The following report is from Lee Berger, pastor of GCI’s congregation in Longview, Texas.
Not that many years ago (it seems) our congregation had over 200 members. We met in mid-size rented halls and movie theaters, had a fairly elaborate sound system, and sat in theater-style rows. That arrangement was appropriate for where we were at the time: all congregations looking alike with an emphasis on teaching and learning. Sitting in straight rows worked well for those purposes. But now we’re concentrating more on “relationship”—seeing our Triune God as fundamentally relational, and carrying God’s nature into our relationships with other people—including those in our church family.
Many of GCI’s congregations are small in attendance (ours averages 14), so awhile back our members discussed how we could most effectively worship in a group of this size. We began to experiment with various setups for church, and it seems we have found a good fit (for now) with what we refer to as church-in-the-circle. As shown in the picture above, we set our chairs in a circle, facing in. Doing so was a bit scary at first, but we soon discovered we like looking at each other’s faces (rather than backs of heads) as we sing, pray, comment and listen. We dispense with setting up an elaborate sound system. Instead we use a single microphone for the main speaker/facilitator (this helps our hard-of-hearing folks). Instead of setting up a video projector to display song lyrics, we sing out of songbooks put together in simple folders. The sermon speaker/facilitator remains seated, and the sermon generally allows for group interaction (reading Bible verses, sharing a story, and asking questions along the way).
Since church-in-the-circle was new to us, we initially used it only on fifth Sundays. But we soon found we liked it so much we moved to once-a-month, then to the first, third and fifth weeks of the month. For now, we continue to use a traditional lecture hall setup twice a month with full sound and video systems. This allows us to show video segments (such as GCI videos) and provides a part-time familiar setup as we transition to what works best for our congregation.
Yes, it was scary at first to try something so different. It took a few tries to work out the bugs. The risk and potential shock was not really about how we arranged the chairs, but rather being ready for the intimacy of looking into the faces of people with whom we have spent decades worshiping together. These days I hear nothing but positive comments, and I see ongoing benefits (for our aging members) in the reduced hall setup, and increased intimacy and interaction. Now when someone shares a prayer request, we see the tears well up in their eyes. This gives us a clearer view of the requester’s heart as they ask for help in the situation.
Church-in-the-circle may not be the best fit for every small church, but I feel it would be a rare one that would not benefit from this personal, family setup. So give it a try. Circle up and worship!