Why I (Still) Keep Talking About…Circle of Hope

The exterior of Circle of Hope’s first meeting space, circa 1996. Personal Photo.

I’ve often said that I think Circle of Hope basically “ruined me for any other church.” I’ve written before about why I keep talking about Circle; so forgive any repetition here. Circle is a “cell group” based church, begun in 1996. Kirsten and I joined just a few months into its existence and just a few months into our existence as a very young married couple, and quickly became part of a cell. It was among Circle nearly 25 years ago that I first learned that the church is a people, not a place, and that therefore it’s impossible to “go to church.” I have a powerful story to tell about how our cell cared for us when I was involved in a bad car accident, including sharing resources in a very generous way. Anyway, the basic theory of a cell church is as follows. The “cell” metaphor comes from how the human body works. Crucially, cells either multiply or die, and as they multiply, the body grows. According to cell church theory, and very much as evidenced in practice among Circle of Hope, this is how the body of Christ can (should?, I dare say) work too. 

The way Circle does it is that each cell has a leader, an apprentice leader, and a host. In your cell, “Jesus is the only agenda,” meaning that a cell can wind up organizing itself however it decides- they can talk about the last sermon, read a book together, whatever- but the “point” of the cell is to deepen their relationships with one another and especially with Jesus. Usually each person has a chance to as vulnerably as possible tell their stories, and then the group makes a covenant- spelling out details like when to meet and where and what their format will be, including how long to meet. There is always an end date because written into the DNA of the cell is that it will multiply or die, as I spoke of above. When that “end date” arrives, the cell can agree to extend its time together, but not indefinitely, because then the group becomes something other than a cell. More on that later. Anyway, as you live your life together as a cell, your life is changed! Centered on Jesus, you grow to really love these people and know them. “Iron sharpens iron,” as it were. So you talk about it. You tell your friends, loved ones, neighbors, and co-workers about this life you’re having together, and you invite them not to “go to church” with you, but to experience life together with your cell. The bar for entry is low- you don’t even have to be a Jesus-follower yet, but chances are you’ll want to follow him too, in time.

So cells grow, and when the circle of ten that is the usual size for a cell becomes a circle of, say, 12 or more, the cell multiplies. All the while the cell leader has been meeting with and mentoring his or her apprentice so that when the cell multiplies the apprentice becomes the leader of the second group and takes on his or her own apprentice, the original leader takes on a new apprentice, and the process begins again. The multiplication process is hard, of course. No one wants to see some of the group members move off into the new cell that is being birthed, but it seems to me that this is a necessary part not only of cell multiplication but of discipleship and healthy psychological growth. The letting go of the members of your cell that are going into the one being birthed allows for differentiation and appropriate attachment in which we don’t “need” one another in a clingy way, but instead cherish and love one another while standing on one’s own two feet.

So as cells multiply among Circle of Hope, new leaders are constantly being cultivated, called, discipled, and unleashed to lead- all within an organic system of trust and accountability. Within the cells, discipleship- and healing- is happening too not just for the apprentice cell leader, but for everyone. All have opportunities to discover and share their gifts. And the Sunday meetings (the “worship service”) are joyful weekly family reunions as folks see others they were in cell with before and new friends are welcomed to check out the weekly celebration of the life together that is happening throughout the week in the cells. Here’s a picture of one of those early weekly “Public Meetings:”

An early Circle of Hope Public Meeting. The interior of that exterior shot above. Personal Photo.
And here’s the “bulletin” from one of those early meetings:
A COH “bulletin” from 1997. My copy.

Among Circle, as cells multiply eventually congregations multiply too so that no one congregation gets too big for face-to-face relationships, and so new pastors are called out from among the people of Circle too. Of course, there is training and accountability and a discernment process that happens with this, but it’s simply beautiful.

Likewise, with Circle, you don’t “join the church;” you make a covenant. This usually happens at a quarterly Love Feast, when all the congregations and cells get together. A current member who has covenanted with Circle and who has been basically discipling a person who wants to join, stands up and introduces the new member-to-be, talking about their relationship with this person, that person’s relationship with Jesus, and often describing their life together in a cell. Then the new member-to-be gets to share why they want to covenant with Circle, and then anyone can ask questions of them, and then usually they are accepted into the covenant. This too is beautiful. Here are some photos from an early Love Feast, held at a park. (COHers, look at Rod and Gwen!):

An early COH Love Feast, held in a park. Personal Photo.
Another personal photo from that same Love Feast.
And here is a photo of an early version of the Covenant:
The COH Covenant. I’m not sure of the date. My copy.

