Nearly three years ago, my husband and I moved seven hours away from our last city. This means new everything: New city. New church. New work. New doctors. New hairstylists.
We’re both relatively outgoing people, yet we were having a hard time getting to know the people living up and down the streets from us. It was hard starting over. And when our CEO came to LifeWay last year, he issued a challenge to everyone in the organization: Identify three people in your life who don’t walk with Christ, pray for them, and engage them.
Thinking of three people wasn’t the problem. And praying for them wasn’t an issue. But I couldn’t engage them in regular, everyday life because they’re friends and family who are scattered all over the U.S. It was then that I was confronted with not knowing my neighbors—my literal neighbors.
Either way I knew I needed to know my neighbors. I believe God calls us not only to a vocation/ministry; He also calls us to a place. And in order to be effective in the place to which we’re called, we need to know and love its inhabitants.
So I started a neighborhood book club in January 2020. I had just come out of another book club that lasted through most of 2019, so maybe that planted a seed. I also think perhaps reading Rosaria Butterfield’s The Gospel Comes with a House Key inspired me in my method of getting it started (more on that later).
The book club started out physically meeting in my home, but then COVID-19 forced us to take it online in March. There might be a different format, but the mission is the same—to know my neighbors. Here are some reasons hosting a book club—virtual or physical—can be a tool to help us live out the Great Commission in the places to which we’re called.
Books bring commonality among people who have nothing else in common.
There is great diversity of age, background, and experience among book lovers. The book club that began in my home consisted of twelve people—ranging in age from late twenties to mid sixties. I don’t recall anyone in the group being native to Nashville (where I live).
Some are married; some are divorced. There’s a married couple in the book club. There are some young single adults. There are multiple ethnicities involved. There are Christians and non-Christians in the group.
All that to say: We don’t really have a lot in common with one another. But we all love books. And that common interest not only gives us something to discuss; it opens up dialogue that can eventually (hopefully) go beyond prose.
Book discussions can provide insight on another’s worldview
This concept came to light early this year—actually in our first meeting. We were discussing The Dutch House by Ann Patchett—the story of a family dynamic impacted by death and divorce (and many other factors).
In the story, a brother and sister grapple with the remarriage of their father to their stepmother. During the book discussion, one person talked about how this book brought back many thoughts, memories, and emotions in struggling with her own stepmother.
This gave me not only a glimpse into her life and some of the things that shaped her—but it also provided a bridge to conversation, since I, myself, am a stepmother. I told her after the book club discussion time was over that I would love to chat with her and hear from her about her experience as a stepchild. Even though my stepsons are now grown, I still want to be a great stepmom!
When we can understand where our neighbors come from—literally and figuratively—we are better equipped to engage them in friendship and in discussions about things deeper than books.
Earlier, I mentioned I would explain how I started this book club. Rosaria Butterfield tells readers in The Gospel Comes with a House Key that she uses NextDoor to reach out to her neighbors and invite them over weekly for what she and her husband dubbed “soup and prayer.”
I took to NextDoor right before Thanksgiving last year. I created a simple post, saying I’d like to launch a book club in my neighborhood, and that anyone interested should direct message me with their email address and I’d be in touch with the group. It’s that easy. I got around twenty or so interested neighbors, but when all was said and done, a dozen showed up to the initial gathering.
Here are a few more pointers on starting a book club:
Book choice: I chose the first book (intentionally not a Christian book), and then we begin a rotation of a different group member choosing the book for each month. Whoever chooses the book leads the discussion based on that book. This is important, because it needs to feel group-led and not one-person dominated. Remember, the key isn’t to gather everyone together for a gospel presentation. The initial goal should be to form relationships with your neighbors—people God created in His image and loves. The gospel-focused conversations can happen later, when you’ve built relational equity.
Frequency: We meet monthly, discussing an entire book (based on the facilitator’s prompts/questions). This is recommended, because weekly can be too much of a commitment for many. And less frequent than monthly can promote disconnection. Because of our frequency, I’ve found in this book club and in my previous one that it’s a good idea to set the page max to three hundred to four hundred pages. You want everyone to be able to get through the book (that’s our only criteria for book selection, by the way).
Attendance: Don’t be surprised if people start to dwindle as the gatherings progress. This is normal.
Setting: If you’re hosting in a home, make sure to offer snacks/desserts and beverages. There’s just something about sharing food and drink that creates a deeper sense of community. Once you all know each other a bit better, you may consider turning it into a supper club with a book discussion! If you’re hosting virtually out of COVID-19 precaution, here are some tips from our groups blog that could apply here.
A final word
If you’re reading this article and books aren’t your thing, worry no more. The same principle can be applied to any affinity group. Think of a hobby or an interest you have that could be a pathway for engaging your neighbors. Book clubs aren’t the only affinity group out there.
Are you into scrapbooking? Gardening? Cooking? Anything with a motor? Exercise? It doesn’t matter. And most of these can be done in community with social distancing guidelines. You can connect with your neighbors over almost any hobby or affinity.
God has wired you with gifts and interests. And He’s called you to a place. Begin investing in and caring for its inhabitants—your literal neighbors—today.
Joy Allmond serves on LifeWay’s corporate communications team and is the managing editor of Facts & Trends, LifeWay’s online magazine geared toward church leaders.