New season, new reading challenge for Western Territory’s book club

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The Spiritual Formation Reading Group to explore racial unity.

By Karen Gleason – 

The Western Territory Spiritual Formation Reading Group is heading into autumn with a new name and a new book challenge: “Roadmap to Reconciliation” by Brenda Salter McNeil. The group “meets” on Facebook, although participants need not join the Facebook group to take part in the reading challenge. McNeil’s book examines the topic of racial reconciliation and unity. The challenge for members is to read a chapter a week beginning Oct. 1, or anytime after, and finishing around Thanksgiving.

Originally, the group formed in late May 2019 as a summer reading book club; it was called the Western Territory Summer Spiritual Formation Challenge. With its new title, the group is not tied to any specific season. The West’s Program department, led by Lt. Colonel Lisa Smith, formed the group to inspire Salvationists and friends “as we read good books together that will aid us in our goal to become formed into Christ-likeness for the glory of God, for the abundance of our own lives and for the sake of others” (Ruth Haley Barton).

Now with over 350 members, the Facebook group has expanded beyond the Western Territory, and includes at least one member from Australia.

This past summer the group read “Renovation of the Heart in Daily Practice” (Dallas Willard and Jan Johnson), a book engaging readers in their internal spiritual growth. Members were active online, sharing their thoughts.

Smith said she first developed a spiritual formation reading group two summers ago, when she and her husband, Kyle, led the then-Southern California Division. Her goal was to engage soldiers and officers throughout the division, challenging them to spend time on their personal spiritual growth. 

“We’re known as Salvationists as ‘doers’ and people who serve, but one of my desires is that we’re also known as people who love Jesus very deeply,” Smith said. “We need space in the margins to be still and to know he is God, and to have deep conversations about what the Scripture reading means, how to apply it and what the Holy Spirit is convicting us of.”

This takes some discipline, Smith said, and the book club acts as a group spiritual discipline.

The idea then, as it is now, was for the group to be casual, not too structured, allowing participants to read a chapter when they had time and using Facebook as an online forum where they could share insights and questions, if they wished.

When Smith took over as Territorial Secretary for Program in 2018, she expanded the reading group to include the whole territory.

At first glance, the new book choice seems completely different from the summer’s selection.

“It’s a different style of book this time; it’s a more practical roadmap,” Smith said. “It’s more practical spirituality, rather than contemplative.”

It’s actually an outgrowth of the previous selection, Smith said. It focuses on how one’s internal spiritual life translates into one’s actions in the world. 

“This is spiritual formation, too,” Smith said. “How we treat others and how we work for justice is an expression of what God’s doing in our lives.”

Harkening back to Barton’s quote about becoming “formed in Christ-likeness for…the sake of others,” it provides practical guidance for making a difference in the world for racial unity and justice. 

This book choice is one way the territory is following up the Racial Unity gathering held during this year’s Commissioning weekend. It’s one step toward increasing awareness, along with others the territory is taking, including reinstating the Multicultural Committee and engaging corps small groups with the workbook, “Sacred Conversations.”

Smith said the group will continue, with the third book beginning in January or perhaps during the Lenten season. The Facebook group—Western Territory Spiritual Formation Reading Group—is open to all.

“I’m pleased that there seems to be an interest in this,” Smith said, “people wanting to read good books about how to get closer to God and how to be more like him, and how to live justly in our world.”

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