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Dwelling in the Word: Simple Practice Leads to Spirit-led Mission

Explore Dwelling in the Word, a communal way of engaging Scripture that helps people encounter God, fellow dwellers, and other neighbors. The change happens over time as people repeatedly listen to and discuss the same passage.

Can you imagine beginning every church small group or ministry meeting by reading and discussing the exact same Bible passage for a year or more? 

That practice helped Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church (CRC) in Grand Rapids, Michigan, move together through a long transition between lead pastors. It helped the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, New Jersey, build bridges between congregations and their communities and do more diocesan work in less time. And Dutch Reformed congregations in South Africa experienced how Dwelling in the Word changed their perception of “dwelling in the world.”  

This communal way of reading scripture was inspired by British missionary, missiologist, and ecumenist J. E. Lesslie Newbigin. He often wrote about how the Holy Spirit helps Christians mutually indwell the Christian story so they see and live in the world through biblical eyes. Lutheran theologian Patrick Keifert and educator Pat Taylor Ellison named and fleshed out the Dwelling in the Word concept through the Church Innovations Institute. Lutheran, Episcopal, and Anglican clergy and scholars spread the idea through The Missional Network, founded by Alan Roxburgh, a teacher and writer living in Vancouver, British Columbia. 

This communal way of dwelling with scripture has taken root on several continents and within many denominations. Skeptics have discovered how Dwelling in the Word makes churches more missional. It nurtures a cultural shift that helps congregations dwell more intentionally in God’s world. 

From skepticism to “Aha!”   

Groups sometimes hesitate when asked to spend fifteen to thirty minutes on these basic dwelling steps:  

  • Listen (and maybe follow along) as someone reads the passage in a group. 
  • Match up with a “reasonably friendly-looking stranger.” 
  • Share your impressions about the passage, noting a word or phrase that captured you, wondering what the Spirit is doing in your congregation or community, or sharing what you’d like to ask a Bible scholar. 
  • Listen carefully so that you can report your conversation partner’s comments back to the group. 

Mark Beckwith introduced the practice around 2016 while he was bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark. “I was resistant at first because, to me, Bible study was often perceived as a contest about who knows more,” he said. “I thought Dwelling in the Word would be similarly seen as something that we should do but takes up a lot of time. But as we saw how the dwelling process opened creativity and imagination about where God is already at work, I experienced a level of scripture engagement that I hadn’t before.”   

“We must have read Luke 10:1–12 at least 150 times to see what God might be inviting us to do,” Beckwith continued. “As people let go of their anxiety about not knowing ‘the right answer,’ they felt free to engage through scripture in deeper relationships with God and each other. Several congregations made it part of their vestry meetings. They went from ‘We don’t have time to do that’ to ‘We don’t have time not to do that.’” 

Eastern Avenue CRC formed a vision team over more than three years of transition that included COVID-19, one pastor’s retirement, another pastor’s resignation, and congregational decline. “Our vision team was skeptical when Church Innovations introduced Dwelling in the Word,” said interim pastor Jim Holwerda. “We privately suspected that our to-do list contained more important things. Our skepticism melted as we started practicing it. The gospel is aimed at forming a community, the body of Christ. Dwelling honors God’s intention to bring people together under Christ. The center of God’s work of salvation occurred when the Word became flesh and ‘dwelt among us’ for roughly thirty-three years. We’ve discovered that this practice reveals the Word among us. Hearing the Word of God by listening to each other and connecting with each other by listening to the Word of God is a beautiful and profound combination. 

Eastern Avenue dwelled in Luke 10:1–12 for eighteen months and in 1 Corinthians 12:1–11 for nine months. The church began Philippians 1:27-2:11 during Advent 2022. After the vision team practiced dwelling for several months, they invited the congregation to embrace the practice. It’s been used at committee, staff, and council/consistory meetings, informal gatherings, and during a worship service. The practice has birthed multiple groups, including a women’s group, Holding Space, and Deep Questioners, a group for middle elementary students. 

Method makes churches more missional  

“The practice of Dwelling in the Word is more clever and intentional than people think,” said Marius J. Nel, an ordained minister in the Dutch Reformed Church of South Africa and New Testament professor at Stellenbosch University. “It fosters openness and deconstructs power. “Churches sometimes use scripture as an imperative that makes people feel guilty, like telling people at a church conference that we need to talk to strangers. In South Africa, we don’t often speak personally to each other. Dwelling helps by pairing you with a ‘reasonably friendly-looking stranger’ who tells you, ‘This is what I hear today in this passage.’   

