At Relief we’re always interested not just in great writing, but in getting that work into the hands of ordinary church-goers—no English degree required. But while plenty of people think of themselves as novel readers or even nonfiction readers, very few people think of themselves as poetry readers; the poetry people are always presumed to be in some sort of world of their own. But this summer I decided to try a little experiment and run a church small group on reading contemporary Christian poetry.
The good news is that it worked. Mostly. Some of what didn’t work wouldn’t have worked with another kind of small group either. But the fact that it worked at all was, frankly, a little surprising. As I think back on the experience, I’ve learned a few things I’ll try differently next time:
- Go for it. I just submitted the idea without asking anyone. The church leadership was very open to it, and a lot of people were pleasantly surprised by it.
- Set the bar high and your expectations low. That is, aim for as many people as you can hold, and ask everyone you can, but don’t be surprised if there is more enthusiasm than commitment — especially during the summer months.
- Meet somewhere comfortable and quiet. A café can be nice but still noisy, and people are more likely to come out to someone’s home, anyway.
- Choose a convenient weeknight. Most of us, including myself, had a hard time making every Sunday evening, for a host of reasons. Folks are a little more likely to be in “go” mode on a Monday through Thursday.
- Find the right pace. This will be slower than you want to go and probably a little faster than the group thinks it wants to go. Hopefully this means most people will have the time to read during the week and that you’ll usually leave feeling like there was more to say (which will be true). We usually read 12-20 poems per week and actually talked about 3-4.
- Empower your group. We began with Tania Runyan’s How to Read a Poem as a nonthreatening entrée into reading poetry, but anything you can do to permit people to respond honestly and candidly is important. I tried to model honest inquiry and authentic enjoyment as well as openness to ambiguity and mystery. It wasn’t easy for everyone, but we generally avoided the anxiety of the “right”
- Don’t teach, but do lead. I didn’t come each week with any real agenda other than to help folks enjoy poems I also enjoyed and to learn how they responded to new poetry. Thus, I didn’t feel the need to lecture at them, though I sometimes did explain concepts or trends when relevant. What I did try to do, however, was to hold us all accountable to the text. I’d let us wander on a tangent inspired by the text, but if I felt someone was misunderstanding or getting a little loose with their reading, I’d call us back to the text to make sure we had solid footing. Occasionally, I’d see that I was misreading.
- Our Community Life pastor always reminds us that small groups succeed when their leaders pray. Pray of course for the needs of your group, but pray, too, prayers of praise for the beauty of the written word.
(Painting by Edward Coley Burne-Jones)