The Learning, Conversing, Serving Community (1)
This is two years overdue.
I told my friend Chris Smith back then that I would do some reflections on his book, Reading for the Common Good: How Books Help Our Churches and Neighborhoods Flourish, and in my usual disorganized way, I have completely neglected to follow up on that promise.
So, with apologies to Chris, I’m taking it up now. And I think it’s actually a pretty good time in our culture to do so. We’ve had more than our share of punditry about the information glut, fake news, the death of truth, and the impact of all the screens we gaze into upon our ability for sustained concentration and personal interaction. It’s time for some antidotes, and that’s what Chris has given us in this book.
He suggests that churches should be learning communities. This does not simply mean that we should have good teaching in our pulpits and classes. He means that we should be engaging in the lifestyle of being disciples — learners, students, apprentices — and that we should be actively sharing what we are learning as individuals with each other. This learning should form us and lead us, personally and corporately, into the kinds of actions by which we follow Jesus into our neighborhoods. There we engage in further conversations with our neighbors in order that we might all flourish together as we love and serve one another.
That’s why I’m calling this series, “The Learning, Conversing, Serving Community.” Because it is more than simply about reading books. But books — all kinds of books — form a primary source material from which we draw.
In this book, we will view the local church as a sort of learning organization, in which both learning and action lie at the heart of its identity. We will explore the practice of reading — perhaps the most important component of learning in the twenty-first century — and consider how we can read together in ways that drive us deeper into action.
To imagine a church as a learning organization will require a dramatic shift in our understanding of the nature of church. Church can no longer be simply an experience to be passively consumed; rather, we are called into the participatory life of a community. Reading is a vital practice for helping our churches navigate this shift.
For Christians, of course, the Bible is at the heart and center of this reading. But this by no means is all that we are talking about here. As our family story, the scriptures give us an identity and a legacy. As we learn to find our place in that story, our minds, hearts, and imaginations become formed within the community of faith through the ages and around the world. We come to know who God is, who we are, and what our place is as his image in this world.
But, as Chris says, the Bible itself says that in Christ God is reconciling all things on earth and in heaven to himself (Col. 1:20). Though our minds will never be able to grasp “all things,” it behooves us to read and think broadly so that we might faithfully take our part in this reconciling work. In short, we are called not only to know God, but also to be wise about our world, not only to be literate about our faith, but also to understand our neighbors.
As Chris Smith testifies about his own church, Englewood Christian Church on the near east side of Indianapolis:
As we seek to live faithfully in our neighborhood, we have come to understand that our life together is composed of two essential and interwoven threads: learning and action. On one hand our life together is marked by discipleship: learning to follow more deeply in the way of Jesus and to bear witness more fully to God’s reconciliation of all things. On the other hand, we are engaged in a wide array of overlapping activities in our neighborhood: community development, economic development, early childhood education, gardening, alternative energy, caring for our neighbors (including ones that are often marginalized: the homeless, seniors, the mentally ill, etc.), publishing, extending hospitality, and many other types of work. Without learning, our action tends to be reaction and often is superficial — we act without comprehending the many factors that are at play in a situation. Without action, our faith is irrelevant, and most likely — to borrow a thought from the apostle James — dead. Although most churches tend to veer in one direction or the other, we need both learning and action in order to sustain healthy, flourishing communities. (p. 15-16)
• • •
Note: I will be using some of our friend David Cornwell’s pictures to grace this series. David is a big fan of Chris Smith and the work of Englewood Christian Church. For more of his wonderful photography, go to David’s Flickr page.