My church sat us in rows staring at a platform with a pulpit, but in 1970 I found myself in a circle in the back room of a Jesus freak coffeehouse on Sherman Avenue in North Bend, Oregon. We tore pieces from a loaf of bread passed hand to hand and drank grape juice from a big cup.
I looked around the room and saw tears in some eyes, but joy in every eye. After communion, we stood, joined hands, and sang “We are one in the Spirit . . . They will know we are Christians by our love.” They were a ragged bunch; several had long hair and scraggly beards. Jim had spent most of high school skipping class and drinking Annie Green Springs cherry wine in Mingus Park. John had been a heroin addict. Jesus had saved both and genuine love radiated from their faces.
I was 17 and had been in church all my life, but I had never seen the joy of salvation dancing in the eyes and smiles of believers until that day. Of course, I had heard old-timers give teary-eyed testimonies about God’s goodness. However, turning around in the pew to actually see their faces would have been odd or rude. We weren’t, after all, in a circle.
Probably 95% of my time with believers has been spent staring at the platform and the backs of those in front of me. The other day during worship I worked my way to the side of all the chairs so I could look back across the congregation and see the faces of those worshiping. I know worship is all about God—not those around us, but I was surprised at how much I was encouraged and blessed by seeing the love for Jesus on all those faces. I wished we could be in a circle.
I know there are many practical reasons for meeting in rows facing the front. There are also theological reasons. For Catholics it expresses the centrality of the Eucharist; for the Protestants the centrality of the Word of God being proclaimed from the pulpit. It does, however, work against the idea of the priesthood of all believers. It most certainly undermines the idea that the Holy Spirit has distributed gifts to all the believers to be used to build each other up when we come together. Our arrangement says loudly, “The gifts are on the platform.”
Paul describes the result of the gathering of believers in I Corinthians 14:26:
What is the outcome then, brethren? When you assemble, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification. (NASB)
Despite the clarity and directness of Paul’s description, this is seldom the outcome at most of our assemblies. Most of the body of Christ doesn’t participate in any kind of ministry to others in our gatherings.
Many large churches have recognized this problem and addressed it through small groups, but years in pews have given low expectations for our small groups. We are tempted to passively let the group leader take charge and do all the ministry. It is easy to show up for a small group with no expectation that God will use us to encourage, heal, exhort, or instruct others. Most the data on large churches with many small groups shows that only 30—40 per cent of the congregation gets hooked into a small group no matter how energetically the pastor proclaims their importance.
Many have researched and written eloquently about the many benefits of small groups. I think early Quakers tried to arrange their meeting houses with more of the believers seeing and facing each other, but I think even Quakers now have rows of pews facing the front.
I do not have a solution to this for large meetings. Some have gone almost entirely to house churches and have a large corporate meeting monthly, quarterly, or annually. I don’t know what out there may be working well.
I do know that seeing the faces and hearing the voices of those with whom I worship is life-giving. I need a circle. I should add that I love hearing my pastor preach, and I am always delighted and spiritually nourished by the love for God I see in the face of our worship leader. I just need the rest of the folks in my circle.