Circles Are Better than Rows

Circles Are Better than Rows

What we can learn from Jewish styles of learning

Traditional thinking in American Protestant culture values individual time with God. We purport that as the center of spiritual growth:

  • Go in your room, shut the door, and study.
  • Master the art of "quiet time"—just you and God.
  • Read a book by yourself.
  • Put headphones on and listen to a podcast by yourself.
  • Go sit on a hammock and pray … by yourself.

This bleeds into our worship services, too. We sit in a classroom-style setting, with rows of chairs in a Sunday school class or a worship center. One person, the teacher or preacher, proclaims the Truth we need to digest, while we are certain to keep our hands to ourselves. There's no talking allowed. I even remember a note in the bulletin of a local church I attended that said, "If you have to get up during worship, please do so before the sermon starts in order to not distract the work of the Holy Spirit." Because, I must assume, the Holy Spirit throws up his hands in utter "what-am-I-going-to-do-now" fashion as soon as a kid gets up to go to the bathroom.

Contrast this with traditional Jewish styles of learning:

Jews seldom study Torah alone; the study of Torah is, more often than not, a social and even communal activity. Most commonly, Jews study Jewish texts in pairs, a method known as havruta ("fellowship"). In havruta, the pair struggles to understand the meaning of each passage and discusses how to apply it to the larger issues addressed and even to their own lives.

Studying, wrestling, and seeking hard after God is done communally. We Protestants have missed that. With our rows of people, quiet services, quiet times with God, and personal spiritual growth plans, we inadvertently push people towards an individualistic faith.

My friend, James Grogan, says circles are better than rows. He may have stolen that phrase, but since I don't know who said it first, I'll give James the credit. Circles promote group growth, unity, and a combined synergy. This kind of synergy promotes encouraging each other, correcting each other, and pushing each other towards God's best.

The reality is that I don't know everything there is to know about the Bible. God hasn't revealed all angles and varied beauty of truth to me. Your life experiences have given you a certain interpretation of Scripture that will help me know God more fully. Your upbringing, your failures, your pain, your victories, your passions … they all help me know God better. Our collective relationships with our Creator are multiplied together.

The Advantages of Studying Together

1. We both work to fulfill the Great Commission.
Iron sharpens iron, and together we push one another to love Jesus more.

2. We build fellowship.
The early Christians devoted themselves to fellowship, and God honored them in this (Acts 2:42). And you can't fellowship on your own.

3. We fight against pride, realizing we're not the only ones with the "right" answer.
On your own, you're prone to thinking you've got the best angle, the most understanding, and all of the "right" answers. If you thought you didn't, you'd change your mind, right?

4. Past experiences are (at least) doubled, adding new flavors and angles to the truth.
You only have one past, one set of experiences, and one mind. Therefore, you only have one insight into the vast depth of Scripture.

5. We can laugh together.
And that's vital for our growth. If you laugh on your own, while it's just you and God talking, people look at you weird.

6. We don't get "stuck" on questions.
We're less prone to getting stuck, because we can help each other out.

7. There's built-in accountability.
I can't shortcut the process of learning if I'm constantly being pushed and challenged by someone else. Alone, though, it's easy to disappear, not process, and not challenge myself.

8. You're prone to being narrow-minded by yourself.
We can so easily dive straight into narrow-minded legalism and bigotry when we make our faith only about ourselves.

9. You only have two ears to hear from God.
When you read the Scriptures and study them alone, you're limited to your own ears. God speaks to other people besides you. You know that, right?

10. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken (Ecclesiastes 4:12).
Obeying God is hard. Trying to understand and obey the Scriptures will break you if you go it alone.

We Protestants have missed the boat when we study, prepare, and dissect the Scriptures by ourselves. We're better together. Circles are better than rows.

—Ben Reed is pastor of community groups at Grace Community Church. This article is adapted from; used with permission of the author.

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