The Learning, Conversing, Serving Community (3)
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.
Further honing in on the transforming benefits of reading, Chris Smith moves from talking more generally about how it refines our social imagination to discuss how we more fully understand our identities and vocations as we practice reading, reflection, and conversation together.
A Christian community’s sense of identity is shaped primarily when we read scripture and learn to take our place in the biblical story. However, studying the Bible is not just as simple as reading the English Bible together. Having people in our congregation who are familiar with biblical languages and the history of interpretation can help us go deeper in what it means to read this ancient book faithfully. Being able to place our congregation in the flow of church history and in the traditions of theology and church practice that we follow can further help us understand our ancestry and what we have inherited.
But Chris recommends that we access other kinds of books as well.
- Books of philosophy that ask probing questions about human experience.
- Books of history, sociology, and cultural studies that “help us understand better how our cultures have taken the form they have and can help us name the types of brokenness in and around us.” (p. 66)
- Works of psychology that can help us understand what it means to be human and to live whole and healthy human lives.
- Works of literature and fiction that explore these and other themes but grab our attention and stimulate our imaginations in ways that nonfiction books might not.
- Poetry that gives us new language and metaphors to help us understand ourselves and our world.
Questions of who we are and why we are are not the only ones that we need to consider. We also must wrestle with the questions of when and where we are. “Where are we?” is a question that is fundamental to our identity….The challenge of understanding when we are involves discerning what it means to live in this particular age and how the present day is interrelated with previous ages. Reading history, of course, will be essential to understanding the times in which we live, but news and commentary will be equally important. Reading politics and economics also will help us understand our times.
Once again, contemporary poetry and fiction can shed needed light on the times in which we live, often helping us to see connections in ways that narrow, siloed genres of nonfiction — politics, economics and the like — cannot. (p. 67)
Identity leads to vocation or calling. Coming to terms with “Who am I?” we are led naturally to ask, “What am I here to do?
Chris Smith encourages to think more broadly than we often do about this. It is common for Christians to narrow our understanding of vocation to two things: (1) God’s call to follow Jesus, and (2) our individual call to recognize our gifts, interests, and the opportunities God grants us. But, as he argues, “If it is in the local church that we are to embody Christ together…then it is within that context that we should discern how our individual skills can be made available for the shared work of bearing witness to the love and reconciliation of Christ.” (p. 73)
An illustration from Chris Smith’s own church may be instructive.
As a small urban congregation with a massive building to maintain, my own local church was thrust early into the sort of economic uncertainty that many churches are facing today. We have been wrestling with these challenges for almost twenty years. Through practices of reading and conversation, we have been fortunate enough to have cultivated a little imagination regarding the shared economy of our church. We have started several businesses that use the gifts of our members to benefit our neighborhood and other churches. These include a daycare and preschool, a community development corporation engaged in affordable housing and economic development, and the Englewood Review of Books, which recommends resources for our church and other churches around the world. These businesses provide common work for us, employing people in full- and part-time positions and involving many others as volunteers. This common work allows a growing number of our members to be together on a daily basis, working with each other and thinking and talking often about how our faith gets lived out amidst all the wonderful assets and deep challenges of our neighborhood. (p. 75)
Englewood Christian Church could have taken what I would consider an easier way. They could have moved out to the suburbs where many of their members were living. Instead, in the 1980s they decided to stay in their struggling urban neighborhood with their older, expensive building and to explore who they were (and could be) in that setting, and what God might be calling them to do for one another and their neighbors. Their journey of reading, conversing, and serving entered a new era.
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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.