Bringing the Church together around books

(Photo: Unsplash/Josh Felise)

St Andrew's Bookshop has been serving the Church with quality Christian books since 1957 and while you could be forgiven for thinking that they're all about the sales, for managing director Steve Barnett, what's really exciting is seeing the Church reading together.

With that in mind, St Andrew's Bookshop has just partnered with publisher Hodder Faith to launch the Big Church Read, a new national initiative inviting all Christians to come together around a good book three times a year.

Steve speaks to Christian Today about why he believes the Church needs to be reading more and reading together, especially in the days of Covid-19.

CT: The Big Church Read is your idea and St Andrew's has already been running it on a local level with some churches for a few years now. What was the inspiration behind it and the decision to take it nationwide?

Steve: We started the Big Church Read because we wanted to see the Church become more intentional around reading and see it as an essential part of the culture of learning in the Church.

We got the idea from a 'big read' that took place in the Thames Valley back in 2004 around the book Three Men in a Boat, by Jerome K Jerome. The book, as the title suggests, is about three men who sail down the Thames in a boat. Lots of people in the area got involved and you could even buy a badge that said you were part of the big read so that people would know you were taking part. It was a real conversation starter for people who wouldn't normally talk to each other.

That's where the idea for our Big Church Read came from. We thought: wouldn't it be great to do something like this in the church and get people talking to each other over good books. At church, we maybe just speak to the same few people each week, and when it comes to talking with other people outside our circle, we don't always know what to talk about!

Having a book that you're both reading gives you something to talk about. It builds fellowship and community within a church, and gives everyone something in common that they can all talk about together - a shared experience.

But it's also great for the minister too because if, say, you're doing a five-week sermon series on prayer, there will always be people who don't manage to hear all five sermons and even if they did, would they take in as much as if they were reading a whole book on prayer? But just imagine if everyone in the church did hear all the sermons and also read the book. By the end of it, everyone would know so much more about prayer. Reading together is good for the church on so many levels.

CT: Do you see this as something that can help churches in their discipleship?

Steve: We run book stalls at Christian conferences so I've talked to a lot of pastors in my time and I've noticed that, in general, there are five things they want from their congregations. They want them to come to church more often; read the Bible more often; pray more often; give more, and witness more.

But so often what I really want to say to them is: if they told their congregations to read more books, they'd probably be doing all of these things! That's the power of books.

Many church leaders these days don't recommend books to their congregations to read anymore. I mentioned this to a pastor once and he said 'oh, I haven't done that in ages'. What I want to see is people in the church reading more as opposed to just listening to online sermons and TED Talks or whatever.

These things are all well and good, but you're not going to get the same level of learning from an online talk that you will get through reading books. Research suggests that reading has a big impact on spiritual maturity so it's really important that we take that time as a Church to read.

CT: Why do you think we've fallen out of the habit of reading?

Steve: It's interesting because if you look at the figures, in general, the UK as a country is actually reading more. But as Christians, we're not reading lots of Christian books; we're just reading the same books as everybody else.

CT: That's interesting because it's not for want of Christian books. There are plenty of Christian books out there to read!

Steve: I think for a lot of people, they don't know what to read or what's good. Sometimes we need someone we trust or respect to say 'this is a good thing', and recommend it. Something like the Big Church Read can do that because we are partnering with respected book publishers and brands, as well as authors - this isn't only a St Andrew's Bookshop thing.

The first book we're going to be studying together is The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry by John Mark Comer, which looks at emotional health and the practical things we can do to deal with stress and anxiety. At a time like this, it's a very worthwhile read.

CT: What impact do you want the Big Church Read to have? A culture change in the Church?

Steve: That would be the dream! The beauty of the Big Church Read is that it is fun because you are doing it together. This is especially important given where we are right now as a nation, when we are possibly going into our second lockdown. People are really looking for that sense of doing something together, a shared experience, because we've all been missing that experience of meeting together so much this year.

I think even just that coming together is something really powerful that the Big Church Read can offer people. It's an opportunity for people to read together, learn together and simply meet together.

But the other great thing about the Big Church Read is that it isn't about sitting down and reading an entire book in a weekend, like you might do with a novel. Nor is it about telling people to read a big, heavy theological tome.

The books we'll be using are good quality but also accessible. We will be taking in one chapter a week over six weeks and it may not seem like much, but just reading a chapter a week can make a huge difference to our lives and become an important part of our spiritual discipline.

CT: Covid has been a challenging time for retailers. How has it been for you as booksellers?

Steve: We had three physical shops, only two of which are re-opening, and we were fairly unique in that a lot of our business was events-based. We will be doing a lot more online now with things like the Big Church Read. Further down the road, we're planning a yearlong Big Church Read based around Simon Guillebaud's 365-day devotional, Choose Life, that will feature live podcasts, competitions and lots of fun stuff. It's about trying to build a community around books.

CT: Do you think the book industry can survive Covid?

Steve: I think so. We know from studies that reading helps us make changes that last and it is a key element of discipleship. One of the things we like to say here at St Andrew's Bookshop is "books change lives". They are so powerful, but it's about getting people to, firstly, know about good books and, secondly, to buy them and read them.

CT: Which books are popular right now?

Steve: Comer's The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry has been popular, as has Thief Prisoner Soldier Priest by Paul Cowley from Alpha. And also Love Interrupted, the biography of former Blue Peter presenter Simon Thomas about the sudden death of his wife. It's not by a Christian publisher and it's not written as a Christian witness book but his faith comes through and it's just a very powerful read.