the weblog of Alan Knox

The difference between sitting in rows and sitting in a circle

Posted by on Aug 21, 2012 in blog links, church life | 15 comments

The difference between sitting in rows and sitting in a circle

I was recently introduced to a website called “Church in a Circle,” and I want to point you to their latest post called “One simple trick every church can use to change passive listeners into active learners.”

There are many, many Christians who are beginning to recognize the importance of conversing (discussing) together as an addition to (or in some cases a replacement of) the sermon or monologue teaching. But, even though they recognize how helpful discussions (dialog) can be, they’re not sure how to implement it when they gather together, because they only have experience with listening to one person teach (preach).

The post (linked to above) offers several “tricks” to help believers move away from passive listening (i.e., only one person actively speaking) and toward the opportunity for many to actively speak and serve.

Now… here’s a little personal history…

The believers who we gather with regularly began as a very traditional and organized group with a weekly sermon. But, as we studied Scripture together, we saw the importance of dialog and discussion for mutual edification and maturity. (Everyone didn’t agree, of course, but that’s a different story.)

But, like I mentioned earlier, we didn’t know how to incorporate dialog into our gatherings. So, we started slowly with some of the suggestions mentioned in the post (linked to above). Today, instead of sitting in rows listening to one person teach, we sit in a circle and discuss Scripture and topics amongst one another, listening for how God would speak through any of us.

Each step we took in the process was a little scary… it was something new and different after all. And, we took a couple of missteps that we later corrected together. But, God was faithful, and as we moved closer and closer to the pattern that we find in Scripture, we noticed a huge different in relationship and maturity.

Now, sitting in circles does not suddenly cause everyone to want to edify each other. But, it does facilitate mutual edification.

So… take the next step.

Have you had any experience in moving away from one person speaking (monologue) and toward multiple people speaking (dialog or discussion)? Did you make the move all at once, or one step at a time?


Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 8-21-2012

    Flipping your question around from my perspective might actually seem like humor, and I suppose it is a bit. See what you think.
    Having only ever sat in circles in our gatherings, it was necessary to check out the back of each others heads periodically, so that we could recognize each other when our backs are turned.
    Assuming a church sees their gatherings as family meal times, try eating meals together in rows. It’s hard to pass food around and hear each other with a few rows separating us.
    Meals are eaten in circles because while getting food is the reason you came together, sharing it, along with facial recognition, expressions, smiles, thanks, love and joy is the reason you face each other.
    Being uncomfortable facing each other is the strongest evidence you need to.
    Falling asleep is a very public affair, especially if one falls forward into the circle.More than once, shift workers have been sent to a bedroom to catch up on missed sleep.
    Purses, Bibles, note books and references books, song books (4 or 5 of them), children’s toys and the children themselves all need to fit in the circle. It looks like a scene out of Your, Mine, Ours, the movie of two large families blended in marriage.
    After a few years, words can be replaced by responses to facial expressions, eye blinks, twitches and language nuances. Knowing literally every single person as well as you know your own family takes meetings beyond formality. Knowing one another, laughing, crying, sharing and just being together becomes the real reason you have a meeting. Business, plans, study et all gradually find their place as sub agenda’s to friendship. Jesus doesn’t need to be formally invited in prayer, even to the point of not ‘opening’ the meeting. Meetings aren’t any different from home, other than we are together, and we bring Jesus with us. He is central, both consciously and unconsciously, minute by minute to all of life, including the experience of being together.
    Finally, circles level everyone, and bring all closer together physically. You smell the sweat and farts, hear the sighs, you can touch the tears and have each others children crawl on anyone or everyone’s lap. Leadership isn’t obvious as much as it’s discerned, and asked for.
    All in all, circles feel safe and complete themselves, whether there are 4 or 400 in it.

  2. 8-21-2012


    In my naive younger days of pastoral ministry, I tried this once in two different churches. ONCE was the operative word!

    Greg’ words “circles level everyone” is the very reason there was vociferous objection. They WANTED to see the pastor as above them.

    They COULD NOT feel safe because the masks, and pretense (hypocrisy?)would become apparent.

  3. 8-21-2012

    Sounds like they were expecting open participatory meetings
    to make up for open participatory daily lives, with one
    another. Real organic life is an all or nothing life together.
    Leaders can prevent paralysis or early burnout by gently
    demonstrating with their own lives what knowing one
    another after the Spirit entails. Properly executed, they
    will usually allow themselves to be drawn into an increasingly
    surrendered & transparent walk with others.Leaders
    must hold the premise that they want a closer walk but
    are afraid. Spirit led, humanly executed ingenuity and
    patience is needed.

  4. 8-21-2012


    I am currently teaching an adult Sunday School class of about 20 people in a fairly traditional and large Baptist church. From the beginning, I have made a point to always put the chairs in a circle, as opposed to the rows which are the norm in most of the other classes. I have had to insist on this several times along the way, as putting people in rows helps make room for more people in a crowded space. Personally, I think sitting in a circle has been an important factor contributing toward the highly participative and interactive dynamic we have developed in the class.

    Though I am unaware of where the Bible talks specifically about seating arrangements for church meetings (other than perhaps the reclining disciples at the Last Supper), I think that applying “secular” principles of group dynamics can be a useful tool for working towards the purposes of gathering together which are spelled out in Scripture.

  5. 8-21-2012


    Thanks for the comment. I have to admit that I loved this part: “More than once, shift workers have been sent to a bedroom to catch up on missed sleep.” Now, that’s family!

    Aussie John,

    Exactly. Sitting in a circle to fix anything. It doesn’t create community or relationships. Your example shows that clearly.


