In Reading for the Common Good: How Books Help Our Churches and Neighborhoods Flourish, C. Christopher Smith makes a compelling case for the importance of reading as he discusses our reading with others and using what we’ve learned to discern our call and our identity as faith communities.
CHRISTIAN STANDARD recently interviewed Smith about some of the big ideas in his new book.
One of the themes running throughout your book is that the church needs to become a learning organization. Can you give us a brief definition of what that means and explain why reading is so crucial to that process?
Business consultant Peter Senge wrote a best-selling business book in the 1990s called The Fifth Discipline. He asserts that, given the culture and the times we live in, it’s not enough for an organization to do just one thing and to keep doing the same thing and expect to continue on that way. We are in a period of rapid change, and groups of all kinds—not only businesses but also churches and nonprofits—have to adapt and learn.
We are called to be disciples, and disciples, basically, is a word that means “learners.” So the church being a learning organization means paying attention to the transforming work God is doing in the world, and being transformed ourselves over time.
So often we wring our hands when we see change, but if we approach it as a learning organization, change is an opportunity to say, “We can’t do what we were doing 10 years ago or 10 months ago, so let’s figure out what can work.” The gospel is never irrelevant, but the way we live it out in our communities might change.
A practice that’s at the heart of this book, and that’s been really helpful for us at Englewood, is the practice of discernment. Yes, things are changing rapidly around us, but we aren’t supposed to be completely conformed to that. So the nature of our work as the church is trying to navigate the times and discern when and how we need to change and also ways we need to push back on the changing culture.
I loved what you wrote about being a contrast society, that the people of God have always been a people who are called out. One of the insights I took from the book was that reading can be part of envisioning what that contrast should look like in our context.
Reading gives us the opportunity to expose ourselves to stories of those who are different from us: different races, different classes, different nationalities, even different times to a certain extent. We realize the way we do things and the way we imagine the world isn’t necessarily the right way or the only way; there are many different ways people have imagined and lived within the world at other times and places, and that helps us be a bit more humble about how we hold our own points of view.
Reading also makes us mindful of the histories that have brought us to the present, the histories of greed and violence that have made it possible for us to live the way we do. The violence toward Native Americans and African-Americans here in the United States—we would be a very different country if we hadn’t had slavery for almost two centuries, or if we hadn’t committed genocide against Native Americans.
And on a more personal level, we are shaped by the brokenness within our own families and the generational cycles we are part of. Reading can help us recognize the way all of these patterns of brokenness have shaped who we are and how we understand the world.
That gives us things to lament, but then out of that sorrow we can discover new ways of being with our neighbors that are not rooted in violence or self-interest. A community growing in those ways would certainly be a contrast to the larger culture.
For those who aren’t familiar with Englewood Christian Church’s story, can you tell us how this has evolved in your context, and how it’s shaped your thinking?
Englewood was one of the bigger and more prominent independent Christian churches in the late ’60s and early ’70s. We were in an urban area that started to change, and our congregation shrunk rapidly to around 100 people by the mid-1980s. At that point, the leaders were faced with a decision: do we stay here in the neighborhood or do we move out to the suburbs where a lot of our members are? And after praying and discerning for a while, they thought it was really important that we stay here.
So basically, our journey over the last 30 years or so has been one of trying to live into that decision to stay rooted here. One of the ways we’ve done that has been our Sunday night conversations.
Like a lot of churches, we had a Sunday evening service that was kind of a light version of Sunday morning. And people were losing interest in it, but we didn’t want to give up being together on Sunday nights, so we began gathering to talk about theology, Scripture, dreams for the future, all kinds of things. And it was really difficult those first few years, really volatile. Some people left the church. Some stayed, but stopped attending on Sunday nights. But we persisted with it and continue with it to this day, and that discipline of talking to each other and listening to each other has helped us build a healthy, trusting community.
Reading has gone hand-in-hand with conversation. We began with reading Scripture, of course, but interpretation of Scripture happens within a particular context, a specific people, and a specific place. You have to understand the place you’re in and the people you’re among, so it’s important to read widely: good novels, social theory and sociology, psychology, history, ecology, politics. We read to understand the times and places we’re living in.
I’m not saying everyone in the church reads everything, but it is valuable to have people reading different things, and then to have the sort of conversational space where they can reflect on the reading and how it intersects with the discernments and the conversation of this church.
I’ve read that somewhere between 55 and 75 percent of American adults don’t read another book after high school—which is troubling, to say the least. How can churches overcome this? It’s one thing to talk about being a reading church, but you’ve got to start with reading people, right?
We’ve done a lot of different things here. Sometimes people want to participate, but they don’t want to read on their own, and there have been times when we’ve actually said, “Ok, well, we’ll read it out loud together.” We don’t do that all the time, of course, but when something is really important, we’ll read something aloud and discuss it.
Another thing is, there are dozens if not hundreds of books I’m familiar with, not because I read them, but because others in the church have. And at different points in our life together they have taken the initiative to share the key ideas and how they’re relevant to the situation we’re facing or the conversation we’re having.
So getting back to this idea of being a learning organization, it’s teaching each other as we look at the realities around us.
You primarily discuss reading books because, obviously, thoughtful treatment of many topics requires a book, but where do you fit in reading high-quality magazines, blogs, and even listening to podcasts?
Research seems to show that people in the United States are actually reading more than ever before, but the things we’re reading are rapidly changing. We are tending to read more online, and more short pieces. I obviously think books are important, and I think it’s important for us to learn to read slowly and to read at length. But we need both, as long as we’re trying to read in a way that draws us deeper into the life of our churches and our neighborhoods.
A lot of what I write about in this book is not even so much about, particularly, how to read, but how we choose what we read. So, for instance, there’s a chapter about vocation. I think it’s good for people to read about things they’re passionate about, that are core to their vocations, but also to read so they can learn how their vocation is connected to the vocations of others in the church or the vocations of their neighbors.
That’s just one example of what it looks like for us to read in ways that draw us deeper into the flourishing God intends.
It seems, on the one hand, reading is a way to build empathy and envision what it means to be called-out people, but it’s also a way to construct strategies to make that a reality. How do we find the balance? Our movement has always had a bias toward action. For us, the question is how to get everybody to slow down and ponder something!
There’s always a fusion of learning and action: learning, adapting, relearning, and adjusting. One of the things I really appreciate about the Christian churches is our commitment as a tradition to understanding Scripture. So with that as the starting point for our learning, and then drawing on other theological, cultural, and literary resources, we’re going to find greater focus on what we do—the action we need to take.
As a movement, we try to allow Scripture to illuminate the ways we exist as churches in the world. In some ways, I’m just challenging people to take that even more seriously.
Jennifer Johnson, a CHRISTIAN STANDARD contributing editor, is a freelance editor and writer living outside Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.