As we “slow down” as churches, seeking to abide with God and live more attentively to our brothers and sisters in our congregation, to our neighbors, and to the life and flourishing of our place (Part 1 of Missio’s three-part “Slow Work of Life” series), we need practices that form us in ways that cut against the grain of the prevailing culture of speed. John Pattison and I name a number of these sorts of practices in our book Slow Church, including stability, Sabbath, gratitude, and hospitality.
Another practice that is vital to a slower and deeper life together is reading. Of course, our churches have established traditions of reading scripture slowly and carefully together, but cultures and habits of reading books and resources beyond the Bible are also foundational to developing our capacity to discern how to live faithfully to the scriptural story in our particular time and place. The following thoughts on reading and vocation in the life of the local church have been adapted from a draft of my forthcoming book Reading for the Common Good: Toward the Flourishing of Our Churches, Our Neighborhoods and The World (IVP Books, Spring 2016).
Vocation in the Local Church
If God is at work reconciling all things, then there is room for all kinds of gifts and skills within that mission. Certainly we need preachers and teachers and counselors, but our members and neighbors live in houses, and the skills of architects and plumbers and carpenters can be leveraged in the Kingdom work of caring for their housing needs. The skills of artists and poets and entrepreneurs and cooks and web designers all have their place as well. One of the primary roles of the local church, as Amy Sherman has argued in her book Kingdom Calling, is to discern and orchestrate all these skills in ways that bear witness to God’s love and reconciliation.
When thinking about vocation, many Christians think about God’s call to bear witness to the way of Jesus and about the particular gifts and skills of an individual. What often is overlooked in our discernments of vocation is the role of the local church. If it is in the local church that we are to embody Christ together, then it is within that context that we should discern how our skills as individuals can be made available for the work of bearing witness to the love and reconciliation of Christ. As an extension of our gratitude for the gifts God has provided in the people of our local church community , our vocation together will take the shape of the gifts of our members.
At Englewood Christian Church, my own local church, there are three primary ways in which we leverage the skills and gifts of our members, as we seek to bear witness to God’s reconciling love in this place:
- Common work,
- Members who work for partner organizations, and
- Members who offer their skills for the work of the church
We have several businesses that utilize the gifts of our members to do work that benefits our neighborhood and other churches. These include a daycare and preschool, a community development corporation engaged in affordable housing and economic development, and The Englewood Review of Books, which recommends resources for our church and other churches around the world. These businesses provide common work for us, employing people in full- and part-time positions, while also offering the capacity for many others to be involved as volunteers. This common work allows us to be together on a daily basis, working with each other, and thinking and talking often about how our faith gets lived out in practical, everyday ways, amidst all the wonderful assets and deep challenges of our neighborhood.
Not all churches are in a position to start one or more businesses. Even here at Englewood, a relatively small percentage of the adults in our congregation is employed by our businesses. But there are at least a dozen non-profit and for-profit organizations in our neighborhood that we partner with, and at which we have members who are employed (or have been employed). We have a doctor who works at the local health clinic, a bookkeeper who works for another community development organization, several folks who work for the neighborhood food co-op, several others who work for a homeless ministry in our neighborhood, and many others. Having people who work for these groups has opened the doors to facilitate better and deeper partnerships between them and our church.
Then there are others in our congregation who make their skills available for the work of the church: a landscaper who does work – sometimes for pay and sometimes not – on our church property and other properties that the church owns; and a wonderful group of retired men and women who show up at the church building on most days of the week to do whatever work needs to be done on that day (from taking out the trash, to painting, to driving people on errands).
These are the ways that we orchestrate vocation in our particular church community. Other churches will find different ways of orchestrating the gifts and skills of their members, but if we are to mature in our embodiment of Jesus, then we must be aware of the talents and skills of our members and continually find creative ways to orchestrate these gifts in ways that bear witness to the good news of Jesus.
But what does reading have to do with vocation? Reading is essential to the nurturing of vocation in two particular ways: in the discernment of vocation and especially in the work of maturing within a vocation. Discerning vocation is about the question, “What are we going to do?” There are two levels at which this question must be answered – that of the church as a whole and that of individual members – and reading plays a crucial role on both of these levels.
Our vocation(s) as a church: Reading can serve as a guide as we seek to answer the related questions: “How are we going to be involved in the life of our neighborhood?” and, “Specifically, what kind of work are we going to do here?” As some churches consider the possibility of common work, they might read stories of Christian communities that have done common work, exploring their rationale for doing so and the challenges that they met along the way. As we survey local organizations that we might consider partnering with, we will inevitably read to learn more about them, both to understand their history and mission, as well as the kinds of work they do: e.g., feeding and sheltering the homeless, tutoring children, or running a farmer’s market.
Personal Vocation: Reading will also inevitably play a role in the work of helping individuals discern a personal vocation within the church community. Thomas Merton has written that a person “knows when he has found his vocation when he stops thinking about how to live and begins to live. … When we find our vocation–thought and life are one.” From preschool on, we expose our children to stories that portray all sorts of work. We watch patiently over time to see the kinds of work to which they are drawn, work that makes them come alive. We also should help our young people understand their unique personalities and strengths (for instance, with tests like the Myers-Briggs type indicator), and the significance of that personality as it pertains to work. All of this involves reading and conversation. As a young person is drawn into a particular kind of work, we can offer him or her resources to read that take a deeper look at that type of work and how it relates to faith. Such resources could include both non-fiction and fiction. One feeling drawn toward nursing, for instance, might be encouraged to read a biography of Florence Nightingale; another drawn toward the visual arts might be encouraged to read Chaim Potok’s novel The Gift of Asher Lev.
Maturing in a Vocation
In a similar fashion, reading can also help us mature in our particular vocation. Regardless of the work that we have been called to do – whether one is a plumber, a teacher, an auto mechanic, an engineer, or a lawyer – reading will help us to better understand our work and to assist us in doing it more skillfully. If we desire to do our work well, we will read trade publications – technical manuals, how-to guides, journals, etc. – but we also are called to a deeper knowledge of how our work is integrated in our local church congregations with the mission of God and the work of our sisters and brothers. Those in the medical professions, for example, should read Joel Shuman’s books; architects and those in construction and real estate trades should read Eric Jacobsen’s The Space Between, a theology of the built environment; visual artists should read books like God in the Gallery by Daniel Siedell; teachers should read and reflect on the works of Parker Palmer.
Reading is an important practice as we seek to faithfully navigate questions about the sorts of work that we will do together in our local churches, and how the talents of our members are orchestrated toward this end. As we pursue questions about vocation, both as members of congregations and an individuals, we will be led deeper into our biblical calling to embody Christ together in our local church communities.
C. Christopher Smith is founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books, co-author (with John Pattison) of Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus (IVP Books, 2014). He is a member of the Englewood Christian Church community on the urban Near Eastside of Indianapolis.
 For more on this idea of gratitude and stewarding the gifts that God has given us in the members of our congregations, see Slow Church, p. 174-191.
 Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude (New York: Dell, 1961), p. 109.
Photo: Zsuzsa N.K.