The Learning, Conversing, Serving Community (4)

Cold Blue. Photo by David Cornwell

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)

• • •

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.

9 thoughts on “The Learning, Conversing, Serving Community (4)

  1. Christiane, Well, {which is a deep subject}, when you do not stay on topic and somehow always get to your pet topic , such as your above comments, what are people to do. I guess a very direct and blunt , stay on topic would be the correct course.

    The last comments of the article were a positive note where people though learning and share drop their oppositional stance and reach out. I guess you took that to reach out and grab the babies out of the arms of the Mothers and then what happens? Focus , Focus , Focus

    Of course we could all play 6 degrees of the Christian far right/the frustrating evangelicals/far right and somehow link those subjects and perhaps Kevin Bacon into the comments. BTW it is only 2 degrees to President DJ Trump on any subject beating even the great actor K. Bacon.

    Focus, Focus, Focus


  2. I remember a guy coming into my room in college and seeing a book on my dresser. He said very condescendingly and derogatorily, “Oh, you read those kind of books!” He honestly had not the foggiest idea what it was except that it didn’t look the part. Talk about judging a book by its cover. I think it was Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis or a Madeleine L’Engle book like Wrinkle in Time.


  3. When the children were pulled from their mothers’ arms, I looked to ALL Christian people to respond, but what I got was a shock:

    it was not just the Christian far right failed to take an open stand against the horror of it . . . . I cannot believe the ‘silence’ and the ‘looking away’ that happened even on blogs that I thought would speak up for those little ones and those mothers . . . but they did not. At worst, was the warning that it was ‘best’ not to talk about the evil; and and best,, there was a more gentle discouragement of the ‘try to stay on topic’ kind.

    I see the negativity concentrated and driven from the far right, but I see that same negativity having an influence now in places that I had thought were beyond its grasp.

    So, I’m concerned now about WHY the influence was strong enough to keep good people silenced as the evil unfolded.. . . I can’t make sense of it.


  4. > so what DOES drive that negativity?

    Tenuous cultural and economic supremacy. Ever more tenuous by the hour.

    > why does it have a tendency to spiral downward

    There isn’t much else anxiety/negativity can do; it very rarely produces positive outcomes.

    > and HOW did the Christian far-right descend into

    It didn’t. It always was, but had a firm grasp on power. The confident tyrant can be mistaken for generous.


  5. ” . . . 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 . . . ”

    the negative focus of some in the conservative Christian world is so intense that you wonder what drives it . . . .
    It is certainly NOT the product of the ‘fruit of the Holy Spirit’, no

    so what DOES drive that negativity? and why does it have a tendency to spiral downward into something out of control filled with the animus of ill-will?

    and HOW did the Christian far-right descend into so much negativity towards so many ?


  6. Book?
    What’s a “book”?
    (tap tap swipe tap tap swipe text text text text text text text text text…)


  7. “””all this depends upon learning from our neighbors about their needs as they perceive them”””

    This. Start with asking.


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