The Learning, Conversing, Serving Community (2)
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.
• Chris Smith
We are spending some time during these winter months considering Chris Smith’s fine book, Reading for the Common Good: How Books Help Our Churches and Neighborhoods Flourish.
Chris also has a new author’s blog that we have put in our links list, and he is preparing for the release of a new book, How the Body of Christ Talks, which will be available in April. We reviewed his book Slow Church back in 2014, and appreciate his ongoing work as the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books.
In our first post we discussed Chris’s idea of churches as learning communities, not reading for knowledge’s sake alone, but for the purpose of informed, redemptive Jesus-shaped action in our congregations and among our neighbors. Slow, sustained, reflective reading, combined with vibrant conversation, can form a community of people that understand, not only the scriptures, but also themselves and the world around them.
Reading and learning does this first of all by shaping our social imagination.
Drawing on the work of a number of contemporary social philosophers, I use the term social imagination here in a broad manner, incorporating all the ways in which we talk about, understand and order our everyday experience. We often make decisions in our daily lives without much reflection. Even when we do carefully reflect before making a decision, our options are usually limited to a small set of choices. The social imagination is the force at work shaping reality behind and throughout our decision making.
Communities such as churches have a social imagination, a “culture” if you will, that often becomes so familiar to people involved in the group that it becomes their “reality.” Chris Smith acknowledges that within any group there may also be any number of individual perceptions that might differ with aspects of the group’s social imagination. Therefore, one of the challenges of any congregation is to bring people together, “allowing our individual imaginations and visions to contribute to the forming of a shared vision.”
Reading, of course, will inevitably expand and transform our individual imaginations, but it also plays a crucial role in changing our social imaginaries. Through reading, we encounter new and different language, theory and structures.
When individuals and groups within the congregation are reading and sharing what they are learning through meaningful conversations, it can be transformative. Reading that is “shared, engaged, and discerned” can broaden and enrich our understanding of ourselves and our world. Chris talks about how this happened in his own congregation.
For the last twenty years my church community, Englewood Christian Church, has gathered for conversation every Sunday night. The first few years of this conversation were spent refining the language (and the associated theology) that we used as evangelicals. We started with the question, What is the gospel? Eventually we moved on to other questions: What is the church? What is salvation? What is Scripture and how do we read it? What is the kingdom of God? In these early years of our conversation, as we refined our language and our theology, our local social imaginary was transformed in powerful ways, and we began to act in ways that reflected this shift.
In order for this kind of conversation to be effective, the members participating must be disciples — people who take the place of learners, seekers of wisdom who develop habits of feeding their minds, hearts, and spirits with knowledge and understanding. Most importantly, leaders must model and encourage all of this.
Churches who devote themselves to this kind of continually transforming social imagination can be semper reformanda — always reforming — and not merely committed to defending the status quo as though that were the definition of faithfulness.
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Note: We are 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.