The Church That Reads Together Thrives Together

How talking about books helped an Indianapolis congregation overcome differences and bring life back to their neighborhood.
The Church That Reads Together Thrives Together
Image: Breather / Unsplash

Many of the toys from my earliest childhood years are in near-pristine condition. Even at that age, I loved books and preferred them over toys. I never imagined, though, that 40 years later, this love of books would turn into a career. As editor of The Englewood Review of Books, my work revolves around reading, reviewing, and writing books.

Yet it’s a job that would never have existed without my church community: Englewood Christian Church, located in the urban Englewood neighborhood of Indianapolis. Not only does the church consist of many readers, who enjoy an exceptionally broad range of books, but it also recognized my passion for books and created the opportunity for me and a few other members to do good work in the publishing world.

Englewood is not a highly academic congregation. We do have one tenure-track assistant professor of education and a handful of professionals (including a doctor, a dentist, a pharmacist, and two engineers). The majority of members, however, have an undergraduate degree, and a sizeable portion do not have bachelors’ degrees. But our church, which was founded in 1895, has a long history of taking Scripture seriously and reading it together as a community—through preaching, Sunday school, and more.

Our history of taking Scripture seriously led us into practices of grappling together with the interpretation of Scripture, and ultimately, into diverse habits of reading and conversation: habits that lead us into deeper engagement with one another and with our neighbors. Our reading helped us to better understand what God is doing in the world, to discern the complex realities of our urban neighborhood, and to imagine new ways of working and being together.

Meeting (and Reading, and Interpreting) Together

One of the biggest shifts in Englewood’s history occurred about 20 years ago, when we gave up our Sunday evening worship service in favor of simply meeting together for conversation about the shape and direction of our Christian faithfulness. Those conversations helped us move beyond simply reading Scripture together. Now, we were beginning to interpret it together.

We began with the question, “What is the Word of God?” Almost immediately after diving into this question, we realized our members had a broad range of answers to it—and like the deeply divided culture of our day (consider the political hostilities between Right and Left or the widening gap between rich and poor), we weren’t well-equipped to talk about our differing convictions. As a result, the earliest years of our conversation were extremely volatile. People yelled at each other. Responses were sarcastic. Some people dropped out of the Sunday evening conversation; others left our church altogether.

Those who remained, however, stuck with the Sunday evening practice, and we continued reading and interpreting Scripture together—moving on from the initial question to wrestle with other disputed scriptural terms: salvation, gospel, church, kingdom of God, and more. We spent five years or more grappling with the interpretation of these basic terms at the root of our faith.

But reading has still continued to be a vital part of our Sunday conversations. Sometimes we’ve discussed a particular book. Other times, people chime into the discussion with something they’ve recently read: a thought about theology or the original Greek of a New Testament passage, an idea from an essayist or social critic, or even a line or two of poetry or a piece from a novel.

One of the challenges of our conversations is being able to communicate complex, nuanced ideas in ways that most, if not all, the participants can understand, and then see their pertinence to the topic we are discussing. Because of this, I’m now familiar with a number of books—and in some sense, I’ve “read” them—as a result of others translating their key ideas in our conversations. (And more than once, I’ve actually read those books later.)

Together, we have tackled works that are rarely read outside seminaries: Gerhard Lohfink’s Does God Need the Church?, Marva Dawn’s Truly the Community, Darrel Guder’s The Continuing Conversion of the Church. Groups within the church have thoroughly read and critiqued each of my two most recent books. One of our Sunday school classes read several of Parker Palmer’s books over the course of a year, and for almost two years now, I have been part of a class that has been slowly reading—paragraph by paragraph—through Alasdair MacIntyre’s important book After Virtue.

From the Page to the Neighborhood

While we probably have made a little progress toward more unified convictions, there’s been a greater fruit of our conversations: we are coming to know and trust one another. As our practices of conversation have flourished over the last 20 years, we’ve found ourselves going deeper than simply interpreting Scripture. The trust we have built through the shared work of interpretation is guiding us into the work of embodying and enacting the scriptural story in our own neighborhood. God’s work of renewing and transforming our minds (Rom. 12:1-2) through conversation is leading us to deeper connections with one another and with our neighbors.

Our urban neighborhood has been abandoned over the last half-century by many of the families, businesses, and other institutions that had previously given it life. In this particular place, we have particular neighbors—black neighbors, Latino neighbors, LGBT neighbors. All of them are created and wonderfully gifted by God, but some face challenges of poverty, addiction, or mental illness.

Reading has been helpful in the work of understanding of our place and our people. Books like John McKnight’s The Careless Society and Gabor Maté’s In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts are helping us live better here with our neighbors in the love and compassion of Christ. Some of our members who are involved in community development read urban theorists like Jane Jacobs and Andres Duany. Others who are working for food justice read Wendell Berry or books on permaculture. Members who work in our daycare are constantly reading and learning about child development and early childhood education, reading journals, textbooks, and faith-based books like Johann Christoph Arnold’s Why Children Matter.

Reading and conversation have been so powerfully transformative for us that we are also working to encourage these practices among our neighbors and other churches. We started The Englewood Review of Books almost a decade ago to invite other churches into the practices of careful, diverse reading that have been so beneficial for us. Our daycare works with pre-school age children, teaching them basic skills that will prepare them to read and to be caring, engaged neighbors. We have a close relationship with the public library branch less than a block from our church building, where my wife is employed. When the branch was threatened with closure, we rallied neighbors in the fight to save it because we appreciate the work it does toward the health and literacy of our place.

In our highly individualized age, it’s tempting to use our literacy primarily to build up our own personal empires or to briefly escape the painful realities of life. Our church’s story, I believe, offers hope that another way of reading is possible: a way of reading for the common good that transforms us into the image of Christ and draws us deeper into engagement with one another.

In his book Reading for the Common Good, Smith discusses the practice of reading as a way to bring about learning and action for a church community. For more information, check it out here.

December
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The Church That Reads Together Thrives Together