It's Not Oprah's Book Club

Reading groups encourage unity and lead to some deep discussion.

Every pastor knows that growth as a Christian requires more than a Sunday experience. I want to give the congregation something worthwhile to do between sermons to stretch their intellect and their faith.

I started a reading group.

Today, homemakers and house painters read and discuss Kierkegaard. Hair stylists and law officers read Augustine and Bonhoeffer and Pascal. And they love it. My first group has grown into many—reading science, history, contemporary short stories and drama, and devotional classics dating back to the Desert Fathers.

Food for the soul

Hungry to share questions, ideas, and Christian thought, I asked hungry friends to get together with me to read. We started with three devotees. A few years later, eight to ten of us were reading together with enthusiasm and loyalty. Indeed, this is the only small group in the history of our church where people who moved away have driven back, sometimes considerable distance, for the group meetings.

Our first group had a literary focus. We chose novels, plays, short stories, and poems that addressed ideas relevant to our faith. We selected books by authors concerned with spiritual matters, authors who had significant reputations. Many of them were professed Christians. We read Leo Tolstoy's folk tales, Gerard Manley Hopkins's poems, Flannery O'Connor's short stories, and a play by Thornton Wilder.

Through animated and lively discussions, we helped each other interpret these difficult but nourishing texts. Most of us read what we never would have read on our own. Most of us understood what we never would have understood on our own.

We started a second group on devotional classics. This group was smaller. The reading was harder. We read The Confessions of St. Augustine. The group loved it! Augustine was so honest, so tempted, so much like us, and so in love with God. We read Tozer's The Pursuit of God and Kierkegaard's Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing. The group liked the challenge. They found it reinforcing to their faith to bond with thinkers from other ages and cultures. The discussions made the books come alive.

Why not build on success? Our third group explored the interface between science and theology—our nerds group! Reading The Galileo Connection by Charles Hummel, we reveled in learning that Johannes Kepler, the seventeenth-century astronomer who discovered that the planets move in elliptical orbits, was a devout Christian.

We tackled some non-Christian stuff, The Cosmos by Carl Sagan, for instance. While we appreciated Sagan's knack for making astronomy interesting to the lay person, we had great discussion of what it meant for Sagan to substitute "Cosmos" for God.

Twelve to fifteen people joined the science group. Engineers and doctors came; so did moms, cops, and teachers. We operate like an amateur sports league. We play with whoever shows up. I have been surprised at times by who signs up for the groups, but I'm not surprised by the impact on their lives or our church.

Reading is fundamental

By promoting reading groups, we have encouraged Christian literacy. Our readers clearly develop a broader understanding of history and the present age. Our reading groups link us with the oldest of the faithful. Ours is the curiosity of Daniel and his friends reading Babylonian literature. Ours is the intellectuality of Paul discussing Greek authors in Athens.

We are not afraid of ideas. We believe what Jesus told us, that the Spirit of God leads us into all truth. We are confident that, with Scripture as our guide and our Christian friends beside us, we can sort out what is true and what is not. Other books are not equal with the Bible, but they can help us understand how God is at work in us and in the world today.

How to start a reading group

Getting started is simple. Keeping the groups going requires zeal and good planning.

  1. Establish leadership. Our groups have an informal, egalitarian quality, but there is definite leadership. First, you need someone with a passion to start a group who can convince others to join. Second, you need an organizer who will handle the calendar, communication, and book sales. Third, you need skillful discussion leaders. One person may fill all three roles at first. But as soon as possible, recruit competent people to share the load and the fun.
  2. Choose your book. It worked best in each of our groups to limit our selections to one genre—imaginative literature, devotional classics, science and theology. My group for kids read fantasy fiction. For your first book, pick something one of the leaders has read and enjoyed.
  3. Buy books for the group. Our church deals with the local Christian book store. We get a discount, and the store takes back unsold copies. Don't send your readers to the store. As people buy the books from you, they commit to read and come. Those who don't attend the church have their books delivered by friends who do.
  4. Plan a time and place. Set it six weeks from the time people get their books. Give them ample time to read, although you will find that many wait until the last week. But just-before-we-meet reading is still reading. We've found a reminder the week before the meeting is necessary.

    Sunday afternoon worked best for us. We meet in homes, rotating among people who want to host. We always eat together. (These are really clandestine eating groups.)
  5. Talk, talk, talk. Finally, the meeting. If you have a good discussion leader, you'll have good discussion. They'll ask:
    • What is the author's thesis?
    • What themes run through the book?
    • What are this author's biases?
    • What is biblical here? What isn't?
    • What tensions exist in the text?
    • What did you like best?

The best discussions happen when we relax, enjoy different perspectives, and learn from each other. We make room for disagreement. The talkers speak freely. Then we ask the quieter ones for their views. We usually close by reading our favorite lines from the book. Then we eat.

Randy Hasper is a pastor at Paseo del Rey (Evangelical Free) Church, Chula Vista, California.

Free Newsletter

Sign up for our Weekly newsletter: Regular access to innovative training resources, Bible-based curriculum, and practical articles.


Small-Group Ministry Events on a Budget

Small-Group Ministry Events on a Budget

Launch groups, train leaders, and show appreciation without breaking the bank.
Get Ready for Fall Launch

Get Ready for Fall Launch

5 steps to prepare your small-group ministry for a fantastic fall.
4 Ways You Can Use Social Media for Good

4 Ways You Can Use Social Media for Good

Despite the potential for bad, there are lots of positives for your small-group ministry.
Your Get Started Guide for Social Media

Your Get Started Guide for Social Media

An overview of social media for small-group ministry
How Church Members Use Social Media

How Church Members Use Social Media

Strike up a conversation with your group members about how they use Facebook and Twitter.
Connect People into Small Groups

Connect People into Small Groups

Everything you need to move people into groups