Circle of Hope’s Gravity Still Holds Me, All These Years Later, From All These Miles Away

Speaking of leadership, the cell leaders lead the whole church with all its cells and congregations. There are “leaders of cell leaders,” called Cell Leader Coordinators. The Coordinators give oversight to the pastors, who lead the congregations and help cast the vision for how Circle is following Jesus together. Likewise, the pastors keep the dialogue going among the church to protect its “gravity.” I think of this language around gravity as an apt metaphor for what keeps me compelled and captivated by this vision all these years later and all these miles away. I think one of the most beautiful things that Circle does is its “mapping” process. The “map” is more than a document, but it is a document, that spells out where Circle of Hope sees itself in something like one, five, and ten year intervals. If Circle is a people on a mission together, the map says what that mission is. Or pick a vehicle metaphor. If they’re rowing a boat together, the map says where they’re going. Either way, we’re talking about movement, and that’s how I see Circle, as a movement. The map is not dictated, top-down, by the “people in charge.” Crucially, because Circle is organized in ever multiplying cells, Circle is ready-made to discern together- all of them- what the Spirit is calling them to next. So when the yearly mapping process begins, time is spent in each and every cell listening to each and every person for what the Spirit is telling them about where God might be calling them. This assumes that even broken, traumatized people (and many of us living in American empire and subject to rapacious capitalism and the lie that is “whiteness” are indeed broken, traumatized people) have God’s Spirit within them and have something to say about it. That information is collected by the cell leaders and passed on to the pastors and Coordinators, who distill and refine it for common themes. Then, there is a meeting for all covenant members where what has been heard is presented as a vision for those time frames mentioned above, and they vote on it. It’s simply amazing. Everyone has a chance to be heard. Everyone is honored for the Spirit of God within them, and the discernment they engage in is truly mutual. This is the antithesis of a pastor-driven or program-based church, and again the gravity of it all still holds me, even all these years and miles away. Here is the cover of the Map from 2004:
The cover of Circle of Hope’s 2004 Map. My copy.
I should mention too what all this results in. Even all those years ago, the people of Circle of Hope were buying old buildings and rehabbing them (themselves, mostly) to turn them into multi-purpose spaces that could serve as meeting places for congregations but that would also house thrift stores, for example. Today Circle runs several of them. These stores not only serve their neighborhoods by selling cheap goods, but give opportunities to give jobs to those that might otherwise struggle to find work. Here’s another photo of COH’s first meeting space, with some of that rehab in process, in this case making space for what I believe was Circle Counseling‘s first office:
Rehab in process in COH’s first building, making space for Circle Counseling. Personal Photo.
Additionally, periodically Circle has a “BGX,” a baby (and kids) goods exchange. Here’s a photo from one of their recent ones, taken from the Facebook page linked above:
One of Circle of Hope’s free Baby Goods Exchanges (photo credit here)

This is open to the neighborhood where a congregation meets and parents of kids of all ages bring their kids clothes and goods that their kids have grown out of, and everybody swaps. So assuming enough people come and the age ranges of clothes and goods offered covers the need, everyone leaves having given something to a parent of younger kids, and having received something from a parent of an older kid. This mutual sharing of goods is free, of course, and is an incredible gift. Speaking of sharing resources, Circle has a “debt annihilation team,” in which members pool resources with a little “seed”/starter money to pay off each other’s debt. One of Circle’s former pastors wrote about it in Sojourners magazine here. Within the Debt Annihilation Team, all of everyone’s contributions are focused on one person’s debt until it’s paid off, and then the next persons’s, and so on. Members covenant to stay in the group long enough to pay off every member’s debt, even after their debt has been paid off. This way, everyone’s debt is paid off much sooner than they could have otherwise, and there is teaching and accountability given as part of the group to prevent future capitalistic “debt slavery.” This is an incredible, beautiful gift. Going back to Circle’s use of buildings, they are also used as art spaces and concert venues, among other things. And as just one more example, lately Circle has been organizing in solidarity with Black Lives Matter. One way this is expressed is in recognition of the way POC are over-policed and disproportionately incarcerated and then held in jail due to the cash bail system; so Circle periodically helps to raise funds to bail out Black mothers around Christmas time, so that they can be with their kids.

As should be clear, the people that make up Circle of Hope are a people on a mission together with a captivating vision for where God is leading them. Need more proof? Like most good movements, they have their own music, art, proverbs, and rhythms of life. This rhythm of life in the form of the (two) daily prayer sites that they write and maintain are especially on display now, during Holy Week, even in the mist of the pandemic of COVID-19. Each day of Holy Week folks are invited to pray together by making a sacred space in their home and place an object in it in keeping with that day’s theme, and then share on social media if desired. People can “keep watch” throughout the day at the usual monastic times of 9am, noon, and 3pm by saying a breath prayer together, and then each night there is an online evening prayer time that is offered (because everything is online due to the pandemic, an unfortunate fact that has fortunately made it possible for people like me to re-connect from far away).

I should highlight again those “proverbs” I alluded to above. They are ever growing and sometimes changing, but below are some of them from some years ago, including some that go back to the beginning of Circle of Hope and my connection to them. These proverbs helped to form me as a Jesus-follower early in my adult life and captivate me even now. Here’s how I remembered and applied them to myself in 2016:

  • Jesus should be “lens through which” I “read the Bible.”
  • “The Bible should be known and followed, and that is a group project.”
  • The church “exists for those yet to” become a part of it.
  • “Life in Christ is one whole cloth,” and so I should “repent of separating ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’.“
  • I should be a “world Christian” if I am to be one at all; that is, the body of Christ is “transnational.” Therefore, if I am to pledge allegiance to anyone, it is to Christ and his kingdom. There’s much to say there about patriotism; for now, suffice it to say I am grateful for my privilege as a white male U.S. citizen but work continually at least to have some dim self-awareness of how many of my global brothers and sisters suffer so that I can enjoy that privilege.
  • “Without worship, a person shrinks.”
  • “We are discipled for mission, not just for personal growth.”
  • “We learn best person to person, not program to person.”
  • “In the United States the sin of racism impacts all we experience. It is a fact of life for which the dominators are accountable;” therefore they (the people of Circle of Hope) say:
    • “A gospel that does not reconcile is no gospel at all.”
    • “We will do what it takes to be an anti-racist, diverse community that represent the new humanity.”
  • “In a culture deformed by violence, proactive peacemaking transforms our individual fears and faithfully witnesses to the Prince of Peace like nothing else;” therefore, I’m working to learn how to be a peacemaker, which is why I am against not just war, but violence of any kind.
  • Circle of Hope, as I’ve oft described, is a cell group based church. Thus, they say:
    • “Our cells are the basic components of our living body in Christ. In them, Jesus is our ‘agenda’.”
    • “Our cells are the primary place where we help one another grow as disciples, face to face.”
    • “Living in covenant, like a family with a common Father, is basic to being a Christian.”
  • “Women and men are co-bearers of the image of God and therefore fully gifted and responsible to lead, teach and serve.”
  • “A leader is always part of a team, is always a mentor, and is always preparing his/her successor.”

Traumatized People Make Bad Choices. I’ve Made More Than My Fair Share of Them.

You might ask, then, why did we leave Circle- twice, and the second time under not the best circumstances? I’ve been learning a lot recently about trauma and its effect on the brain. A great resource for this is Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk’s seminal book, The Body Keeps The Score. Here’s a good summary of some of his work. Before I continue, I’ll give you some of the writing I did for the recently edited “about” page for this blog, where I wrote:

Let’s get something out of the way. I am a childhood trauma survivor. The trauma I experienced was “complex,” and the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder that I contend with daily is complex as well. That matters because trauma- especially complex trauma experienced from birth (and even in the womb)- dramatically impacts how the brain forms. So these days I understand that for someone with Complex PTSD like myself, I can frequently be driven into the “back of my brain” where the fight/flight/freeze mechanism drives behavior and higher thought (which is centered more or less in the “front of my brain”) is shut off. This response (being driven into the back of my brain) can be “triggered” by almost anything, and it almost never leads to good outcomes, especially relationally. So my therapeutic work now is focused on trying to essentially “hotwire” my brain. I’m grateful for the concept of “neuroplasticity,” which posits that the brain can change throughout life. New neural pathways can be formed even as adults, and these new pathways can work around old ones that trigger a trauma response.

All of this is important because so often my own behavior is incomprehensible to me, when I’m in the front of my brain, that is. Why do I repeat the same mistakes relationally throughout my life? If I believe as we read in the Bible that it is our duty to “owe nothing to anyone,” why do I rack up debt, work hard to get out of it, and then do it again and again and again? One clear answer is trauma, and this reminds me of the Apostle Paul, who said in Romans 7:15 that “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” From what we know of Paul’s life, he was undoubtedly a trauma survivor, among other things. Of course, I’m not a clinician, but just as Paul was limited in his understanding of the world by the first century context in which he was rooted, I too am “limited” by the context that I bring to the text, and Paul’s words here sound awfully familiar. I can relate. In the passage Paul refers to various laws “at war within him,” one of them being the “law of sin.” There’s a lot to unpack there and voices far more authoritative than mine to listen to when doing that theological work (some of which will be referenced below), but for now I just want to notice that I often feel the same way- every day I do the opposite of what I want to, and however we conceptualize sin, I know that trauma and the brain’s response to it is part of the picture.

So the short answer of why we left Philly and Circle twice, and under not the best circumstances the second time, is because I’m literally “brain-damaged.” Arguably both times but especially the second time we left, I was in the back of my brain and was responding to an emotional flashback. I wasn’t really thinking about what would actually be best for me and my family. It’s not a decision I’m proud of, but (again, literally) here we are. The question now, as always, is what to do about it. During this Holy Week and despite and because of the tragedy and trauma of COVID-19, I’m grateful for all the opportunities to re-connect with Circle online. Thanks be to God for that small good in the midst of all this bad.

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