Beyond Ableist Missions: a book review

The discipleship model I was taught as a young Christian, was to invest my time and energy in those who were FAT—Faithful, Available, Teachable. They were the people going places and investing in them would give us the greatest return on our personal investment. The funny thing was that when I picked up my Bible I was repeatedly exhorted to invest my time and energy in caring for the wounded, the poor, the widowed and the orphaned. And I discovered that a sign of God’s Kingdom was the inclusion of those who had been marginalized, excluded and oppressed.

5102The Disabled community is often marginalized and excluded from Church life. While churches have had to accommodate people with disabilities because of the Americans with Disability Act (1990), that has often meant, providing handicapped bathrooms, and wheelchair ramps. Far less thought has been given to how disabled people fit within the mission of the whole church and the gifts they offer to the community. Benjamin Connor (Ph.D., Princeton), professor of Practical Theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland Michigan, and director of their Graduate Certificate in Disabled Ministry,  aims at enlarging the church’s vision to see the inclusion of disabled people as a ‘sign, agent and foretaste of God’s Kingdom.’

In Disabling Mission: Exploring Missiology Through the Lens of Disability StudiesConner strives to stimulate a conversation between disability studies and missiology on what it means for the entire body of Christ to share in the witness of the church (7). He also helps us reimagine “how we might [dis]able Christian theology, discipleship and theological education for the sake of enabling congregational witness” (7).

In Part 1 of the book, Conner describes his chief dialogue partners, disability studies, and missiological studies. Chapter 1 is an ‘introduction to Disability Studies for Missions.’ Conner rehearses issues which face people with disabilities such as unemployment, abuse, violence, poverty homelessness, and incarceration (28-33) and ways that the church may move intersectionally to minister to the needs of people with disabilities. In chapter examines the field of Mission studies to see what it has to offer disabled communities. Ideas that are particularly fruitful for framing Christian mission to people with disabilities are the Missio Dei (that the church participates in the Mission that God initiated), indigenous appropriation and contextualization, and Christian Witness (39-47). While much of missiological studies have not specifically engaged issues around disability, Cooper draws on insights from two missiologists that addressed disability explicitly (he’s drawing on Amos Yong, and more critically, the work of Lesslie Newbigin).

Part 2 introduces the practical outworking of this discussion between disability and mission. Using Robert Schreiter’s “Teaching Theology from an Intercultural Perspective,”  Conner observes how disability cultures are homogenized (treated like they are the same), colonized (dominated by the dominant culture), demonized, romanticized, or pluralized (i.e. “we are all disabled”) However these approaches to disability (and other cultures) prevent us from seeing the gifts that disabled cultures offer the whole church. Connor examines first the deaf community (chapter 3), and those with Intellectual Disabilities (ID) (chapter 4).

By highlighting the d/Deaf community, Connor acknowledges that many in the deaf community would not regard the d/Deaf experience as  a “disability.” Many d/Deaf people regard hearing people as disabled because of our limited perception visually, our manual language and our limited visual capacities (68). Nevertheless the d/Deaf culture (schools, societies. etc) developed in the context of 19th Century missions to deaf people’s. The deaf community has historically (and concurrently) marginalized by the audist (ableist community). Using Schreiter’s categories Connor points how while deaf culture has been homogenized and dismissed and their contributions devalued, colonized and dominated by audist culture, demonized (their deafness is seen as evidence of fallenness), romanticized, and pluralized (their different experience and contributions relativized to a non-meaning (89-92). Through a missiological lens (Missio Dei, contextualization and witness), Conner points to the gifts that the d/Deaf community has to offer the whole church, “enhanced communication, embodiment, different and more relational ways of arranging space, visual-kinetic ways of communicating the gospel” (101).

