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Fall 2021 · Vol. 50 No. 2 · pp. 215–221 

Ministry Compass

Reading in and for Community

Tabitha VandenEnden

What will we read together next? This is a recurring question among members of our congregation. Reading together for the sake of the congregation has become integral to the work of our various committees and leadership board at Grantham Mennonite Brethren Church, where I serve as lead co-pastor along with my husband, Michael. For over a decade, we have made reading, reflecting, and discussing books a fundamental component of board and committee meetings. This simple practice has provided more than stimulating conversation; it has been fruitful for the life and ministry of our church.

Reading together is transforming the way we understand our calling to live incarnationally.

In C. Christopher Smith’s book, Reading for the Common Good: How Books Help Our Church and Neighborhoods Flourish, Smith offers a theological framework for reflecting on why reading and conversation are essential for the life of a congregation. Smith argues that “Reading is a vital practice that can—if done carefully and well—ultimately contribute to the health and flourishing of our communities.” 1 Our practice of reading together has nurtured several shoots of growth at Grantham. To help flesh out my observations, I invited several church members to discuss our practice of reading together for the sake of the congregation.

Using Reading for the Common Good as a guide, I conducted interviews with seven Grantham members who have served on the board and/or committees. Our conversation focused on three questions. First, {216} how has reading helped us discern our common life together? Second, how has reading shaped our social and prophetic imagination? Third, how has reading helped us to discern our identity and vocation as a congregation? This article will reflect on these conversations to explore the importance of reading together for the sake of the church.


As a visible, tangible expression of the incarnate Christ, the church is called to live and work in community as one body. This requires a vision of our common life. Drawing on the insights of Peter Senge, Smith recommends understanding the local church as a learning organization. 2 Learning organizations foster team learning which results in a shared vision. Smith writes, “To imagine a church as a learning organization will require a dramatic shift in our understanding of the nature of church. Church can no longer be simply an experience to be passively consumed; rather, we are called into the participatory life of a community.” 3 This observation became the basis of the first interview question, whether reading has helped us discern our common life together and whether this has led to health and flourishing in our congregation.

In response to that question, there was a consensus that reading has helped us to discern our common life together in a variety of ways. A current board member, who also serves on our mission committee, commented, “Reading has given us a common language and understanding.” Through reading and conversation we have gained common ground, and it has helped us understand why we engage in particular practices as a congregation. For example, another respondent noted that the intentional involvement of children in the worshipping life of the congregation has developed from our reading, nurturing a shared theological conviction that welcoming children is at the heart of the gospel message.

Reading has also safe-guarded our committees from negative patterns of behavior that may lead to disunity. A long-time member of our Worship Committee observed that reading has kept us from falling into self-destructive patterns as it helps realign our thinking by asking, “Where is North?” 4 Reading chapters on forgiveness, prayer, and hospitality has provided our church with new liturgies that turn us from alienating and isolating behaviors, to practices that reorient us toward Christ and each other. 5

Reading has helped us to articulate the difference between unity and uniformity within the body of Christ. It has helped us discern the body of Christ to be what Scot McKnight has called a “fellowship of differents.” 6 A respondent who serves on our Fellowship Committee {217} noted that when they started discussing McKnight’s book of that title, he was struck by the fact that each member came from a different stream of life, be it theologically, sociologically, or ethnically. Yet, here they were seated around a common table, discussing the unity of our congregation as “differents.” This observation came while reflecting on McKnight’s main idea: “The church is God’s world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the table to share life with one another as a new kind of family. When this happens, we show the world what love, justice, peace, reconciliation, and life together are designed by God to be.” 7 The respondent noted that McKnight’s book has urged our Fellowship Committee to seek ways to nurture fellowship in the midst of difference at Grantham. This committee has taken this responsibility seriously as it works hard to cultivate community life that is not only welcoming but makes space for each “different” to find a place at the table.

