Nine Tips to Effectively Embed Dwelling in the Word
The communal practice of Dwelling in the Word has great potential for building congregational bonds with God, each other, and neighbors. These nine tips can help your church discern God’s promised and preferred future for you as you wait for Christ to return and make all things new.
Like lectio divina, Dwelling in the Word is a contemplative way to read, meditate, and reflect on Scripture. Unlike lectio divina, dwelling uses the same short passage dozens or even hundreds of times. Its method helps people learn to listen to each other about where God might be calling their church or ministry. This communal way of spending time with one another through the Word has taken root on several continents and within and beyond many denominations.
Dwelling in the Word helps churches that may see themselves as a set of problems that need to be fixed, such as low attendance, not enough volunteers, or a lack of diversity. It helps them instead to see how God has already gifted their congregation and community to be people of peace” (Luke 10:5–6) building God’s kingdom in the world.
These nine tips can help you effectively embed Dwelling in the Word in your committee, congregation, community, or denomination.
Introduce Dwelling in the Word
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 the lens of scripture. 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.
Expect that your group may hesitate at first when asked to take up to half an hour to do 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, perhaps including 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.
- The Church Mission Society’s description of Dwelling in the Word in eight steps.
- Brief videos about Dwelling in the Word that Church Innovations Institute gathered from Denmark, South Africa, the UK and the US.
- Instructions, a video demonstration, and selected dwelling passages from the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, New Jersey.
- A brief video of Mark Beckwith, bishop (now retired) of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, New Jersey, on why he champions Dwelling in the Word.
Choose a passage
Congregations that consult with Church Innovations or take part in three-year Partnership for Missional Church (PMC) cohorts almost always begin dwelling in Luke 10:1–12. The passage is about Jesus sending out seventy-two disciples in pairs to prepare “every town and place” for a visit from Jesus.
Andrew Anderson-Gear is director of mission and ministry at the Diocese of Oxford, one of the largest in the Church of England (COE). He says that the eight hundred diocesan churches span a mixed area, from the rural Cotswolds to the affluent and academic Oxford to the urbanized Slough, one of the UK’s most ethnically diverse cities. Oxford was one of several COE dioceses that learned to practice “holy habits”—including Dwelling in the Word, dwelling in the world, and receiving(and offering hospitality—through PMC cohorts.
“When they started dwelling in Luke 10:1–12, many PMC teams struggled to engage local congregations,” Anderson-Gear said, “They noticed Jesus’ comment ‘but the laborers are few.’ Yet they were drawn to the harvest promised in ‘therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers.’
“As a diocesan department, we also dwell in the same passages. We helped guide team leaders to hope by recognizing and understanding that although laborers are few, nevertheless, somewhere in each community, large or small, there is a harvest. These biblical insights led us to adopt much more appreciative inquiry with help from the organization Appreciating People and their book Appreciating Church. People began to notice and imagine how to build on good and valuable things that God had already put in their church and community.”
He and other dwelling practitioners also report successfully dwelling in biblical genres other than the gospels, including Old Testament narratives, the psalms, prophetic writings, Acts, and Pauline epistles. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) lists dwelling passages grouped by theme.
Decide how long to do it
Dwelling in the Word helped Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, move together through a long transition between lead pastors. Eastern Avenue dwelled in Luke 10:1–12 for eighteen months and 1 Corinthians 12:1–11 for nine months; they began dwelling in Philippians 1:27–2:11 during Advent 2022.
Anderson-Gear says that PMC participants dwelled in one passage per year. Luke 10:1–2 helped them listen for what God was already doing in their communities. 2 Corinthians 4:1–12 inspired them to experiment with “fresh expressions of church” and to feel permission to “be perplexed but not despair.” In year three, they dwelled in Acts 6:1–7, in which Hellenist Jews complained about not being served. This passage helped congregations focus on the specific ministry and people of peace to which God was sending them. The new ministries often surprised them, as when God led the COE in Widmer End and Hazlemere, a commuter suburb, to focus not on a church café or school ministry but on community mental health.
Each year the ELCA Central/Southern Illinois Synod publishes suggested dwelling passages based on liturgical seasons or chunks of Ordinary Time.
Retain conversation partners
Sometimes, in an effort to speed up the Dwelling in the Word process, groups skip the step of listening pairs. Instead, someone reads the passage and then invites listeners to reflect on their own or to volunteer their own impressions and questions. This is a mistake, according to Anderson-Gear.