In discussing Intellectual Disabilities (ID), Conner notes the similar ways that those with ID are marginalized by the Ableist community. Through the lens of Orthodox iconography, Conner points to a way to understand personhood (and the Imago Dei) in a way that does not privilege rationality, and values the contributions of all to the total witness of the church:

People with intellectual disabilities expose the limitations of our words for conveying truth. They remind the church that truth is “not as a product of the mind” but “a ‘visit’ and a ‘dwelling’ of an eschatological reality entering history to open it up as a communion -event.” The goal of our iconic evangelism is, ultimately, communion with those whom we are bearing witness—and that communion is in Christ (130).

and:

A faithful Christian anthropology embraces the limitations and contingency of all human existence, and it recognizes that the image of God we bear  is expressed together in Christ and animated in us collectively by the Holy Spirit. People with intellectual disabilities are indispensable to their faith communities because among the other gifts and trials they offer, they remind their communities that our abilit to image God is externally grounded. All personhood—able and disabled,  in all its diversity—is grounded in gift, animated by the Spirit and eschatological in nature. Stated succinctly, and borrowing Amos Yong’s phrasing: “People with disabilities are created int he image of God that is measured according to the person of Christ” just like everyone else. Our iconic witness doesn’t exclude anyone because it is not dependent on a strategy or capacity that is intrinsic to us (140-141).

While the focus of chapter 4 is on ID, the concept of iconic witness is applicable to other forms as a disability as well.

In chapter 5, Conner discusses ways to [Dis]able theological education by disabling constructs, disrupting myths of self-sufficiency, and dis-locating narratives (151-152), After sharing a couple of examples of ways in which disabled students have enriched the community of Western Theological Seminary, Conner challenges us to reconfigure our learning communities by including disabled students, being intentional about their participation in life, and the dimension they bring to the theological community (159-64).

Conner points to a more inclusive vision for missiology, that values the abilities and contributions of all, regardless of their physical abilities or mental capacities. The concept of iconic witness doesn’t place the responsibility for Christian witness on the autonomous individual—able or disabled. It instead, lays emphasis on the church as a witnessing community where all are included. This means that while disabled people (or, other-abled people) have a crucial place in enriching the witness of the church. Conners approach honors the unique contributions that disabled people offer to our ecclesial and missional life.

I highly recommend this book.  Part and parcel to the church’s witness is the care for the vulnerable in society (James 1:27). As Christians make space to minister to and care for the vulnerable, they participate in God’s mission of redemption of the world. This book is valuable for an academic context (he envisions some changes for theological education), but as he traces the implications of disability for missiology, anyone who seeks to minister in the name of Christ will find this valuable. I give this five stars and think this book may be a real game changer. – ★★★★★

Notice of material connection I received a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Children’s Ministry Without Burnout: a book review

I first became aware of Mark DeVries and the work of his organization Ministry Architects and his books on Youth Ministry like Sustainable Youth Ministry (IVP 2005), Family-Based Youth Ministry (IVP 2004), and Build A Volunteer Team (IVP 2015). I’ve long been convinced that the best practical theology being done anywhere, begins in the youth ministry world and Brandon Mckoy, Andrew Root, Kara Powell, Pamela Erwin, have transformed my thoughts, not only on youth ministry but on ministry and mission in general. Devries work is less theological than some of these other folks, but he’s eminently practical, promoting systems and structures (e.g. a functional database organization, delegation, and systemic plan for volunteer recruitment and management).

8847I’ve often thought that most of what he says about youth ministry is broadly applicable to other ministries. When I read Building Your Volunteer Ministry: A 30 Day Change Project for Youth Ministry, I was pasoring a small church. The most natural application I saw for Devries (and Nate Stratman’s) wisdom was in our children’s ministry. Sustainable Children’s Ministry: From Last-minute Scrambling to Long-Term Solutions. Is essentially the wisdom of Sustainable Youth Ministry adjusted and applied to the realm of children’s ministry. While Mark DeVries is still the headliner, his co-star author, Annette Safstrom, is the children’s ministry consultant for Ministry Architects and the narrative voice throughout the book.  She took Devries ideas, adjusted them, and shows how they work in a children’s ministry context.

The book has 14 chapters. In Chapters 1 and 2, Safstrom tells of her shift to a more systemic approach to children’s ministry. When she first entered the children’s ministry world, she put in lots of hours and lots of ideas but no systems in place. She got burned out by the ministry. Her second foray as a children’s minister had more structure, and when she handed off her children’s director job, she left the church in a good stead.

