The Learning, Conversing, Serving Community (4)
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.
The next section of Chris Smith’s book deals with how the church as a learning organization can help our neighbors as well as the faith community itself. Chris quotes Parker Palmer, who says, “In prayer and contemplation we begin to understand that our identity is not to be found in our differences from others — in our superiorities and inferiorities — but in our common humanity.”
In my view, this is a fundamental statement to understanding the genius of Chris Smith’s book and the mission his congregation engages in daily. They have renounced the spirit of separatism that infects so many churches. They have realized that God has planted them in a place, in a community, with neighbors and acquaintances that the congregation is called to befriend and relate to. They have bought into the fact that God is redeeming all things in Christ and that God has called us to participate with him in repairing the torn fabric of the world, one stitch at a time. “Our call as churches to seek ‘the flourishing of life for all’ is the theological conviction that will guide us…” (p. 87)
This means our primary stance vis a vis our neighbors is that of seeking common ground so that we can advance shalom in the world around us.
As an example, Smith cites Thomas Cahill’s book, How the Irish Saved Civilization, and its story of how the Irish monks spread literacy and learning across Europe through establishing monasteries, universities, and libraries.
Cahill’s story reminds us that reading is essential for healthy, flourishing cultures. It also helps us see that our churches stand within a long history of Christian communities that have functioned as learning communities in which practices of reading and learning were interwoven with habits of caring for members of the community and neighbors. If we take this history seriously, church communities in the twenty-first century could be well positioned to cultivate habits of literacy that foster life in their particular places. (pp. 84-85)
Books and a commitment to learning give churches an opportunity to serve a library function in the midst of their communities, preserving, passing on, and celebrating the unique history, identity, and characteristics of these places.
It also enables them to contribute through serving an education function. Congregations can help their communities by raising the literacy and learning levels in them. Smith suggests that churches can offer libraries (with broader content than most church libraries I’ve seen) and partner with their local libraries through promoting them, encouraging parishioners to volunteer in them, and advocating for them in the civic life of the community.
Furthermore, churches can find ways of serving the public schools in their neighborhoods, as well as literacy groups and tutoring services, in order to promote education in their communities. The church has long seen this as part of their role. The original “Sunday Schools” were exactly that — schools that churches ran to bring literacy and education to their neighbors. Chris mentions the example of Frank Laubach, a 20th missionary in the Philippines who promoted development, starting with the foundational step of literacy. He saw this as the key ingredient in helping people help themselves and combating the scourge of poverty.
Of course, all this depends upon learning from our neighbors about their needs as they perceive them. This involves conversations — conversations with our neighbors. These can be public conversations that the church hosts, or personal conversations as we engage them as friends in the midst of our daily lives.
In my church’s experience of conversing and working toward the flourishing of our place, we have found that it is easier to get our neighbors involved in this work, and to keep them involved, when the focus is positive and not negative. Instead of always entering public conversations with an oppositional stance — energized by the things we are against — we do well to work for a positive vision for the future of our place, pursuing the collective hopes and dreams of our neighbors. (p. 94)
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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.