Summary: Small groups fall into unhealthy discussion traps because they don’t utilize processes and principles that promote how they’re supposed to interact with each other as the body of Christ. How we structure our relationships and meetings matters. We cannot ignore the design of being made to interact in circular relationships.
If you’ve ever been in small group discussions where you’ve come away frustrated by the group dynamics, interactions and/or decisions; or you initiate small group discussions yourself and you desire to make them as valuable and productive as you can – this post and the ones that follow closely after in the rest of this series will be for you.
We’ve all been in church meetings or small group discussions that ended in frustration for a myriad of reasons – an imbalance in member participation, “know-it-all” personalities, not feeling heard, overruled by a majority, not staying on topic, falling into out-of-control arguments (that are rarely if ever productive), etc. Many times we experience most of these in one single discussion.
Whatever the case may be, the reality is discussions fall into these traps because the groups don’t know how to keep them from happening and/or deal with them when they do. They haven’t been equipped with processes and principles for how to have healthy discussions.
In this post, I’m going to focus on the structure our small group discussions (and Christian relationships in general) should be taking. Then in upcoming posts, I’ll dive into the specific processes and principles that small groups can use for their discussions to interact with each other according to how God designed Kingdom relationships to function.
We were made to be a circle
For every human being, there’s a way of relating to each other that is inherent in our DNA, and it has to do with the image of God. We were built to interact with everyone without distinction (divided groups), have all to participate, and have equality among those that are gathered.
This way of relating can be illustrated by a shape – a circle.
The shape of a circle represents the same, co-equal level of belonging and participation. It communicates that nobody is superior, and that we all bring our differences and issues to the group.
This is how we were designed to function, and it’s splattered among all the pages of the New Testament as Paul breaks open the design of the “mystery of the ages” – the Church. (Ephesians 3:9)
In essence, the Church was designed to function by mutual edification through Kingdom principles within circular relationships.
Only in circles are people equals. Only in circles does everyone carry the same sense of ownership on their shoulders. Only in circles does everyone carry the same level of responsibility to contribute through their gifts and abilities for the good of the whole. Only in circles can edification be mutual.
Listen to how the apostle Paul described the church as a circle…
Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines. (I Corinthians 12:7-11)
There’s no hierarchy here. Everyone is on the same plain.
He goes on to say later in that same chapter…
…those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its part should have equal concern for each other.”
Circle is one-another relationships
The reason I say relating to each other in circular relationships comes from the image of God is because Paul didn’t make this up. It goes back to eternity past. There we find three Persons in perfect oneness. We find community.
As John Ortberg points out in his book Everybody’s Normal Till You Get To Know Them…
Life within the Trinity was to be the pattern for our lives (i.e. church life).
So what was this Life like? Check out what Jesus prays for us before he goes to the cross…
My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. (John 17:20-23)
Think about that for a minute. What does it mean to be IN each other? The Greek word for this mutual indwelling is related to our word choreography. It’s an eternal synchronized dance of joyful love among the Three.
Ortberg goes on to point out…
Each member of the Trinity points faithfully and selflessly to the other in a gracious circle…the persons within God exalt each other, commune with each other, and defer to each other.
The Trinity is a circle of relationships. The Church has the same design – a circle of relationships.
Our tendency to break the circle
This way of interacting gets destroyed when people seek to dominate or rule over others in their desire for power, or simply to feel better about themselves. Setting ourselves up to be in a “more special” group or position boosts our self-esteem.
In a church, it may be very easily apparent this is happening. But in my experience, it typically happens subtly and/or unconsciously. Most of the time, it’s happening under the guise of a person thinking it’s their ministry or gift to “lead” others.
The #1 sign I’ve noticed that this is happening is they’ll think it’s their place to make decisions for others or think their opinions should be weighted more heavily than others. (See the Consistently Wise series for a break-down of how church decision-making should work.)
What they fail to consider is that, in the Church, every gift is a leadership gift (see verses above) and decision-making is for a whole church as it works to lay hold of its collective Wisdom in every matter. This is the practical outworking of the oneness Jesus was talking about. (see the book 58 to 0: How Christ Leads Through The One Anothers for a deeper exploration of what the New Testament teaches about circular leadership).
