(Recently published as an exclusive editorial in the Outpost – Umatilla, Florida)

My church has a saying that goes “It’s not about the rows, it’s about the circles.”

My wife Ivy and I signed up for a small group within the first few months of attending our church back in late 2000. I will never forget the first night we met our small group.

There was an owner/operator of a Chick-fil-A restaurant, several couples with 3 young kids, a couple who never wanted to have kids, and a couple who had just retired. There was a city government bureaucrat and there was somebody who hated all government in general. There was a couple who had a beautiful daughter born with severe health issues and disabilities.

“Basic” is a term used by Millennials and Gen Z to describe people who are boring. Our new group was anything but “Basic.”

Our church did not use the phrase “it’s not about the rows… it’s about the circles…” until more recently. But really I learned why it’s all about the circles as much as it is about rows the day we joined our church small group.

That small group, despite all its differences, despite the different backgrounds, different ages, different goals, different perspectives, was our home. A Wednesday night small group meeting often contained a challenging message, sometimes different perspectives would mean group members challenging each other, me included. But it always was followed up by supportive words and supportive actions.

I’ve heard our Pastor say that one of his biggest fears is essentially our church becomes too focused on its size and about what happens only on Sunday. He fears that “going to church” will become too centralized and be all about the “show” and the message becoming “spoon fed” to people on Sundays and not about the central message of Jesus, that through His actions and ultimate sacrifice we are set free in His grace and that God wants nothing more than us to be in relationship with Him and each other.

The meaning of the phrase “It’s not about the rows… it’s about the circles…” is that a big church with jaw dropping music, artistry, lots of pastors, and yes, even a powerful pastor with great oratory skills, is not central to Christ’s plan for the church community.

It means the church will die if it centers on one person, or a building instead of the people in it and how they serve the larger community outside of their comfort zone.

There is no way to relate and interact with each other sitting in the “rows.” The Christian faith is all about a relationship with HIM and HIS designed plan to be in relationship with each other – hardly something that can be accomplished by just sitting in rows on Sunday.

The message and what happens on Sunday is important, but it must be balanced with what happens in a circle of friends and believers “between the Sundays.”

The County Commission has met on Tuesdays for generations. As a County Commissioner, citizens hear me often say “it’s not just what happens on the Tuesdays, it’s what happens between the Tuesdays.”

I believe our Church is a big group made up of a bunch of small groups. I can personally tell you it’s really something wonderful to experience and a great place to grow our family.

In the founding days of our country, colonial times in New England, aside from the family unit, the township or village was the most important structure to ensure the health, safety and general welfare of the people.

The people, had to protect themselves from the elements of a wild landscape. They all generally desired to attend church. They settled in small, compact communities, which they called towns or villages. The town was a legal corporation, and was a political unit that was represented in the General Court of the State.

Regularly, the adult males met in a town meeting to discuss public questions, to enact taxes, to make local laws, and to elect officers. The chief officers were the “selectmen,” (later they were called Supervisors) from three to nine in number, who would have the general management of the public business; including the town clerk, treasurer, constables, managers of “common space”, property assessors, and overseers of the poor.

They had Counties back then – sometimes they were called Parishes, even called Shires at one time early on in Virginia. The Counties handled the courts, police, roads, property assessment, and other matters regarding the general welfare of the community.

On his way to America from England in 1630 aboard a ship named the Arbella, John Winthrop preached to early settlers about a City on a Hill. The “City on a Hill”, literally meant the small community of which would later become Boston. He meant it in his own words to be a model community of charity, brotherly affection, and unity.

President Reagan often quoted John Winthrop and his “City on a Hill” while campaigning in 1980.

Thomas Jefferson once said “Strong local self-government is the keystone to preserving human freedom. The way to have good and safe government is not to trust it all to one, but to divide it among the many, distributing to every one exactly the functions he is competent [to perform best].”

It seems to me the founder’s vision for the establishment of a representative government emphasized local community and as a subset, local government perhaps more important, or at least more impactful than a big centralized federal government and a national ideology.

I understand the population back then was very small and sparse. Thus the threats and challenges to a republic with democratic values were different then compared to the nineteenth, twentieth and twenty first centuries. Some centralized federal government has since become necessary.

However, I think what President Calvin Coolidge said in 1925 is very applicable today. President Coolidge said “what we need now is not more Federal government, but better local government.”

President Coolidge went on the say “Local self-government is one of our most precious possessions. It is the greatest contributing factor to the stability, strength, liberty, and progress of the Nation. It ought not to be in ringed by assault or undermined by purchase.”

Do we care about local government? We certainly get fired up for what happens nationally. President Trump’s tweets or the latest comments from Senator Chuck Schumer grab our attention.

Some of us might think we really care about our community and local government. After all, there is amazing technology today that is supposed to help us grow stronger as a community through better communication and the sharing of information. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are supposed to help us relate better to one another correct?

If this is true, why are there more suicides today than ever before? Why is depression at an all-time high? Why are drug overdoses in Lake County happening daily at an alarming rate?

Some would say, “Not my problem; those problems result from the choices those people made.” Yes, there are no neutral actions – only harmful or beneficial results come from an individual’s choices.

If we supposedly have all this technology that will help us communicate, why are we more divided as a nation today than we have ever been?

We don’t have supportive circles anymore. We are stuck in the rows of our own world – centered around ourselves. In my opinion, we are focused way too much on someone or something else that we view to be causing all our problems. We don’t have those circles of people (who sometimes think differently) coming together to listen, interact, engage and find solutions like many of the founding fathers had hoped.

Ironically, we sometimes fault local elected officials for Winthrop idealistic thinking for our local communities – the idea of a “City on a Hill” defined by brotherly affection and unity. Elected officials like County Commissioners and City officials talk about quality of life, public safety, growth, and economic prosperity.

I believe in our President’s message to make America great again – like that “City on Hill.”

But I believe to help President Trump do this, our civic duty goes well beyond watching the news to stay informed and opining. I believe it means getting out of our comfort zones, rolling up our sleeves, and building up those local community circles again. I believe in building a better local government as President Coolidge said. One where people feel like they own it.

After all, as the founding fathers envisioned, we are a nation made up of states, made up of counties, made up of cities. A big group made up of a bunch of smaller groups, or should I say small circles. And it’s hard to hate people who you really know and have shared experiences.

So Yes, I’m making the assertion that we can be more effective in making America great again here in Lake County than we can in Tallahassee or Washington.

My circle is here, not in Washington or Tallahassee. My church is here, not somewhere else. The government that impacts my life more on a daily basis is here, not in Washington or Tallahassee.

Where’s the circle you are in?

Build those circles up at your church and within the local government.

And keep dreaming about that City on a Hill.

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