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Locally Grown: Building Community through Book Club

By Jessica Miller

When I lived overseas one of the things I enjoyed was the community that developed in neighborhoods. Visiting in each other's homes or yards and helping one another in practical ways was the social norm in the Middle Eastern city where I lived. Because everyone's worldview was impacted by religion, it was also common and fairly easy to have spiritual discussions with my neighbors. I found it much harder, after moving back to the US, to experience this same type of community in my neighborhood, but I was able to sometimes find it in small ways.

A little over two years ago, my husband accepted the pastor position at Bean Blossom Community Church and we moved to Indiana. We prayed and looked for a house that would be close to the church. We considered moving into a trailer park right next to the church, but felt like the Lord clearly led us to a house in a subdivision about a seven-minute drive from the church. After we settled in, I began to think and pray about how I could get better acquainted with my neighbors. I decided to try an experiment.

I wrote up a letter and took it around door-to-door in my neighborhood, talking to anyone who answered their door, and leaving the letter if no one was home. My letter explained that I was hoping to get to know my neighbors better and that I also enjoy having discussions with people who have a wide variety of perspectives because it helps challenge me to deeper thinking. I attached photocopies of the description of the book, What on Earth Am I Here For? by Rick Warren. I explained that I had heard a lot about this book, but had never read it for myself. I would enjoy reading it together with my neighbors and getting together for a weekly discussion group about the book. Most likely influenced by my time in the Middle East, I made clear it was going to be a discussion group for women only.

“…she would have never come if I had invited her to a Bible study, but because it was a book she felt more comfortable.”Not really sure what to expect, I was surprised when ten women showed up for the first discussion group. Thinking I was the newest neighbor in the subdivision, I was surprised to find out one of them was even newer than I was and another one had moved in only a couple of months before me. Most of them were older and retired so they had a lot of free time and were desiring more social interaction. One of them told me she would have never come if I had invited her to a Bible study, but because it was a book she felt more comfortable.

I'm sure that the way I started this group (by suggesting we read a Christian book) eliminated a number of people who might have come if I had chosen a secular book. I think using a secular book could be a great way to build friendships with those who are farther from Christ, but using a Christian book might attract those with more prepared hearts. In our neighborhood, using a Christian book united a number of godly women from a variety of churches to work together to reach out to those who don't yet know Christ.

I hosted in my home for the first meeting and then everyone wanted to take turns hosting. It worked best for everyone's schedules to meet every other week and we had wonderful spiritual discussions for the length of the book. When the book was finished, the women wanted to continue to meet.

About half the women were attending different churches and half weren’t attending any church. At first I was a little worried about how the discussions would go with the variety of worldviews represented, but everyone treated each other with patience and respect. No one was pushy or unkind in stating what they believed and why. Some of them also asked good questions of those who held a different viewpoint from their own.

Through these meetings and discussions, women began to ask questions about Jesus. Some began attending church, and one even decided to go forward with declaring her faith through baptism. She has been attending our church regularly since then and has participated in a couple of Bible studies.

I believe this particular outreach method helped me to build deeper relationships and initiate spiritual discussions more naturally with others. I started out with lists of discussion questions, but the women didn't really like that as well and wanted to share what they had learned from the book or to ask others what they thought about a certain section. There are some drawbacks to a group setting for the purposes of personal evangelism so I think a group outreach like this is best when paired with one-on-one ministry as well. I think a smaller group size might be more effective, also, for building deeper relationships. I think four to five individuals could have great discussions together and perhaps go deeper than a group of ten.

After the third book, my schedule began to change and I wasn't able to be in regular attendance for the meetings. I also loved how it was going and didn't feel that I needed to be there for it to continue. I wanted to invest some time in starting another group somewhere else. A dear Christian lady who attends another gospel-preaching church in our community took over in facilitating the group and it has continued on for most of the past year without me. I attend on occasion as my schedule allows. I have hosted some other small groups in the meantime and now I am working on getting one started in the trailer park I mentioned at the beginning of this story. I am extremely excited about this new development as I am starting to invest in a community closer to our church.

Jessica Miller currently lives in Nashville, IN where she serves as the outreach director at Bean Blossom Community Church. She is married to Jeff Miller, the lead pastor at Bean Blossom Community Church. In her free time she enjoys reading, traveling, taking long walks in nature, and spending time with her family and friends.

If you are interested in joining the conversation about how your local church can get involved in your community, join the Facebook group CMC Community Outreach. You can also contact CMC’s outreach coordinator, Jordan Stoltzfus at jordan@rmmoffice.org or call (614) 795-5113.