Reading Together: How Communities of Readers Can Transform the World

reading-togetherBooks are one of the most powerful tools in the world.

Books change the world by offering a new perspective.

Books inspire people to step out and take risks.

Books allow people to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, increasing a reader’s capacity for empathy.

Books explain, they instruct, they motivate.

Books offer another way forward, and get people talking.

Most of my favorite books inspire me towards action. And they are always ones I want to talk about with someone else.

I’ve recently finished Reading for the Common Good: How Books Help Our Churches and Neighborhoods Flourish, and it’s one that has re-energized my desire to find a community that loves to read, learn, and take action together. 

Many moons ago, I was a part of a community that loved to read together. Hanging out always included good food, a few video games, and a lot of talking. We’d share about the recent books we were mulling through, and every now and then we’d decide to read a book together. One of the first ones we joined forces on was Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger by Ron Sider. We dreamed of someday practicing a reverse tithe, and we spent time wrestling with the idea of living a life that was guided by relationship and purpose, rather than the accruing money and things.  We disagreed. We prayed. We laughed a lot. We were totally snarky and thought we’d surely change the world.

Some of that reading ended up launching us into action. A few of us decided to live in community together. Others to move off into other parts of the world. We started serving together at a local immigration and refugee organization, helping new-to-the-area refugees practice English and coaching them through the job application process. A few of us helped clean and set up apartments for these beautiful families. Our desire was to love and serve and offer hospitality.

A lot of life has happened since then.

We’ve discovered it’s not easy finding a reading community. Life is busy. Jobs, kids, and sleep can all get in the way of cracking open a book.  But in my gut I know- reading together is worth it, especially for those of us who are Christ-followers.

In his book, Reading for the Common Good, Chris Smith reminds us that “the primary work of the local church is discerning how we are to live together in ways that embody the good news of Christ among neighbors” (20). For his community, Scripture reading is a primary text when it comes to thinking and discerning how to live out the love of Jesus. But it doesn’t stop there. Parts of his church community have read books on topics that may strike one as a bit odd –  soil, food, child development, and economics. Why should church communities read anything other than the Bible together?

Because God desires all of creation to flourish, and we are called as communities to work alongside Him.

Social Imagination

HOW we do that is a whole different story. In fact, sometimes it gets a bit hairy.

All of us have ideas about how the world should function. How do we form those ideas?

Well, a lot of ways. Where we grew up shapes how we see the world. The attitudes of our parents, friends, and church communities inform our basic assumptions about the world.  Our everyday experiences provide the data that we use to make conclusions about the world around us.

So when we come together in community, we each bring a knapsack filled with different ways of seeing. Most of the time we’re unaware that what we’re bringing with us is totally different from what our friend is bringing. We just assume that the contents of each of our knapsacks are more or less the same.

When my good friends and I began being intentional about reading and dreaming together, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that we disagreed with one another on some pretty important issues. And over time, we were able to explore why we gravitated towards a certain idea, or why we were in total disagreement with another person. As we dug into our life stories, reflected on our feelings, challenged one another’s preconceptions, something totally beautiful started happening.

We began to collectively use our imaginations to dream up alternate ways of living that would work towards human flourishing. Sure, we didn’t agree on everything, but we were able to build an identity together that helped overcome the areas of disagreement and push into the areas in which we were convinced that God was moving and shaking. This is the beauty of learning community.

The Next Step

So how do we start these reading communities?

  1. Get yourself a copy of Reading for the Common Good. Dig in and see what you think. Chris gives plenty of concrete, practical advice on how to get started, book recommendations, etc. It really is all you need to get a group off the ground.
  2. After you’re convinced of the importance of building a learning community, buy a few more copies and encourage others to join in the vision.
  3. Begin forming groups. Intentionally invite others to read a book and discuss together. Take it one book at a time and allow yourselves time to learn to listen well and respond responsibly.
  4. Experiment with other types of groups- cross-generational, families, young, old, people from particular fields of study.

Your Turn:

Are you currently involved in a reading community? What are you reading?
How has it helped shape your community?

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