Circles and Rows

Good things happen when we’re seated in rows, but real church happens when we’re seated in circles.

CIRCLES – I bought a circle of friends candle holder for my mom for Christmas a few years ago. Her friend said it looked more like a circle of monkeys.

That’s a paraphrase of something megachurch pastor Andy Stanley said in a sermon a few weeks ago, and I’ve been flogging that message at every opportunity, ever since.

That’s because it feels to me like Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Calgary (my home church) is growing bigger, but I’m not sure it’s growing closer, or growing deeper. As a result, I think we’re missing out on what God wants to do with, in, through and for us, and I’m convinced small groups can help us explore and tap into that.

Also, since the summer is basically over, Small Group Season is upon us. So time’s a-wastin’!

Membership in a small group played a pivotal role in getting me off the bench and into the game when it comes to my own faith (as Craig Groeschel, another megapastor, said in one of his recent sermon podcasts) and I know it can do the same for other benchwarmer Christians.

Maybe even you.

ROWS – Is it time for you to get off the bench and into the game?

Small group membership was also absolutely instrumental in my journey to answering The Ultimate Question that my pastor, Stephen Hambidge, preached about last week (“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” – Matthew 16:15) and then beginning to live out my answer in action, as well as in words.


As I look back and dissect my spiritual journey from lukewarm benchwarmer to worship leader/wanna-be (hopefully-gonna-be) clergyman, I think small group membership brought two vital catalysts to the equation (mixaphorically speaking), and coincidentally, (just like ‘circle’, ‘catalyst’ and ‘coincidentally’, both of them start with C:



Holy Trinity is above average in size for an Anglican church, but it’s tiny compared with the massive organizations that Stanley and Groeschel lead. Even so, it’s big enough that I don’t know everybody’s names, let alone their stories. Intimacy just ain’t possible when you’re in a group of 200.

Anonymity, on the other hand, is a cinch.

Whether we want it or not.

And that’s one reason why small groups are so vital. In a group of a dozen or less, you can actually get to know people, and perhaps more importantly, become known by people. As Stanley says in the sermon I mentioned at the start of this post…

“You’ll never become who you want to be until you are willing to face up to who you actually are. And the only way to do that is to stop worrying about being known for something, and allow yourself to be known by a group of someones.”

I’m totally in favour of fellowship time after church. It’s a chance to see people you don’t see often enough, and at least do a quick check-in: Howya doin? Having a good summer? A smile, a handshake or a hug, a joke about how church coffee is always awful (church water is usually terrible too, for some reason: I think there’s a connection); a chance to welcome someone new and at least learn their name (even if you forget it a few minutes later and have to ask again next week).

I’m fully onboard with fellowship time, but it ain’t exactly a recipe for real relationship, is it? Conversations are always surface level. Little better (or no better) than small talk. And that’s not because people aren’t interested in going deeper with you, it’s because time is short, the room is loud, interruptions are unavoidable and many people aren’t interested in sharing the deepest parts of themselves in a room full of dozens of potential eavesdroppers. Fellowship Time just wasn’t built for deep conversation.

If you’ve ever felt like church isn’t feeding your appetite for community, and that people aren’t interested in really connecting with you, I bet you’ve never joined a small group. Which means you’ve never truly given us the chance.

You heard me.

Getting into a room with a group of six to 12 people where only one person talks at once (rather than the beautiful free-for-all chaos of Fellowship Time) is a game changer when it comes to building community, and it also sets the stage for today’s other Big C.



We spend a lot of our lives talking, don’t we? We talk to our families about what to have for lunch or where to go on vacation or who used up all the Wi-Fi this month. We talk to our buddies about sports or cars or movies or beer or [whatever women talk about].

But how often do we talk about things that really matter? Even if we’re Christians, most of us don’t gravitate toward meaty discussions about God and our role in Her creation. In-depth discussions about the Bible and what it has to say about how we should live our lives don’t just happen, regardless of how important we know them to be.

Instead, a lot of us tend to focus on faith only on Sunday mornings.

Now, this is problematic just from a time management perspective, isn’t it? If we’re in church at all, we must be somewhat onboard with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

And the way I read it, if the Gospel means anything, it means everything.

But even if you think that’s an overstatement, you can probably agree that if God is really God and Jesus really came to save us from our sins and died on the cross for us and wants us to live in a certain way in response to that, giving Him 90 minutes out of a 10,080-minute week isn’t going to get you very far.

As Steven Furtick – yet another megachurch preacher – said in yet another recent sermon podcast, ‘What good is the seed of the word of God if there’s no water applied to it during the week?’

It’s corny, but there’s more than a kernel of truth in that Twitter-ready quip.

Now, I love sermons. I love listening to them, and I love delivering them. Nothing brings scripture to life in the same way that a well researched, well written, well delivered sermon does. But this mode of communication only goes one way (Preacher ⇒ People) and therefore it has limitations. The best sermons need to be augmented by conversation. Unscripted, unplanned, unpredictable, prone-to-wander conversation that goes both ways (People ⇔ People).

Give and take. Back and forth. Question and response. Doubt and faith. Disagreement and epiphany. Naïve questions. Insufficient answers. Heretical questions. Well-intentioned (but probably also heretical) answers. Gloom. Pollyanna. God can use all of it to build our faith if we’ll only engage with Him.

This is what I think the Proverbist (traditionally believed to be King Solomon) meant when he said:

‘As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.’ – Proverbs 27:17

Who are you sharpening these days? Who’s sharpening you?

†     †     

As you can probably surmise from reading the above, I feel a special urgency this year to get more members of our church plugged into a small group this fall. That’s why I made after-church announcements on the subject throughout the month of August. Pastor Stephen has accepted my offer to provide support to the small groups ministry this fall, so you can now contact either of us to learn more.

I want to help connect new people with existing groups. I want to support and encourage people who think they might want to start new small groups. (It’s really not that difficult, I promise.) I’ll try to answer questions. Dispel myths. Help you find a curriculum to study. Our church has grown bigger; I’m convinced that small groups can help us grow deeper, too.

In John 10:10, Jesus says He came that we may have life, and have it more abundantly. If your life could use some of that abundance, let me help you get plugged into a small group.

Peace be with you.


About robpetkau

Communications professional by day, amateur musician by night, worship leader (at Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Calgary) on weekends and aspiring Bible teacher in my dreams. Grateful husband to the woman who completes me. Doing-the-best-I-can dad to the son and daughter who keep me on my toes. Striving disciple of the GodMan who came, taught and died for me. Thanks for stopping by!
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