The practice of reading has also produced signs of flourishing within the committees themselves, as it has led to healthier conversations. Another Worship Committee member loves that each meeting begins with a book discussion, as it provides avenues to hear each other’s voices, which opens trust. She commented that once you reach that level of trust, you can “say things you wouldn’t disclose in another situation. In that sense, there is flourishing. If our ultimate goal is to know God, and know each other as part of his body, then a book is a vehicle, a means, to get there.”


Reading together has sharpened our social and prophetic imagination. Christopher Smith argues that the church is a social community that has been transformed by the good news of Jesus Christ and the power of the Spirit. He asks, “How then is our social imagination transformed? The seeds of transformation lie in a community (or subcommunity) that has an alternative vision of how life could be structured. Scripture repeatedly emphasizes that God’s people are to be a contrast society.” 8 This alternative vision is what Walter Brueggemann has described as the prophetic imagination. Brueggemann explains: “The task of prophetic ministry it to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.” 9 Reading has helped our committees think critically about the dominant powers in our culture and the ways in which our congregation is called to resist these powers as a contrast community.

The second set of questions probed ways in which reading has transformed the social imagination of our committee members, and {218} how reading paired with conversation has helped to shape a prophetic imagination at Grantham. One respondent observed that the process of reading together has helped her see through the lens of other peoples’ lived experiences. This has broadened her social imagination. She noted that committee members come from different backgrounds. Reading a common book provides a space for coming together, and there is a transformation that happens.

This observation was shared by others. A respondent from the Worship Committee noted that when one reads in community they are no longer at liberty to take the information, deconstruct it, and then build it back in whatever way they like. Group discussions challenge preconceived ideas. In a similar response, the chair of our Fellowship Committee commented that reading has helped us to ask better questions and be mindful of our individual motivations. In these ways reading has formed a new social imagination amongst our various committees.

This collective discernment has sharpened the prophetic imagination of our committees in several ways. Our Worship Committee has discovered Sabbath-keeping to be a practice that resists individualism, efficiency, and consumerism. One member commented that reading has led us to focus on resting. “God rested. How do we rest?” has become an important question that has changed the rhythms of her daily life.

Within the larger conversation of Sabbath-keeping, our Worship Committee recognized that the way we gather for worship is in itself a prophetic witness. We find ourselves located amid a generation of consumer Christians. We have become increasingly aware that the liturgy of our church helps us resist the power of consumerism. A respondent noted that you cannot show up at Grantham and have worship done for you. He commented, “In our case, we all contribute; we are participants on display.” Preparing liturgies that invite active participation from the whole congregation has become particularly important. Young and old alike find themselves entering the drama of salvation through the spoken word, singing together, postures of prayer, and in receiving one another in Communion and passing the peace.

Nurturing and evoking a prophetic imagination is not always easy. We have discovered over the years that reading together can be challenging; our committee members do not always like what they read or hear. The co-chair of our Worship Committee noted that it is painful to read what some authors write about the church and culture as these books reveal to us our disordered loves and affections, showing us how comfortable we are in the waters of modern, secular culture. 10 She reflected, “I feel that reading these books helped us to understand the very worst of what we have become, but they also give us courage to be the church. They give {219} us confidence to keep doing what we are doing, and to move forward, believing that God will continue to lead us one step at a time.”


Nourishing a prophetic imagination accompanies the task of discerning our identity and vocation. The incarnation of Jesus Christ is the foundation for understanding who we are and what we are called to do. In 1 Corinthians 12:27 Paul writes, “Now you [plural] are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” Christopher Smith notes that Paul’s language is important here, as he is speaking about local, specific, congregations as the embodiment of Christ. Smith writes, “Together, sisters and brothers in church communities in distinct local places give a particular body to Christ that our neighbors can see, interact with and experience. . . . To the extent that our church bodies are healthy and faithful, we will continue to mature over time toward ‘the full stature of Christ’ (Ephesians 4:13).” 11 Thus, the final questions we discussed examined how reading helps us understand our identity as Christ’s body, and explored the questions, “Why are we here?” and “What is our vocation?”