Chapters 3 through 7 describe the systems approach to children’s ministry.  While many children’s and youth ministries focus on the fun event, like VBS and fun activities, an overemphasis on ‘the icing’ without attention to the whole cake, leaves children’s ministries with nothing but a sticky blob (31-32). Saftstrom and Devries argue that in order for ministry to thrive, Children’s ministers need to be as attentive to maintaining the dancefloor as they are in doing the dance (33).  Chapter 4 describes the staffing, resources, and investment needed for Children’s ministry to thrive. Safstrom and Devries have observed several factors common to  healthy children’s ministries: $1000 annual investment in children’s ministry per child attending, 1 full-time staff person per seventy-five children in the children’s ministry (or the equivalent staff hours), 1 adult volunteer for every 5 children, and a children’s ministry which makes up about 15% of the worshipping congregation. Safstrom notes:

I’m not saying you should spend more money on your children’s minsitry. I’m saying you should match your expectations to your investment. If you’ve only got the fund to faithfully engage ten children, then your church’s leadership needs to be crystal clear that they have decided to have ten children involved (and be happy about it). One surefire way to suck the energy out of a children’s ministry is to invest at one level and expect results that are twice (or ten times) as much as the investment would merit (46).

This is a key insight. Children’s ministry is like any other ministry. You get out what you have invested. Not more.

In chapter 5 and 6, Safstrom and Devries point at the particular ‘machines’ which serve children’s ministry—databases, calendars, volunteer recruiting and equipping plans, communication, attendance tracking, visitor and MIA follow-up, safety and security plans, check-in systems, facilities, and equipment maintenance. Chapter 7 describes creating visioning and mission statements, goals and plans.

Chapters 8 and 9 tackle the practical challenges of delegating tasks, managing a volunteer team and developing a volunteer rotation plan. Chapter’s 10 and 11 help Children’s ministers navigate (and see their role) in the realm of wider church politics, and how to partner with parents and families. Chapters 12 through 14 focus on self-management for children’s ministers (e.g. self-care, support structures and mentoring, maintaining spiritual health, and ways to stay emotionally healthy).

There are also several appendices with helpful plans, checklists and sample statements for putting Devries and Safstrom’s systemic approach to action.

This is a really practical book which will serve Children’s ministers well. Like the Sustainable Youth Ministry counterpart, the principles are broadly applicable, though it is nice to see the attention given to the particular context of children’s ministry. I recommend this book, especially for children’s ministers that are feeling overwhelmed by their ministry and are looking for ways to make this more sustainable. I give this 4½ stars. ★★★★½

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from InterVarsity Press in exchange for my honest review.

 

The Midwives of Mission: a book review

When I picked up To Alter Your World: Partnering with God to Rebirth our CommunitiesI was already a Michael Frost fan, having read several of his books on the missional church and incarnational community. I was less familiar with his co-author, Christiana Rice; however, as a missional practitioner, church planting coach and trainer for thresholds, she brings keen insights to what it means to partner with God in the birthing of New Creation for neighborhoods and communities. Together, they crafted a book that is both helpful and awakens my imagination for mission.

4137Frost and Rice’s book is about transforming communities and neighborhoods, as its title, To Alter Your World, implies. Yet, I think this is one book where the subtitle, Partnering with God to Rebirth our Communities, is a more apt description of the book and its contents. The first half of the book (chapters 1 to 6) rests on images and metaphors of birth: labor, birthing, midwifery. The latter half of the book describes the dynamics of bringing social and spiritual change to neighborhood and place.

In chapter 1, Rice & Frost describe how God groaned like a woman in labor (Isa 42:14) awaiting Israel’s rebirth—their return from exile and captivity (14). They connect Israel’s experience to the Church’s role in welcoming the Kingdom of God into our broken world. In both cases, it is God who does the (re)birthing of communities, and not our frenetic religious or political activity.  Nevertheless, we are invited to partner with God in his restorative work. “Only this one—the Ancient of Days—can change our world, and those of us who have heard God’s groans and responded in faith are invited to serve God in this empire-shattering work” (28).

In chapter 2 and 3, Rice and Frost address the types of things which stand in the way of partnering in the New Creation,  God is bringing (e.g. the church’s disengagement from secular life, colonizing methodologies,  and big-box rootless churches, disconnected from the places and communities they inhabit). Frost and Rice articulate an invitation to churches and missional communities to be a disruptive presence by heeding God’s restorative purposes for communities.

