The Learning, Conversing, Serving Community (5)

Touch of Red. Photo by David Cornwell

The Learning, Conversing, Serving Community (5)

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.

In our final post on RFTCG, we look at Chris’s chapter on “Becoming a Reading Congregation.” I’m skipping a few chapters, but encourage you to pick up the book and read them. They further extend ideas we’ve already discussed, about working for the common good of our neighbors and the world around us, dealing with creational, economic, and political engagement in our local communities.

So it boils down to this — How do we encourage, build, and maintain communities that are devoted to learning, conversation, and service? How do we get our congregations to buy into the idea that we show our love for God, our neighbors, and the world by “seeking to know God and the world” (p. 134, emphasis mine)

1. Start by encouraging the slow, attentive, shared reading of scripture.

Again, Smith is not just talking about encouraging people to read their Bibles. This is about learning to practice shared reading through such practices as lectio divina and having conversations in various groups and exploring ways of how to read scripture and discuss it together.

Here is an area in which I believe liturgical churches should have an advantage, for our weekly worship is chock full of biblical texts. But I know from experience that the readings don’t always sink in. In our Lutheran tradition, we almost always preach upon the Gospel reading, whereas the other readings are simply presented. I believe there are simple ways to introduce, present, and use these readings that will continually reinforce the contexts and interrelationships of these readings. If we would just try a little harder, we could easily raise the biblical literacy level of our congregations.

2. Find ways to connect reading to as many church practices as possible.

Those involved in charitable ministries can read books and articles to help them understand the blessings and pitfalls of their work. Teachers can refine their skills through continuing education by reading. Leaders can do the same.

He wisely reminds us that some people are not readers and shouldn’t be coerced or left out of the conversation. Also, people have different capacities when it comes to reading and learning. Recognize this and adapt your learning efforts appropriately.

3. Create conversational spaces.

He suggests looking at four types of spaces: (1) Spaces in which you are already having discussions, such as Sunday School classes, small groups, leadership teams; (2) New spaces you create in which to have discussions, such as seminars, workshops, etc.; (3) Forming book clubs both in the church and in the community; (4) Have people in the church who love to read and write do book reviews that can be shared in newsletters, church websites, blogs, and in meetings.

As we seek to become a reading congregation, it’s not enough to read books; we need to talk about them with others. Reading and conversation go hand in hand. I doubt it is possible to promote the practice of reading without having a space in which to discuss books. It is in conversation that we make connections between what we read and how we live. It is through these connections that books endear themselves to us. In conversation we are also energized to dive even deeper into reading. (p. 137)

4. Make books and resources accessible and find ways of curating and recommending them.

I thought the following example was instructive:

Although bookstores or libraries are the most common ways of making books accessible to a congregation, they are not the only options. The Renew Community in Lansdale, Pennsylvania, a church with a deep commitment to nurturing the practice of reading, is pastored by J.R. Briggs. For each sermon series, the Renew Community recommends several books for its members to read. J.R. and other church leaders choose these books to engage as many people in the congregation as possible, spanning a variety of reading levels of familiarity with Scripture. Copies of these books are kept in the foyer. The church even has a line item in its budget for books. It gives copies to members who agree to read and discuss them with one of the church’s leaders or with others in the congregation. (p. 140)

Chris also recommends, from his own church experience, that congregations keep reading lists on various subjects, accessible to the congregation in the church publications, library, and online.

5. Strive to sustain a reading culture.

Ultimately, this requires helping all ages in our churches develop habits of reading, learning, conversing, and serving.

Finding ourselves in the last days of the modern age, we have inherited a world ripped asunder and smashed to the tiniest of bits. We are starving and gasping for air, cut off from many of the channels that feed and sustain us. Our best hope, it seems, lies in religion (from the Latin root religare, meaning “to bind again”), the slow work of binding together things that have been torn apart. The vision of the local church as a learning organization sketched in this book is a religious vision: binding together individual Christians in their church communities, church communities in their places, and places in the wondrous whole of creation. Faith and work, being and doing, a rootedness in history and a vision for the future, all brought together with fervent prayer that the Great Healer might continue the work of mending our broken world. (p. 147)

• • •

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.

12 thoughts on “The Learning, Conversing, Serving Community (5)

  1. A little uncharitable I think. I grew up in a Church where a few verses were quoted every week to preface a 40 minute sermon. The idea of simply reading scripture without commentary was quite radical. Of course in rural Georgia we had no idea about the glories of the Liturgy and the Unbroken Tradition of the True Faith stretching back unblemished to the days of the Apostles. (Insert snarky sarcastic emoticon)


  2. I started, and I abandoned it.

    It’s separatism without being separatist; a tired old song. All proper and calm, and politely elitist. They’ll get around to how to make sure their enclaves are inclusive of those without the wealth to “voluntarily associate”…. eventually. In the meantime they will keep distant, yet softly supportive, connections with those who will ensure the preservation of their enclaves … and they will feel sad about some of the means that might be involved in that – – you know, the world is a corrupting and dangerous place, politics is truly such a tragedy.

    It’s the Clapham Sect all over again.


  3. St. Benedict = Catholic Saint (not in the Bible)

    To Evangelicals:

    Catholic Saint = Bad

    Using the transitive property:

    St. Benedict = Bad

    The Rule of St. Benedict will not be destroying evangelicalism.

    I don’t think Smith’s book is aimed at an evangelical audience.


  4. Have you read Dreher’s book?

    Before you ask, I haven’t, but I read his blog, where he has sketched out his ideas for what become the books. If you’ve read him, I’d be interested in knowing what you find as uncharitable.

    And very true about the Benedictine way wiping out Evangelicalism.



  5. But successfully bringing that rule into Evangelicalism would be transformational; ultimately doing so would positively destroy Evangelicalism.

    This reads as far more charitable than Dreher’s Benedict Option.


  6. It already has, for several centuries.
    It’s called LITURGY OF THE WORD — public readings as part of Liturgy.


  7. > Have people in the church who love to read and write do book reviews

    That could be really interesting. The newsletter – by which I mean something that had actual content – is a sadly bygone form.


  8. “1. Start by encouraging the slow, attentive, shared reading of scripture.”

    A month ago, my church took a Friday night to publically read the book of Roman out-loud. [ no commentary – just reading.]

    We had 4 different readers, we would have a brief song between sections.

    It would be nice if this caught on thru-out the world – the public reading of Scripture


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