In response, we found that reading has helped our committee and board members to understand how our identity is rooted in the Triune God. One member remarked, “Reading has affirmed that we don’t design the church; God does.” Understanding that God calls the church, Christ is the head of the church, and the Spirit empowers the church has made a significant impact on how the questions were answered. Another observed, “We are realizing that we are not just a disjointed person, we are a group of people, a church, right now at this time in history and we are part of the overall plan that God has had from the beginning.” 12 Both of these respondents noted that when our identity is rooted in the Trinity, it eases our anxiety and helps us to rest. It shifts our focus from individual concerns and desires and helps us become attentive to what God is doing in and among us.

Understanding that our identity is grounded in the incarnation and rooted in the work of the Trinity has helped our committees cultivate practices that require patient persistence. One respondent noted that these practices have shaped what we do together as a congregation, which in turn is shaping our vocation. The central practice of Communion flows into our regular fellowship meals. This practice is now so deeply rooted, that even during a global pandemic our congregation found creative ways to sustain table fellowship, picnicking in parks, eating brunch by the beach, and drinking coffee outside after Sunday morning services. It is through the practice of eating together that we welcome the stranger and share the peace of Christ with one another. {220}

Finally, reading together has grounded us in understanding why we are here as a church. Our Mission Committee chairperson noted that pressure to continually evolve and improve our missional strategies can inadvertently lead us to overlook seemingly insignificant shoots of growth. She remembered a time when someone proposed that we discontinue our food pantry ministry as it seemed ineffective. She commented, “This is something so basic that we can do for people in our community who literally knock on our door and say, ‘I’m hungry.’ To have our food pantry here all year round, for even just a handful of people, we need that. Reading together reminds us not to overlook what we see as a little thing.” 13 Reading together has helped us to be patient as we cultivate practices that lead to health and flourishing in our church and community.


From passive consumption to active participation, reading together is transforming the way we understand our calling to live incarnationally at Grantham. In this way, reading has given us a deeper sense of who we are, where we are located, and how we are to live as the body of Christ. We have discovered that reading together is a practice that requires patience, intentionality, and persistence, and over time begins to produce shoots of growth within the larger community. When done well, reading is a practice that will help the church grow “in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13).


  1. C. Christopher Smith, Reading for the Common Good: How Books Help Our Churches and Neighborhoods Flourish (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2016), 21.
  2. As discussed in Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline, rev. ed. (New York: Doubleday, 2006).
  3. Smith, Reading, 17.
  4. The respondent referenced this phrase from one of the Worship Committee’s shared readings. James K. A. Smith, You Are What You Love (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2016).
  5. This comment stemmed from Worship Committee discussions of Practicing Our Faith: A Way of Life for a Searching People, ed. Dorothy C. Bass (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2019) and John D. Roth’s Practices: Mennonite Worship and Witness (Waterloo, ON: Herald Press, 2009).
  6. Scot McKnight, A Fellowship of Differents: Showing the World God’s {221} Design for Life Together (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014).
  7. McKnight, 16.
  8. Smith, Reading, 38.
  9. Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2018), 3.
  10. This remark recalled themes from her Worship Committee discussions of James K. A. Smith’s You are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2016), and Mark Labberton’s The Dangerous Act of Worship: Living God’s Call to Justice (Downers Grove: IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007).
  11. Smith, Reading, 54.
  12. These comments reflect the Mission Committee’s discussions of Christopher J. H. Wright’s The Mission of God’s People: A Biblical Theology of the Church’s Mission (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010).
  13. These ideas emerged amid a discussion of Christine D. Pohl’s Living Into Community: Cultivating Practices that Sustain Us (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012).
Tabitha VandenEnden and her husband Michael serve as Co-Lead Pastors at Grantham MB Church in St. Catharines, Ontario. Tabitha graduated with an MA in theology from Canadian Mennonite University in 2010.

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