“Our DRC background has given us a high regard for scripture as interpreted by experts. But dwelling democratizes that because it gives voice to those who are usually silent and tones down those who tend to become too eloquent,” Nel explains. 

As Nel wrote in a 2013 scholarly article, DRC members used to see “mission” as the responsibility of the missions committee. Dwelling helped them identify as members of “sent congregations” who “enact the mission of God as expressed by the Word in their everyday lives.”  

Most in the DRC speak Afrikaans, though English is the lingua franca of South Africa’s twelve official languages. Partly as a result of Dwelling in the Word, Constantiakruin DRC began reaching out to English speakers and those with emotional wounds. The church now has an independent counseling center and partners with Coram Deo, which offers English-language training in pastoral narrative therapy.  

Cultural shift  

Kristy Bootsma, Eastern Avenue CRC’s pastor of faith formation, explains that committing to the dwelling practice led the church’s spiritual formation committee to a new paradigm. “In January 2023,” Bootsma said, “we were dwelling in Philippians 1:27–2:11 to start our meeting. A theme of ‘outward-focused learning and service’ came to the forefront. We shared, discussed, and wrestled with what it meant for us to be hearing from the Spirit in a way that felt much different than before.” 

The spiritual formation committee began questioning the effectiveness of its model in helping the congregation accomplish its call “to be Christ’s body in the neighborhood, the community, and the world.”  

“We took time together and apart to prayerfully consider what this dwelling was leading to,” Bootsma said. “We believe God has led us to commit (to) a year of dwelling with our neighbors. God has invited us to ‘look up and out’ toward the people in our neighborhoods, where God is already working.”  

Interim pastor Jim Holwerda added, “Spiritual change is mysteriously unmeasurable. Yet our new vision statement centers on doing things with others rather than for others, which is closely tied to the communal emphasis of Dwelling in the Word. There’s a stronger sense of being together and working together as a church.”  

Dwelling in the world 

Mark Beckwith championed Dwelling in the Word because he saw it as a way “to change the culture of the diocese. Congregations often ask attractional questions, like how to get more people into pews. But that’s the wrong question if you want to be missional. The right question is: What is God calling you to do?”  

Beckwith recalled that in 2016, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Harrington Park, New Jersey, was dwelling in Acts 16:6–15, which describes Paul’s vision of a man from Macedonia and a subsequent encounter with Lydia, who was already worshiping God by the river in Philippi, a Roman colony in what was then Macedonia. Their communal dwelling practice prompted St. Andrew’s to create a congregational “dream board.” Next they hosted a table at an annual local event. They displayed the dream board and invited townspeople to write on butcher paper what was good in their community and what their dreams were for the community.

“The church’s dream board table led to an invitation to meet with community leaders,” Beckwith said. “New relationships developed. Community leaders started consulting with church leaders about community needs. St. Andrew’s got a broader view for how God was working in the community.”

According to the church website, St. Andrew’s has become “a mainstay of the community participating in town day, Memorial Day dedications, hosting a First Responder’s recognition service, 9/11 Remembrances, the community ecumenical Thanksgiving Service and the annual Christmas tree lighting ceremonies. Residents are welcomed at our annual election night fish & chips dinner and multiple concerts and performances.”

Beckwith described the Episcopal Diocese of Newark as diverse in race and socioeconomics, and Dwelling in the Word at diocesan conventions changed what was sometimes a fearful atmosphere.

“Certain clergy had perceived the diocese as mainly a regulatory agency. They lived in fear that the bishop has a secret list of churches to close,” Beckwith said. “But Dwelling in the Word together—and making time to share stories of dwelling in the world—opened up so much creativity and new relationships. It reframed our meetings from ‘just business’ to seeing diocesan staff as ministry resources and our work together as holy work.”


Church Mission Society describes Dwelling in the Word in eight steps. Explore these resources: 

E. Lesslie Newbigin was a British missionary to India for forty years and later served as an ecumenical pastor, teacher, and writer. He is sometimes described as a prophet to Western culture because he came to see Britain and other-post Christian societies as much of a mission field as India.

The Missional Network (TWM) was founded by Alan Roxburgh, a teacher and writer living in Vancouver, British Columbia. TWM co-sponsors The Journal of Missional Practice. Roxburgh describes Dwelling in the Word as a key practice to see what God is doing in various countries, how congregations can join in that work, and how dwelling led the Journal to shift its focus 

Consider buying these books for your church library or gathering a group to read and discuss: