By Chad Ragsdale
Life can get busy. Correction, life is busy. It is often the principal description we give for our lives. How are we? We’re busy. And our persistent busyness stunts our spiritual and personal growth.
Growth simply demands too much of our time. And, let’s face it, in our culture many of the things that best lead to growth are typically treated as merely “recreational” or diversionary in nature. Important disciplines like Sabbath, study, and meditation are regarded as luxuries (“if you have the time for such things”), much like a day at the golf course or the beach (also good things we should probably allow more time for).
This busyness was one reason why, in January 2014, I joined with a small group of faculty and friends at Ozark Christian College to read and discuss books of common interest. Together we realized that even though we were working at a college that specializes in biblical instruction, it had become far too easy to get caught up in all that was “urgent” while neglecting the type of study that could lead to personal and professional development. Intentional time was needed to study and reflect, and this time was best spent together.
This leads to the second major reason why our group formed. We like each other. This isn’t just a time to read and discuss books together. That would quickly become too much like work. This is a time to enjoy each other’s company and to benefit from one another’s insight and perspective.
Think about the act of eating a fine meal or going on a long trip. These are experiences that can be enjoyed privately, I suppose, but really are best shared with others. A big, juicy steak somehow becomes even more satisfying when there is someone enjoying the meal with you. A dinner becomes an experience only when it is shared with others. In the same way, a long trip to a new place becomes much more memorable and exciting when the journey is taken with friends or family.
I feel the same way about good books. This isn’t just sentimental. I believe there is something about a good book that is meant to be a shared experience with others.
Our group meets over lunch every other Wednesday during the school year. We try to avoid too much structure, so the conversation is pretty free-flowing. We usually begin by sharing significant insights from the chapters we have read. It is remarkable how much this exercise helps cement the message of a book. Our best conversations happen when we seek clarity from the group concerning something that confused us.
This was especially the case with our first book, The Experience of God by David Bentley Hart. This brilliant book takes down the easy and clichéd and ultimately ungodlike understandings of God among both atheists and some apologists. It is also a book I would not have wanted to tackle on my own without the help of insights and questions of friends.
We dedicated an entire year to our second book: the epically long and detailed Paul and the Faithfulness of God by N.T. Wright. (To go back to the meal metaphor, this book is the equivalent of eating a 72-ounce steak after eating another 72-ounce steak.) As valuable as this book is for understanding Paul, there is no way I would have stuck with it or gained much from it if we were not reading the book together. I would have drowned in all the words.
The group kept me engaged. And together, we also keep an eye on practical application. There were numerous times as we were slogging through Wright’s book that we paused to ask, “How would we teach or preach this concept to someone who won’t ever read this book?”
Proverb 27:17 says, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” I believe this statement applies to the discipline of study. There should be a place for disciples to study and learn alongside of other disciples—a place to experience community and growth through the shared experience of reading.
We often talk of the necessity of personal devotion or a “daily quiet time.” This kind of study has its place, but I wonder if we haven’t stripped ourselves of some of the greatest benefits of study by privatizing it. We start hearing only our own voice. But we were never intended to merely study the things of God in isolation from other disciples. Instead, we are blessed and “sharpened” by the perspectives and insights of others when we choose to study and read in community.
And there is the added benefit of accountability. When I read and study only in private, I’m accountable to no one but myself. Left to myself, it becomes really easy for me to find other things to do than to read and study.
I would make these suggestions to anyone wanting to start up a reading group of their own.
• Choose books that interest and challenge you. This has been critical for our group. There are so many great books out there. We all have our reading lists filled with books we’d like to tackle someday. But for our group, we have chosen only works that would qualify as those “big, juicy steak” books. Easy books just do not spark conversation, but the books can’t be so obscure that the group loses interest.
We chose the Wright book last year because several of us had identified it as an important book in the study of the New Testament that we wanted to read someday, but probably wouldn’t, just because of its length. It became the perfect challenge for us.
We chose Hart’s work because it was a new book by an author we all appreciated. We also knew his work was challenging enough that we would need some help with understanding. It was a great choice.
• Choose a small group of people who are committed and interesting. Groups of any type don’t last very long if people are constantly jumping in and out. In order for a reading group to work, you need a small group of people who are excited to participate. If you have to beg a person to join, chances are they won’t be around very long.
At the same time, the group needs to be full of people who are interesting. This may sound harsh, but one reason our group works is that no one is the teacher and no one is the student. It doesn’t mean we are all experts, but we are all bringing something to the table.
• Choose a time and a pace that are sustainable. Waking up at 5 in the morning on Mondays to study together might sound like a great, super-spiritual idea on paper (at least to some freaks out there), but it isn’t sustainable. We chose to meet over lunch every other week because it was something that fit nicely into our already busy schedules.
Pacing is also important. There were several times we realized our reading schedule was too ambitious. The pace was unsustainable, so we adjusted it. A group like this should be a blessing and not a burden, so time and pace are critical.
• Allow the conversations to be fun and practical. It is so difficult to add yet another thing to the schedule. If a group like this is going to work, then the conversations need to feel more friendly than formal. There is a lot of laughing and ribbing in our group, which is one reason it isn’t a burden for me. It’s something I anticipate.
There’s also the practical benefit. This group makes me a better teacher and ultimately a better disciple. Reading groups should strive to have some sort of relevant ministry or life application.
The path of least resistance for us is to be distracted by diversions and consumed by the urgent. What we need is to renew our commitment to the discipline of study. Read. Go deep. Take every thought captive. And find a group to help you on your way.
Chad Ragsdale serves as assistant academic dean with Ozark Christian College, Joplin, Missouri.