“If you only reflect quietly and individually,” he said, “you lose the ability to let the Word speak corporately. If you simply share your own thoughts with the group, you miss the valuable disruptive process of being vulnerable with another person and learning to really listen to someone else”—essential skills that prepare people to risk having authentic conversations with those outside the congregation.
Dwell across differences
“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.”
“In Dwelling in the Word, every reader’s understanding of a text is shaped by their initial partner’s understanding of what had been conveyed to them and the communal discussion of all the readings by the group. In practice, this tends to eliminate most esoteric readings of texts. This meaning seeking process is furthermore not a once-off occurrence, but rather one repeated in different groups, times and spaces to facilitate a more refined reading of Scripture,” Nel wrote in his book Reframing: Novel Metaphors for Reimagining the Church and the Bible (Wellington, South Africa: Bybel Media, 2023).
In fact, congregations in South Africa, the UK, and the US report that Dwelling in the Word can succeed even in settings with different cultures, education levels, languages, and ages. “In places like Oxford, with all its academia and influence, so often God’s Word has been mediated through experts people depend on,” Anderson-Gear said, but “Dwelling in the Word can be disruptive to our egos and defensiveness. But when we open ourselves to listen to what others say about what they’ve noticed in the passage today, we see the confidence it gives to lay people. Together we experience the Bible as the living Word and know that God is active in our world.”
Review and celebrate what you are learning together
“Many Christians are intrigued by the claim that mission is finding out what God is doing and joining in. It’s lovely to say but hard to do,” Anderson-Gear said. “We’ve found that Dwelling in the Word can help. You also need to take time to review what you are learning together. It’s like momentarily leaving the action on the dance floor and observing from the balcony so you can see the overall patterns. We have to ask whether Dwelling in the Word is truly making a difference.”
When his diocese ran two three-year cohorts with a total of thirty-five churches, the cohorts would gather three times a year. Clergy and lay leaders would meet on a Friday. Lay people would join them in the evening. The evening sessions included some Methodists, younger people, and those from rural congregations with only fifteen to twenty regular worshipers.
“That evening time of Dwelling in the Word and sharing stories was like hearing from the seventy-two people after they’d returned from being sent out (Luke 10:1–12),” Anderson-Gear said. “It was interesting to watch, when someone reported their partner’s insights incorrectly, whether partners would correct them or extend grace. We saw barriers break down as people were willing to be vulnerable and lay people gained confidence.”
He recalled a gathering where someone observed, “This is the sixth time we are returning to the same phrase in John 1:1–18: ‘For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.’ Now, does this mean we are ignoring other things in this passage, or is God now bringing this to our attention?”
The group decided that God was calling them to release anxiety. “We live in anxious times and are often anxious Christians. We are invariably restless and impatient about God’s mission, wanting to find a bright, shiny programmatic solution to our perceived challenges and failures,” Anderson-Gear explained.
Dwell in the Word with people to whom God sends you
In 2013, Marius J. Nel reviewed results of five years of Dwelling in the Word among almost 10 percent of Dutch Reformed Church (DRC) congregations in South Africa. He found that most of those congregations saw Dwelling in the Word as a step that ended once they’d discerned to whom God was sending them. But Patrick Keifert and Pat Taylor Ellison never intended the process to be closed or limited.
Nel wrote, “A missional reading of Scripture is not only determined by why it is read (to discover the nature of the missio Dei) but also by whom and where it is read. A true missional reading is thus one where Scripture is read together with those to whom the church has been sent in their context, in order to discern God's will together.”
The 2017 impact review of PMC cohorts in the UK includes stories of how church members worked with community members. For example, St. Mary’s Church Norton in Durham Diocese worked with schools and businesses to create an Advent trail.
The impact report reveals that an unnamed church member had been apprehensive about doing Dwelling in the Word with community members. She was “convinced that this would alienate those from the wider community with no explicit Christian faith. She was surprised to find that they both engaged and contributed insights which challenged her. In this case, one of the holy habits has served as a bridge for talking about faith in a context where it might usually have been seen as a barrier and perhaps not approached. Another respondent remarked that ‘In deciding on activities and events, it hasn’t always been the church members who have suggested Christian ideas.’ This goes a stage further, showing that non-church community connections have sometimes been the ones to invite Christian faith into their interactions” (p.16).
