My favorite spot in my house is the reading nook—a dark-green velvet armchair and footstool flanked by overflowing bookshelves. Most nights I settle in there with a stack of books and a cup of peppermint tea. It’s hard to leave.
But I miss out on something important if I only ever read curled up on my own in that cozy spot. There is much to gain from reading in community. Whether you read with one close friend or a whole group from church, you can dig deeper into books about theology or the Christian life together.
Let’s consider a few of the benefits.
1. Deeper Understanding and Retention
It’s often said that the best way to learn something is to teach it. Discussing a book with others has a similar effect—by having to put into words the concepts that intrigued us, we learn the material in a deeper way, and we retain it longer too. In the words of hymn writer Isaac Watts, “Talking over the things which you have read with your companions fixes them on the mind.”
The slower pace—reading a chapter every week or two instead of speeding through it—will help understanding and give you the space to make connections with your daily life. Reading in community also guards us from the echo chamber of our own minds. Other people will come away from the same book with different questions, objections, and applications. You can push each other to engage with the material from a variety of viewpoints.
Reading in community also guards us from the echo chamber of our own minds.
2. Growth in Holiness
I have countless books to thank for my growth in holiness over the years. God has used authors faithfully unpacking the Scripture and applying it to various aspects of life to teach me about himself, reveal my sin, remind me of the gospel, and strengthen me for obedience. But I still have blind spots. I remember as a teenager speeding through Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship, not wanting to slow down long enough to have to put it into practice. In my immaturity, I wanted to follow Jesus without sacrificing my comfort. I can’t recall why I persevered in reading the book at all when I didn’t want to hear its message.
When we read a book alongside others, we can’t just skip over the bits we don’t like—the parts that cut a little too close to our cherished sins. You can’t hide so easily in community. When books prompt us to risk vulnerability in sharing our hearts, we reap great blessing. A few years ago I read a book with a close friend, and after reading a particular chapter we both confessed a similar long-standing struggle with sin. Since then, we’ve helped each other fight that sin at its roots.
The goal isn’t just to blurt out all your secret sins so you can feel better—we need to help each other live holy lives. Reading a book like You Can Change by Tim Chester, or one on a specific sin, can help you work through the heart issues behind your sinful behaviors. You’ll get much more out of this by reading it alongside a trusted friend.
3. Spiritual Fellowship
As we build these kind of relationships in which we share openly, the benefits of reading together multiply. That doesn’t always mean it’s comfortable. In our conversations, we’ll have the opportunity to put into practice the “one another” commands of Scripture. If controversy erupts over theology or politics, we learn to bear with and forgive one another (Col. 3:13). We confess our faults to one another (James 5:16) and exhort one another against the deceitfulness of sin (Heb. 3:13). Through the biblical truth we read together, we “stir up one another to love and good works (Heb. 10:24). I expect that as Christians gather to read books together, they’d ask God to help them understand and grow from what they read—so we have the opportunity to frequently “pray for one another” (James 5:16).
If your current friendships with other believers are only superficial, all this talk of confessing and exhorting and encouraging will sound foreign. You might feel isolated or disconnected from others at your church. Don’t let that stop you—reading a book together can open up the opportunity for deeper spiritual conversations. Soon you’ll find you have more to talk about after church than your weekend or job or kids.
What Does Reading Together Look Like?
You might have an idealized picture in your mind of what a reading group looks like. If you’re familiar with the Inklings—a group that included C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien—you could be imagining a circle of highly intellectual people sitting by the fireside with cups of tea (or flagons of beer) to discuss the latest ideas, perhaps then continuing their debate with a walk through the rolling countryside.
Soon you’ll find you have more to talk about after church than your weekend or job or kids.
But honestly, the experience looks very ordinary. You might sit with a friend at the kitchen table while your kids noisily stack and topple Lego towers in the corner. You might meet with a group at church on hard and creaking chairs while sipping mediocre coffee. But the unseen realities of what God is doing are glorious, as he builds up his people in love and knowledge and holiness.
Don’t feel locked into starting a group that reads book after book together and builds lifelong friendships. If this happens it would be a great blessing but it may not be realistic, and it shouldn’t turn you off from reading books with people altogether. Discipleship can be ad hoc. Just ask a friend to read one book with you, committing only to a few weeks or months. Then when you’re finished, you can ask someone else. You can even discuss books with a group using Zoom or WhatsApp, though you’ll almost always get more out of a flesh-and-blood community.
Today we have access to countless books that enrich our faith and strengthen us for obedience. Through centuries of church history, the riches of the Scriptures have been expounded and rejoiced in many times over. These treasures are ours for the taking. Let’s help each other mine them—let’s read good books together.
What books should you read together? Your choices are almost endless, so we’ve suggested a few TGC books with discussion guides available or built-in study questions. Running a reading group is less intimidating if you don’t have to come up with discussion questions on your own.
- Before You Lose Your Faith: Deconstructing Doubt in the Church by Ivan Mesa (ed.)
- Identity Theft: Reclaiming the Truth of Who We Are in Christ by Melissa Kruger (ed.)
- Evangelism as Exiles: Life on Mission as Strangers in Our Own Land by Elliot Clark
- Growing Together: Taking Mentoring Beyond Small Talk and Prayer Requests by Melissa Kruger