kathleen

  2. Another aspect of my life with Jesus: I will be 71 tomorrow. That allows me to fit into a tradition here in the heartland. Most churches in my neck of the woods have Senior luncheons anywhere from once a month in the summer to once a week. When the Lord prompted me to get to know my neighbors…when I first moved here 7 years ago…I tried going to the nearest church, which was Methodist. I did try but found it very unsatisfactory and conflicting with what God seemed to be doing in my life. I live rurally so taking cookies or such and knocking on doors was not the best option. You could get shot at driving up a private road in these parts. These senior luncheons have become a very effective way for me to get to know so many of my brothers and sisters that are welded into their church community and that I would rarely come in contact with otherwise. Since there are several churches in the area, I have gotten to meet many of my neighbors this way. I don’t attend all of them, but enough to get to know folks by name. These churches do many good works in the larger community and they are a product of something that God used for a generation or many generations to find their way to God and his people. However, if you talk to many young people they are very skeptical of this form and are all too familiar with the pitfalls and corruption that can occur when too much power is invested in the hierarchy. My focus is not so much the concept of circles versus pews, unless that symbolizes the conflict or difference between the organized/institutional hierarchial church and the organic/home non-hierarchial church where there are no burdens of membership cards, tithes, dues, support for buildings and utilities and maintenance, bookkeeping or paid employees (pastors, secretaries, maintenance, etc), no advertising in phone books or newspapers. Choices regarding giving and good works, projects and outreach are left to the individual as their life dictates. Folks often gather with other small groups for Bible study or working with a particular need, that emanates from their own desire or calling, not a program. God refreshes us, teaches us and fills us, enabling us to leave our gathering and return to our individual responsibilities in life with vigor and renewed faith in His presence with us. We have learned self restraint without being constrained, allowing the less expressive amongst us to come forth. Learned to accept that life is full of struggles and challenges and that it is not our job to fix most things in other peoples life…and to watch in awe at how well the Holy Spirit addresses so many things that we humans often try to do and so often fail and in fact do more harm than good. His yoke is easy and His burden is light…so much truth in that. Embracing each other in acceptance and hope is a very gracious way to be together. I love it. I am sure God is working with other groups in other ways. He is about His Father’s business…every minute of every day.

    • Happy birthday for tomorrow, Rita! I pray God continues to use you and bless you in your community for many years to come. Many blessings, Kathleen

  3. Has anyone noticed that the dates and time are off on this blog??? Just curious. It is 6:23am June 3 as I am writing this last post.

    • I don’t think the time is out, Rita – I’m just on the other side of the world from you, in Perth, Western Australia. We’re 13 hours ahead of you (which means it’s nearly your birthday here already!).

  4. Pingback: Godly Play – approaching God’s Word with a sense of wonder. | Church in a Circle

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  6. Good Morning Joe and KathleenAs an X Merchant Mariner myself I know what you are sniayg. But tell me, did you ever when you were in your sailing days think that this is how you would be living in your later life.I know I didn’t. I sure always dreamed of having a place in the country with dogs and horses, but never really thought it would happen.Now even though I find myself missing the ships , the life. I could not ever imagine walking away from all this.I could not imagine my life not looking into the eyes and face of each and everyone of my dogs, and of each and every one of my horses each day.Veronica

  7. This post came up on my email this morning…thought I would just say hi to a fellow sailor (it seems). Never was a merchant mariner, but sailed for over 20 years, every weekend more or less. On the Monterey Bay off the California coast as well as other waters off California. Had to give it up when I moved to the Heartland…Indiana, southern. The Ohio river is not the best for sailing and I am too far from Lake Michigan which are the two bodies of water bordering Indiana. I am fine with not sailing, I am where God wants me, but I did loved it. Many wonderful adventures including racing. The closest I ever came to sailing on ships was a class in navigation from a Merchant Mariner. I sailed all sorts of sailboats, the largest was a 43′ Serendipity. Often sailed a 22′ Santana and similar types. Well, I know this is not a sailing blog…but my interest was peaked.

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