Summary: A small group’s purpose is to receive clearly what the Lord wants for it. This happens best when there’s a third point (the center) in discussions that helps us keep our focus on Him. When we don’t use the technique of focusing on the center, our discussions are much less likely to be all about Him.
In every one of my posts, I like to use supporting images for a couple of reasons. First, it breaks up the reading a bit, and second, the visual can provide a punch to the concepts being talked about. There’s one particular theme that I keep finding myself coming across lately as I’ve been focusing on writing about church relationships and small group interactions. It’s images of people putting puzzle pieces together.
Why does this keep coming up? I think Christian Baldwin and Ann Linnea describe this well in their book The Circle Way: A Leader In Every Chair when they say…
[Small group discussions] are like working together on a jigsaw puzzle, piecing our knowledge, wisdom and passion together into a coherent sense of what is going on and how we can respond. As people talk, ideas link up and synergy builds.
Putting the puzzle together
In typical dialogue, we do something more like play a game of table tennis. We say what we want to say, then pass it to the other person and they say what they want to say while we’re setting ourselves up for the next thing we want to say. We go back and forth and back and forth until we “drop the ball” so to speak and the conversation ends.
When dialogue is like table tennis, it’s less likely you’re going to piece together what each person involved brings to the conversation and it’s more likely you’ll fall into people pushing and pulling against each other in a competition to get their viewpoints across, say the right thing and feel better about themselves.
Table tennis dialogue is not what the goal should be when we come together to fulfill our purpose in a church small group.
Our purpose for coming together should be to put together the jigsaw puzzle. When each member focuses their conversation not on what’s happening with individuals on the rim of the circle, but on what’s being built together in the center, you can put together the puzzle and see clearly what is being taught and revealed to the group by the Lord.
This really applies to all Christian fellowship, doesn’t it? Shouldn’t a marriage be one where the husband and wife are collaborating together instead of competing against each other? He’s laying down His life for her out of His love and passion, and she’s responding by receiving, responding and submitting to His love (Ephesians 5:22-33). When there’s push and pull, it doesn’t work out so well.
The center is the focal point
Another visual that helps with this concept is to think about the center as a fire. Together, we build a fire and our collective “flame” grows.
Ever notice how people standing around a fire tend to gaze at it? This is what it should be like in our small group discussions. We should be gazing on and contributing to the center as our focal point. This is how the Holy Spirit best does His work.
Instead of individuals trying to fix each other, this way of interacting allows the Holy Spirit to provide more light in people’s lives and do the convicting.
This is what we quickly lose sight of. Our purpose should be that we’re coming together to hear from the Lord through each other.
Baldwin and Linnea go on to say this about the use of the center…
It allows us to receive people’s thoughts, feelings, and stories and stay separate from them, stay curious, look for the essence, and seek a place to connect even when there is surface disagreement.
Because the center creates a third point between people engaged in social interaction, we can lean in with curiosity about differences, ask questions, explore issues, discern what fits in the learning of the group – and suspend judgment, or at least notice our judgments and set that stream of thought aside so we can listen more fully.
Building a fire
People will throw things into the center that “won’t burn.” It’s best not to get caught up in those things. We simply keep working to throw things on the fire that do burn. As we build the fire in the center, it grows and releases its warmth and light to those standing around it. The Lord is expressing Himself through us and His Light is providing His Life (a theme throughout the Bible is more light = more life).
This is the process we should be shooting for in small groups. Together, we’re working to express the Lord and tend the fire in the center of our relationships. As we do this, the Lord expresses Himself back to the group as a whole and people receive something of Him.
As we continuously ask ourselves “What’s most needed in the center?” we die to ourselves in lieu of what’s best for the group and Life is released upon those who are a part of it. (Another theme throughout the Bible is that death gives life.)
Instead of shooting flaming arrows at each other, we’re aiming them for the center to see what the Lord has for each of us. Visualizing the center is a technique to help us keep our focus on hearing the Lord.
Receiving from Him is the purpose
Ultimately, our total reliance is on Him. To grow in our purpose together of fulfilling His purpose, we need to receive from Him continuously and clearly. We need to allow Him to be the King of His Kingdom, to be the Head of His Body, and to be the Father of His Family.
While nothing can change God’s authority or position, we must align ourselves in a way that allows Him to do those things practically and experientially. Structuring ourselves as a circle and focusing on the center are foundational components to how healthy churches and small groups do this.
Baldwin and Linnea go on to say…
The practice of talking to and listening from the center allows people to express divergent thoughts, feelings, and opinions and keep on listening. When we are energetically engaged with a strong center in place, the scope of conversation can expand into new territory.
We can shift from the comfort of like-mindedness, in which we seek agreement and commonality as guarantees of social safety, to curious like-heartedness, where new perspectives emerge from thoroughly exploring differences.
To hear one another through our differences, we need a transpersonal holding spot, a way to spread out the conversation as though it were a treasure map and curiously examine the thoughts, feelings, and stories that carry us forward to the fulfillment of intent.
What we should be taking away from every small group discussion is what has emerged and been collected at the center.
We say “it’s all about Jesus,” but what does that mean practically? How does that happen when we come together? This makes it so that it’s not about us as individuals, but about us as a group.
The center belongs to the Lord
Wrapped up in God’s eternal purpose is that we’d “be one as He and the Father are one.” (John 17:21-23) Having a third point in the center that we all train ourselves to tie our attention and intention to connect us together like the spokes of a wheel connect the hub of our common purpose together. It’s a transpersonal space that belongs to everyone and no one. It belongs to the Lord.
As each person of a small group places their ultimate reliance in the center and holds their place on the rim, then it really does become all about Jesus as He speaks in and through us collectively.
The center of the circle is the reason we gather. If it wasn’t, we might as well just stay to ourselves.
The center guards against competition
Our culture is obsessed with competition. If you look at the most watched TV programs during any week, a competitive sports program will be on the list. Many times, competitive sports show up multiple times in the top 10 programs watched.
It’s within our fallen nature to want to compete and come out on top. It’s one of the main ways, if not THE main way people massage their self-esteem. But, it’s also one of the main ways, if not THE main way we fall into divisiveness.
Focusing on the center in our relationships and discussions helps us guard against the tendency to turn things into a competition. When we focus on it, we can lay ourselves aside and really consider what’s going to contribute to the collective good of the group.
The rest of the posts in the Made For Circle series are here.