Also, creating special groups or positions directly violates God’s original dominion mandate for man. Man was to have dominion over everything in the physical realm except one thing – other humans (Genesis 1:26-28). When people create special groups and positions to occupy, it breaks the circle. Again, this is sometimes intentional, but usually it isn’t. Most don’t see the harm in it. But it, most of the time quietly, destroys oneness.
The shape of small group discussions matter
Applying this down to the topic at hand, circular relationships are the environment in which small group discussions should happen. As is pointed out in the book The Circle Way: A Leader In Every Chair…
We spend a great deal of time preparing content and agendas and dealing with politics but then barely notice the shape [of the relationships] in which we’re doing the work.
When you don’t have circular relationships as the foundation of life together, you won’t experience what the preceding verses describe – oneness; which should be the goal of every small group discussion we have.
Just like in architecture or the human body, structure determines function. If the structure of your relationships isn’t circular, you won’t function in oneness. This is a hallmark of the world’s system.
The book goes on to say…
Don’t assume for a single minute that you can mix up or ignore the form (structure). It’s the most essential element to consider, predictive of the outcome of the meeting.
It doesn’t matter if you meet in a large building or in a living room. The circle is about the shape of your relationships and the form your discussions take when you meet.
There’s a leader in every chair
For most of us, being in small group discussions that operate by biblical principles is completely foreign to us. We’ve grown up in religious and educational systems where the ingrained ways of meeting together consisted of sitting in rows staring at the back of people’s necks listening to a lecture, or in some contexts, sitting in a circle with a designated leader who would guide the conversation.
So, this may be a new concept to many. But this is the way of being together that promotes and gives space to each person’s rights as a child of God.
It creates and demands that there’s a leader in every chair.
Shift the arrangement to shift the interaction
And while this concept is a foundational truth of Christianity and being a healthy small group, we also have to intentionally decide how we interact with each other. If we don’t intentionally create the environment and operate by processes and principles that keep us relating to each other how we were designed to as a circle of relationships, we’ll very easily slip back into our old habits of relating. Like within minutes.
What we must remember is this…
The arrangement itself sets the ways we interact and that if we shift the arrangement, we can shift the interaction.
We can intentionally decide how we arrange ourselves, and therefore, how we interact. There’s a call to come back to God’s design for our arrangement and interaction.
The world’s system forms triangles
The pursuit of what I’ll call “fake power” (Jesus showed what “real power” was) makes us form triangles instead of circles. In a triangle form of interaction, we find what Baldwin and Linnea describe…
…leaders located at the top and followers, employees, and ordinary citizens located at the bottom, with gradations of authority assigned and maintained in a status-based worldview.
The world’s system involves people gathering as a triangle. Triangles are so much a part of our lives, we come to accept them as innate human nature. We accept them as the default arrangement and that it’s just how relationships work in all spheres of life. So much so, that it’s how most organized churches and small groups function.
But it should not be so in the Church. Each Christian is an equally important child of the same Father, part of the same Body with the same Head, priest of the same priesthood, and living stone of the same household.
Within triangles, there’s a constant struggle for positioning in the implied power grid. In Christ, your position is always secure and is the same as every other persons that is in Him.
How we gather & dialogue matters
These are some of the things that happen when we experience the church as a circle…
- We draw from the same Source together
- We experience synergy (the combined effect is greater than the sum of its parts)
- We experience great depth, survive and resolve long-standing conflicts, and provide a space for healing
- We experience efficient, peer-led, agenda-based interactions that support and promote the experience of our spiritual reality in Christ.
- We distribute leadership and responsibility instead of struggling against others for it
- We develop unity or oneness instead of vying for positions
These experiences aren’t meant to be “positional,” like they’re only spiritual truths and aren’t meant to make their way into our church life together.
They are the results of an intentional arrangement. If there’s truly a leader in every chair like the Bible teaches, then how we gather matters and how we dialogue matters. Do we promote this spiritual reality by how we do these things, or do we diminish it?
In upcoming posts, I’m going to write about the structure, environment, processes and principles that form and support God’s design for a church’s life together, and therefore, how we should have small group discussions.
The rest of the posts in the Made For Circle series are here.