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.

 

A Slow Study Guide a Comin’: a study-guide review

It has been almost two years since I plowed through Slow Church — a book critiquing the fast-food-like-franchising of the church, suggesting instead a more local, organic and inclusive vision of Christian community. I devoured the book. I didn’t read it slow. I swallowed it whole. I was (and am) sympathetic to the vision that C.Christopher Smith and John Pattison painted. The franchise model emphasizes efficiency, predictability, calculability and control. A slow church model seeks out  sustainable practices and the cultivatation deep relationships (to people and places).

4130IVP has recently released the Slow Church Study Guide which invites small groups and communities to participate in an 11 week discussion of the book. Each session is made up of six components:

  1.  Readings of Slow Church (the book) for participants to do prior to each meeting
  2. resources for facilitators to prepare, including videos, audio clips and blog posts (all linked at http://guide.slowchurch.com)
  3. a welcome (usually a poem or a quotation to center group members and help them to be present with one another
  4. Lectio Divina on a relevant portion of scripture
  5. Conversation starter questions
  6. closing thoughts

Ideally each sesson take about an hour and half to go through as a group.

The study guide is a chance to chew on the concepts and practices suggested by the book and press into its implications in the context of community. I did it wrong. My wife and I did the sessions together. I did go back and re-read the relevant sections of the book, but I doubt Smith and Pattison envisioned this as a “couple’s devotional.” We did read slow and follow the format of the book. We shared about the theological vision for slow church with our fifteen month old beside us and our toes in the sand overlooking Tampa Bay. We discussed the terroir (taste of place) over the finest Pinot Noir we could find (that came in a box). We discussed our church community and churches we’ve been apart of. We explored the character of our neighborhood and community and what we could do to embody God’s reconciling love and welcoming mission to our peculiar place.

This is a great guide and would be a wonderful small group study or a framework for church plant teams, or church lead teams to dream up possibilities for their community. I  resonate with both the book and the guide; however I have one small critique. One of the things I appreciate most about the vision for Slow Church is how inclusive it is. Franchised churches  commodify the gospel exclude the marginalized. In contrast, the theological vision for slow church emphasizes the inclusion of everyone (see the Lectio Divina on 2 Cor 5:14-21 in session one, the session/chapter on hospitality, etc). However I am not sure how inclusive the study guide is..The resources and welcomes are drawn from mostly white males. Ethnic and immigrant communities have a lot to teach us about local expressions of church (i.e. local theologies). It would have been nice to see more diverse voices included in the facilitator preparation especially. Also the focus on this as a book study caters to the more literary, thinkers and bookish types.  That describes me and I love it, but I am not sure that everyone I ever sat in a small group with would feel engaged by the material. I know a study guide can’t be all things, so put these critiques in the FWIW category. I liked it and overall give this study guide four stars.

Note: I received this study guide from InterVarsity Press in exchange for my honest review.