In Chapters 4 through 6, Midwives to the Birth of the New Creation, Rice and Frost describe five Midwife practices. These practices are:

  1. – Releasing our Agendas.
  2. – Shaping the Environment
  3. – Holding the Space for Birth
  4. – Being Flexible and Fearless
  5. – Living Out a New Narrative

The metaphor of midwifery is an alternative metaphor to the sort of militaristic ‘band-of-brothers’—let’s take this city for Christ!—metaphor for mission. Midwives don’t deliver babies, they attend births, hold the space, help open doors, and nurture the birthing process. Frost and Rice draw the parallels between midwives attending birth children and leading pioneering missional movements which transform communities. Missional leaders attend to the New Creation God is birthing in their neighborhood context. Rice draws parallels between the midwife’s role at the birth of her children, and she and Frost point to stories of similar dynamics, as missional communities and churches partnered with what God was birthing in their communities.

In chapter 7 they present the Emory Social Change Model, which describes social change at the level of (1) the individual, (2)interpersonal relationships, (3) community, (4) institutional and (5) structural levels. While all levels are necessary and are encompassed by concentric circles, most churches operate at the individual and interpersonal levels, “encouraging personal self-awareness, congruence, and commitment” (124). However, Frost and Rice argue that to “catalyze social change there needs to be more work done on the three higher tiers” (124). By focusing on community and societal transformation, missional communities cast a bigger vision for what social transformation may look like in their contexts.

Chapter 8 demolishes the old clergy/laity divide, describing a more inclusive vision of work and vocation for community/church members. Chapter 9 explores how to change the world through place crafting (the church working with-in and in-with the wider community to bring about mutual flourishing). In chapters 10 and 11, Frost and Rice describe how the road towards social change, is also a road of mutual life with those communities. Missional communities do not just work to change others, they too are changed.  Missional communities do not just do just ‘take the city for Christ’ but are invited into a lifestyle of suffering and greater vulnerability as they seek the good of the city (or neighborhood) they are planted in.

Frost and Rice have given some helpful and heartfelt instruction to those of us who long to see the Kingdom more fully revealed in our midst.  Through stories and the midwife metaphor, they make vivid a vision of mission. On a personal level, I found the ‘midwife/birthing’ chapters the most compelling part of this book, because it describes the missional vocation as actively partnering in the process of bringing about new creation (the Kingdom of God/the fall of empire/social change) without turning the minister into ‘the one who makes it all happens.’ The role of the midwife is not passive, but responsive, not manipulative but attentive and nurturing. This seems fundamentally right to me.

The sections on social change, place-crafting and ‘work as vocation’ are helpful. I underlined a lot of things and I think Frost and Rice say things well (and give lots of examples from their lives or from fellow missional practitioners). These sections weren’t new to me, in the sense that every missional author I respect says something similar, but they did flesh out a few of the ways we can enlarge our vision of what social change and put it into practice. I give this book four stars. ★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from InterVarsity Press in exchange for my honest review

A Blind Spot Taxonomy: a ★★★★★book review

In my last major leadership context, I wasn’t a particularly self-aware leader. I mishandled a couple of key relationships, missed some opportunities, and failed to execute some things I tried to do. I’m not beating myself up about it, whatever self-awareness I have has been hard won. Terry Linhart’s The Self-Aware Leader is designed to help leaders like me see where their blind spots are— the gifts, vulnerabilities, and opportunities—so we can lead effectively.

4480Linhart is professor of Christian ministries at Bethel College in South Bend. He has served in youth ministry, parachurch ministry, as a leadership consultant and has taught at Asbury, North Park, Hunting College, Taylor University and Alliance Graduate School. The Self-Aware Leader is chockfull of practical insights to help ministry leaders reach their full potential.

Self-awareness is a tricky thing.  We all have blind spots because of the demands of ministry and our natural capacity for self-deception. Citing Gordon Smith, Linhart argues that self- discerning people are “Conscious of their own capacity for self-deception and thus of their vital need for the encouragement, support and wisdom of others” (15).  Throughout the book, Linhart names each area he sees that has potential blind spots.

