Book clubs help Fresno church groups better understand faith

The Fresno BeeJune 28, 2013 

Reading a good book in church these days doesn't mean it's always the Bible.

It could be the Christian fiction novel "Wonderland Creek," by Lynn Austin. Or Christian author Dave Eggers' "What is the What," the pseudo-autobiography of Sudanese refugee Valentino Achak Deng.

The Bible is always on church bookshelves. But contemporary Christian books are finding their way onto them, too. Some Valley churches even have book clubs that examine themes consistent with church teachings and help congregants better understand aspects of faith.

"It just gives another way to look at Scripture," says Marie Kenyon, women's ministry director at The Bridge Church. "You can read James that says 'to be joyful always,' but when you complement it with a book about someone's experience, when they talk about how they struggled with it and worked through it, it enhances Scripture and gives a personal testimony to it."

Churches with book clubs have different formats depending on size and room availability.

In some cases, the books include DVDs and guides as part of the regular Bible study programs. The DVDs show authors teaching key points from their books and allow congregants to follow along. When the DVD stops, the discussion begins.

That's the case at The Bridge, which presents contemporary books with its women's Bible study program from 9-11 a.m. Tuesdays.

On Tuesday, it began a new study on author Kay Warren's "Choosing Joy." The study examines how people can find joy even in the middle of difficult circumstances.

Fifty women attended the study in the church's Ground Floor Room. They sat at round tables, caught up with one another, drank coffee and munched on goodies as they viewed a DVD of Warren's teachings. Then they participated in discussions at their tables on what the teachings personally meant to them.

"We tried a book club about four years ago, but it didn't have the attendance," Kenyon says. "Maybe 75% will not read 'Choose Joy,' but they come to watch Kay Warren's DVD and discuss it. One of the big parts is people also bring lots of things to eat."

Dorina Lazo Gilmore organized a previous book study at The Bridge on "One Thousand Gifts," by Ann Voskamp. The book focuses on people being grateful, so they can see God in various circumstances in everyday life.

Church member Janine Healy participated as a table leader, despite the death of her husband, Jim Healy, just a couple of weeks before the event. He died Feb. 5 after the bicycle he was riding collided with a Jeep northeast of Fresno.

"It was a deep and powerful book for our group," Lazo Gilmore says. "We were learning how to grieve with her as well as celebrate the things in our lives."

A different approach is taken at Clovis Memorial United Methodist Church.

Members of Clovis Memorial's Christian Book Club agree on what book they want to study. The only stipulation is it must be written by a Christian author.

Then, as many as 12 people meet at 7 p.m. Tuesdays in the church library to take turns reading the book out loud. If someone makes a comment, they stop to talk. They read up to an hour.

Then, club founder Edie Dyer triggers discussion with a question related to the book, such as: "Ever know someone who has had to live through a situation like this?"

The club has completed five books. The first was "We Are All Connected: Historic & Inspirational Short Stories," by George S. Evans. The book focuses on life through 13 short stories at locations throughout the world.

"In each story, you could feel the meaning of the Christian life and the non-Christian life," Dyer says.

The club is about three-fourths of the way through Eggers' "What is the What."

Dyer believes the purpose of the book club is to help members develop or refresh their spiritual foundation through the book themes. She says the topics often help people better understand why events happen in people's lives.

"It helps us understand that God works in mysterious ways," she says.

Meetings always end with members joining hands in a prayer circle and thanking God for what they have learned together.

Other churches hold their book clubs on a monthly basis.

Northside Christian Church in Clovis offers its book club on the last Monday of the month through its Virtue women's ministry program. A brochure announces the next three books to be discussed as well as the dates and times.

Officials say it is helpful for people to have read that month's selection before coming to the meeting so they can participate in the discussion. Everyone also is asked to bring a small appetizer or dessert to share during the discussion. Attendance varies from six to 15 women.

In the last three meetings, they have discussed "This Present Darkness," by Frank Peretti; "Like Dandelion Dust," by Karen Kingsbury; and "Wonderland Creek," by Austin. The books provide study questions.

"We go through every single question," says Kelli Crough, director of women's ministries at Northside. "The question is thrown out there for people's opinion on it. It's amazing how God steps in and directs the conversation. It's one of my favorite times."

Jill Osborne, a Fresno writer, says she relates to "Wonderland Creek," which is about an avid reader whose concept of life is limited to what she reads in books. Then, she steps out to experience life first-hand.

"Those of us who read, we have to be careful we're not like that," Osborne says. "It was how her faith grows. She became more compassionate when she got more involved with others.

"It's fun to be together, to learn what we personally got from it and learn from each other. ... I think all churches should have book clubs — and that's a book person talking."

 

The reporter can be reached at rorozco@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6304.

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