    Yes, the goal isn’t sitting in a circle. The goal is mutual edification. We’ve found that sitting in a circle facilitates mutual edification more than sitting in rows.


  6. 8-21-2012


    Thanks for mentioning my blog. I’m enjoying reading people’s comments. I’m hearing about more and more churches who are trying out circles with great success.


  7. 8-21-2012

    The adage, “Form follows function” comes to mind. If the body is naturally developing according to the indwelling life of Christ,then the body will naturally take on forms that will facilitate Christ coming forth out of each member. Those forms will be life-enabling.

    If we think “function” will follow “form”, however, we may find out it becomes very unnatural and non-life giving. I heard once of one group who had heard how another body of believers functioned more fully in mutual ministry as they sat in circles. So they tried it for awhile and then went back to sitting in rows again. Their explanation was something to the affect of: “Before we had death flowing in one direction; now we have death flowing in every direction!” So we need to be careful not to get the cart before the horse.

    That being said,however, meeting as the family of God and the Body of Christ under His Headship will bring forth forms that will naturally facilitate the fullness of Christ’s life and ministry through every member. Circles will undoubtedly become a big part of it.

  8. 8-21-2012

    I’m not sure I’d go as far as a circle for the worship gathering (for the small group is entirely different). What I did love was a church I attended where they pews were angled, approximately halfway between facing strictly forward and facing to the other row of pews. I liked how it struck the balance. On the one hand, in reality we do need the majority of the focus to be at the person(s) leading and unless the church is very small it is hard to do that when they’re in a circle. On the other hand, you never felt like it was just you and the speaker – you always had the peripheral view of the others and could look around without awkwardly turning your head. If I were to build a church and assuming it was bigger than about 30 people, that is probably the approach I would take in placing the seats.

  9. 8-21-2012


    Thanks for the post. I’m enjoying reading your site.


    We’ve found your comment to be true. As we desire to function as a family, we change the forms and methods in order to facilitate that function. However, even then it’s difficult to change something that we have done for a long time. So, we’re patient with one another and with others.


    In the gatherings that I’m referring to, there is no difference between a “worship gathering” and a “small group.” Whenever we come together, we seek to build up (edify) one another, and in obeying God in that, we are worshiping him. Also, in these gatherings, there is not only one speaker for the others to look at. So, we’re talking about different reasons for gathering together.


  10. 8-22-2012

    AussieJohn said:
    “They WANTED to see the pastor as above them.”

    If I were ever to be voted in as a Pastor, (oh, perish the thought), I would present myself to my church as a huge green floating head with flame throwers on each side of my face, that would shoot fiery fury when I was angered or when my Biblical knowledge was questioned, ala The Wizard of Oz, calling myself The Great and Powerful Wizard of Don, and I would rule my church with an iron fist of fear and loathing. I mean,…wait…what was the question again?

    Okay, all kidding aside, the circle approach is genuine, inviting, and equalizing. King Arthur supposedly created the round table for a similar reason.

  11. 8-27-2012

    Great idea, we use this concept during small groups. It would definitely be a nice change compared to the Sunday morning monologue. Thanks for the article

  12. 8-27-2012


    Funny… 🙂


    The way that we gather with one another (which, in some way, includes how we sit) both demonstrates and affects our relationships with one another.


  13. 2-1-2013

    Our church has a jail ministry. We started with chairs in the gym all set up in rows. Several people went to the jail with me and we conducted a traditional worship service. Soon it was just me going in and I am not good at leading music but I tried and gave up. Then I got this idea (hopefully from the Lord) to put the chairs in a circle. At first it was hard but we kept it up and it definitely affected the gathering. Soon inmates started sharing and asking questions. We have been teaching through the book of Acts and what a response and change. There are Bible studies in the jail conducted by the inmates. For a small county jail there is good attendance, interaction and encouragement from the believers. They now come with fellowship and mutual care for one another. What a blessing to be in the middle of this group of men and women learning how to follow the Lord. Please pray for these men and woman when they leave the jail that they would trust the Lord. Amen! Greg z

  14. 2-3-2013


    I think one of the things that I regret about having been where you are right now is that we didn’t really understand enough at the time to point out to the participants that the reason this was such a blessing was because Christ was coming into the midst of us opening up with one another and encouraging one another. Somehow many left that setting thinking that it was a unique once in a lifetime move of God – when in fact it’s suppose to be the norm.

    When these guys/gals come out – a lot of time they end up back in the traditional setting (yes rows of chairs) where there’s one person who does all the talking and not much manifestation of Jesus – and the Christ they met in the setting you’re describing becomes a fading memory.

    As much as the physical things that may be needed when re-entering society – these people need their dignity and honor restored – and they can’t get that by staring at the back of someone’s head and trying to live ‘good’. They get that back in the same way you have discovered it here – by Christ talking thru them – and helping others thru them – and working thru them – and others seeing and acknowledging that. I think for a lot of us this can happen at work – but that can be a very tough road for someone coming out of prison.

    I think those who have read your post are – and will be praying for you. In the meantime – enjoy what God is doing in your midst – it is very special – and those lives really are being affected in a way that will last forever.

    I know I’m using this verse out of context – but it makes me laugh:

    “God sits enthroned above the circle..” Isaiah 40:22

  15. 2-3-2013


    Thanks for sharing part of your story. If you’re not familiar with Jim at “Crossroads Junction,” you should check him out. He also works among prisoners.


    I love your explanation: “because Christ was coming into the midst of us opening up with one another and encouraging one another.” Yes, we must include the reason, and not just the furniture arrangement.