Chapter one invites us to self-reflection in seeing the ‘race before us.’ Linhart’s conclusion reminds us of the end-goal, the telos of the race—a lifetime of faithful service to Jesus. Between these, Linhart describes potential blind spots as we consider ourselves, our past,  our temptations, our emotions, pressures, conflict, and our ‘margins.’

One of the most helpful things about naming these areas of blind spots is how comprehensive it is (though probably not exhaustive). Leaders may be self-aware about one area, but inattentive to another. Linhart does a good job of naming the trees so we can see our way ahead. I also appreciate that he doesn’t see blind spots as wholly negative. “We may have a gift or opportunity that we can’t see that is plain to others” (26). By probing our limited visibility, we may be awakened to new opportunities.

. One insight that I found tremendously helpful was his observation that leaders ought to lead the charge in handling conflict well, in order to foster a community that is ‘warm, inviting and effective’ (143).  Linhart describes conflict as one of his own blind spots (as someone who tends toward conflict-avoidance). He offers sage advice on how to address conflict non-defensively, and communicate effectively.

This book is tremendously helpful. Leaders and leadership teams would benefit from reading this together. I highly recommend it. -★★★★★

<small> Notice of Material Connection: I received this book from InterVarsity Press in exchange for my honest review </small>

From Purity Culture to Sex Positive: a book review

Sex is a gift from God and yet many of my conservative Christian friends suffer from profound shame in the area of sexuality.  The effects of purity culture, abstinence covenants, kissing dating goodbye and centuries of bad theology have caused many in conservative Christian culture (my tribe) afraid of sex and unable to integrate sexuality and faith. Sex, God & the Conservative Church: Erasing Shame from Sexual Intimacy by Tina Schemer Sellers is aimed at helping sexologists and psychotherapists treat clients from conservative churches. Her goal is to help people move forward into healthier expressions of sexuality with a sex-positive religious ethic.

SellersSellers is a licensed marriage and family therapist, a certified sex therapist and the professor of sexuality and medical family therapy at Seattle Pacific University. While her own personal background was mostly sex positive, her academic interest in the effects of purity culture was catalyzed by hearing student’s stories, especially after the year 2000 (257).  She respected for the faith of her students and clients, and their belief in a loving God, but the reality of religious sexual shame in conservative (evangelical) contexts broke her heart.

She wrote Sex, God and the Conservative Church with two groups of readers in mind. First, therapists who work with those from a conservative evangelical context, and secondly conservative Christians who wish to integrate their sexuality and faith commitments (24).  Often Conservative Christians who experience sexual shame find it difficult to discuss in their context but also have a hard time finding a therapist that respects their religious faith. Sellers wants to help Christians and therapists work through the issues in ways that is mutual respectful of individuals and their religious tradition.

The first three chapters diagnosis how religious sexual shame manifests in her client’s lives. Chapter one examines the reality of sexual shame and the religious purity movement that developed in conservative Churches in the 1990s. Chapter two describes  the sexual baggage of two millennia (e.g. NeoPlatonic church fathers who demeaned women, sex and physical embodiment in preference for the spiritual, Augustine and the sexism of the Reformers). Chapter three describes the commodification of sex in an American consumer context and its effects on sexual vitality and body image (with a little help from Wendell Berry).

Chapter four begins to offer a Sex-positive ethic by recovering the sex positive Judeo-Christian tradition (drawing heavily on stories from Jewish tradition). Chapter five explores the sex-positive Gospel by examining the life and ministry of Jesus, positing the centrality of the abundant life connects pleasure with justice, grace and love (25).

Chapters six through eight are more geared toward therapist readers, discussing clinical applications, therapeutic interventions and practices/exercises for individual clients and couples. Non-therapists (like myself) will find this section of the book less accessible, though there are few practical takeaways.  The epilogue is worth a read, because Sellers  shares some of her personal journey with sex and God and her research into the effects of purity culture in conservative churches (especially since 2000). There are anecdotes of clients and students throughout the book

Sellers is writing about and for people from a conservative religious context, so while she does point people to a less ‘black and white’ sex positive ethic and questions some of the underpinnings of patriarchy and purity culture, she does not tackle Christian approaches to LGBTQ issues in this volume.

I am not a sex therapist or a counselor. I am a pastor who has worked exclusively within a conservative Christian context. Pastoring requires a different set of skills than that of a therapist but it also requires being cognizant of the issues.  I also grew up in this tradition. I never signed an abstinence covenant or read Josh Harris’s first book, but I grew up being taught that sex is a wonderful and natural gift that you should never think about until you are married. I didn’t experience brokenness in sexuality to the extent of some of Sellers clients and students, but I was bequeathed a lot of sex-negative ideology. I think this is a good resource for anyone who is from a conservative tradition and would like  a more sex-positive and less shame inducing approach to sexuality, and anyone in the ‘helping professions’ (especially therapists, but also pastors) who work in this context. I give this four stars.

Notice of Material Connection: I received a copy of this book via SpeakEasy in exchange for my honest review.

X is for Xenophilia (an alphabet for penitents)

Jesus replied, “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me.” (Matthew 26:23, NIV)

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (John 17:20–21, NIV)

Xenophobia is something we are all too familiar with: the fear and disdain for people not like us. It is the default stance of the internet troll and the reason for the uptick in hate crimes towards Jews and Muslims. It is codified in the practices of law enforcement in minority communities and the mass incarceration of black and brown skinned people in our country. It is becoming our national immigration and foreign policy. It manifests itself as fear and hate or the desire for the other to keep their distance.

Xenophilia,  on the other hand, is the opposite: a love for foreign peoples, cultures, and customs.  In the Christian tradition, we call this welcoming the stranger. The Hebrew Bible (the Christian Old Testament) has a number of passages that talk about caring for foreigners, strangers and resident aliens dwelling in the land (cf. Deut. 14:29; 26:11-13, Lev. 19:10, 23:22, Zech. 7:8-10). There are also compelling examples within the narrative of hospitality and inclusion of strangers (i.e. Abraham’s hospitality in Genesis 18, Rahab, Ruth, etc).  The whole thrust of the Abrahamic Covenant in Genesis 12 was that he and his descendants would be blessed to be a blessing, a priest to the nations to welcome them back into relationship with God. Christians can glean a lot about hospitality from the First Testament and Jewish practice.

However, our example par excellence of xenophilia is Jesus. I don’t want to be anachronistic. Jesus was a first century Jew and he came to the Jews. He didn’t welcome everybody in his lifetime. Still he demonstrated the stance of welcome in his friendship to tax collectors and sinners, the healing non-Jews (the Centurion’s servant, the Gerasene demoniac, the Canaanite woman’s daughter, etc), his conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4), and teachings which challenged the exclusion of the Gentiles (i.e. Luke 4:20-30, the parable of Good Samaritan, etc.) His ultimate welcome of strangers came through the cross where the dividing wall of hostility between Jews and Gentiles was torn down (Ephesians 2:14).

Before we get to Calvary. Jesus dines with his disciples in an upper room. It was Passover, and they were in Jerusalem. These were Jesus’ disciples for three years of ministry. The guys he spent most of his time with. Friends. And yet there was a stranger in their midst. Someone who dipped bread and ate with Jesus, but in his heart, he was neither friend no follower. The stranger Jesus welcomed and called a friend, The friend who gives strange kisses in the garden.

On the same evening, Jesus offered up a missional prayer, that God would unite, sanctify and send his disciples out into the world (John 17). He didn’t just pray for them but for the ones he didn’t even know yet, who would respond to God’s message of welcome.

When they arrived to arrest him, a disciple cut off an ear of someone in the arresting party. Jesus healed the stranger.

How does hospitality, the welcome of strangers and xenophilia, shape your spiritual journey?  How can we follow the example of Christ (and the biblical tradition) in caring for strangers disconnected from basic relationships and security? Theologian Krister Stendhal wrote, “wherever, whenever, however, the kingdom manifest itself, it is welcome” (cited in Christine Pohl’s Making Room, Eerdmans, 1999).

We are at a good news moment in the Gospel story, why we call this Friday good. Let us seek to extend Christ’s welcome of strangers to the world too accustomed to fearmongering and hate. It is time to demonstrate the love of Christ to all those not like us. 

Reading Well for the Sake of Others: a ★★★★★ book review

 C. Christopher Smith is the editor of The Englewood Review of Booksan online and print journal  which  showcasess valuable resources for the people of God. Another site Smith, curates is Thrifty Christian Reader, a website which catalogs quality sale books—mostly Kindle, mostly Christian—which explore culture, theology, sociology, justice, ecology, poetry and literature. His own books also promote the kind of thoughtful Christian engagement he highlights online. Notably, Slow Church (IVP, 2014), which he co-authored with John Pattison, is a prophetic challenge to the way churches are sometimes co-opted by the dominant cult of speed and efficiency. Smith and Pattison point us instead to honor the terroir of place, cultivate community, and ways for the church to be a faithful presence and witness to God’s in-breaking Kingdom.

44491For a church to transform a community it is imperative we learn to read well. Earlier generations of Christians were sometimes called ‘the people of the Book.’ A good part of Smith’s influence has been about helping us to, again, be the people of the Book. In Reading for the Common Good: How Books Can Help Churches and Neighborhoods FlourishSmith points out the crucial place reading (in community) has for shaping our identity and practice of God’s people.

In his introduction, Smith helps us to conceive of church as a ‘learning organization,’ with learning and action as central components of our identity. We can have a significant impact on our communities as we understand our context and discern effective ways to act and then act(16). Learning and acting form a cycle which helps us live out the compassionate way of Jesus for our neighborhoods and communities (18-20). But this sort of reading is a communal, rather than individual activity.

Smith’s first couple of chapters orient us to the practice of reading. Chapter one points us away from our modern, technologically infused reading (where we read a lot but not deeply) towards ‘Slow Reading.’ The ancient practice of lectio divina and preaching which attends to the words of Scripture provides the church with counter-cultural habits of mind. Chapter two illustrates how reading and conversation help shape the social imagination. Smith observes:

The practices of reading and conversation are vital for the process of transforming our social imagination. Part of human experience is imaging how the world should function. The question is what stories are feeding and shaping the imagination? Reading renews and energizes our social imagination. For our churches, reading and embodying Scripture is the foremost source of renewal, but renewal comes from reading reflecting on and discussing a broad range of works in the life and teaching of Jesus (51-52).

The next six chapters explore the way reading shapes our social imagination and paves the way for communities to flourish. Chapter three explores how reading the Bible in communion with other believers helps shape us into “the image of Christ, the Word incarnate” (55). While the Bible remains central, reading other books communally (and in a cruciform way!) is also beneficial for making sense of the world and our place in it (59-61). Chapter four discusses the role of reading in helping communities and individuals understand their vocation. Chapters five and six discuss how churches can read with their neighbors and neighborhoods. Churches can be (or support) libraries which preserve the shared memory of place and provide resources for the community. Churches can also become centers of education which promote literacy and understanding. The telos of this is a greater civic literacy and engagement in the community. Our reading also promotes a better understanding of our neighborhood place in the economic, environmental, educational and civic realms (103-107). Chapter seven discusses how reading connects us to our world, creation and other churches and chapter eight discusses how reading can support our faithful engagement in the realms of politics and economics.

Smith’s final chapter discusses ways to help congregations become reading congregations, with examples from Englewood Christian Church (the faith community that Smith is a part of). The book closes with two reading lists: Recommended Reading for Going Deeper and Englewood Christian Church Reading List. 

Smith is an avid reader and this is a book about how reading well (in community) can help churches and neighborhoods flourish. So this book will make you want to read other books. Lots of them. Smith promotes helpful books throughout and he himself has been shaped by his reading of such luminaries as: Charles Taylor, Alisdair MacIntyre, Wendell Berry, Peter Senge, Marva Dawn, Gerhard Lohfink, Mary Oliver, and more. I think it is impossible to read through this book without discovering new literary treasures (or at least places to dig). My wish list grew exponentially from reading this.

More significantly, this book touches a hunger I have for thoughtful engagement. I have been a part of churches which felt like the theological equivalent of a ‘food desert.’ Sometimes the  reading theology (or biology, philosophy, or whatever) is criticized for being disconnected from ‘real life.’ Smith rejects the binary between academia and activism, thinking well and living well. His chapter on the social imaginary (with a generous nod to Charles Taylor) should be required reading for pastors and leaders. I give this five stars and highly recommend it. ★★★★★

Note: I received a copy from the author in exchange for my honest review.