Locate Dwelling passages in God’s Big Story
Leaders who champion Dwelling in the Word emphasize that it shouldn’t be the only way that churches engage scripture. “You have to recognize what dwelling is and isn’t,” Anderson-Gear said. “It needs to be backed up by preaching and Bible study.” Church leaders also say that, compared to previous generations, many Christians today are less aware of the scripture.
In his book Reframing, Marius J. Nel offers four ways to help people Dwell in the Word through a method he calls “reading stereoscopically.” Like vintage View-Master stereoscopes, this reading method looks at the same image from slightly different angles to produce a three-dimensional image.
- Use another language. Nel has put the same dwelling passage in English and Afrikaans for DRC members. “In Afrikaans, we translate ‘dwelling’ not as ’living’ or ‘remaining’ but as ‘walking’ (om te wandel in die Woord). This helps people see that being missional is a lifestyle rather than a program or event,” he said.
- Use multiple translations. Nel has sometimes put the dwelling passage in English and in one or more of the 1933, 1983, and 2020 Afrikaans translations. He explained that lay people often forget that the Bible they read is a post-text, a translation of the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. Using more than one translation helps dwellers to “see Scripture as a centuries-long conversation about and with God,” Nel wrote.
- Consider the dwelling passage as part of a biblical author’s entire work. If a group is dwelling in John 15:1–8 (“I am the vine”), other verses that explore John’s concept of dwelling could be added to the handout. Examples include John 1:35–39 and John 4:39–42 (staying); John 6:56 (Eucharist); John 8:31–32 (obeying); and 1 John 2:24 (remaining).
- Explore related biblical images. A handout of John 15:1–-8 could include other images of Israel as a vine (Hos. 10:1–2; Isa. 5:1–7; Jer. 2:21; Ezek. 15:1–5; 17:1–21; 19:10–15; Ps. 80:8–18). “Dwelling in these Old Testament texts alerts the reader to God’s care for Israel as his vine and his disappointment with Israel over her lack of fruit,” Nel wrote. “Every Old Testament text that describes Israel as a vine refers to their failure to produce the fruit that God expected. The pre-texts of John 15 thus warn the reader of God’s threat—to withdraw his care if the vine does not produce fruit—that could easily be missed if John 15 is read in isolation.”
Effectively embed the process
“People who have great ideas aren’t always great at leading others to accept those ideas,” said Mark Beckwith, who introduced Dwelling in the Word around 2016 while bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, New Jersey. “To make a permanent change, you need 18 to 20 percent of people to buy into the innovation. Though we saw encouraging examples of change in vestries, congregations, and the diocese, my retirement came before Dwelling in the Word had become been thoroughly embedded.”
As a retired bishop who now visits churches in the Diocese of Western Massachusetts, he always asks groups to do Dwelling in the Word with him. Many agree.
“Although the fundamental passage is Luke 10:1–12,” Beckwith said, “I also find value dwelling in Joshua 3 (crossing the flooded Jordan) and John 14:1–21 (Jesus’ resurrection appearance to disciples who’d caught no fish). I make the case that our ancestors in the faith had to step out in faith as they journeyed with God. The Episcopal Church of the past isn’t working—not that we need to change our theology or worship. But God is calling us to new methods.”
In the Church of England, evaluations of Dwelling in the Word and other Partnership for Missional Church “holy habits” showed that the process helps increase lay leadership—and it’s most effective when the vicar, priest in charge, or bishop supports the process. (Read the 2022 PMC/UK report.)
Anderson-Gear explained how Bishop Steven Croft has helped embed dwelling in the Oxford Diocese: “Because Bishop Steven advocated for dwelling, it made it okay for many churches to try, whether or not they were in a PMC cohort,.”
Croft chooses a dwelling passage for each academic year, begins all his staff meetings with it, and blogs about dwelling passages. During a year of dwelling in two Colossians passages (1:15–20; 3:12–17), Croft wrote, “Paul writes in Colossians: ‘Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly’ (3:16). . . . As we do this, we learn to listen to God and to one another for the kind of Church we are called to be: more contemplative, more compassionate and more courageous.”
Since the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa doesn’t have a bishop system, Nel said it has embedded Dwelling in the Word through seminaries.
“We don’t have an American model of each denomination running its own seminary. The DRC trains ministers at three state universities, including Stellenbosch University, where I teach,” Nel said. “At Stellenbosch, we teach and practice Dwelling in the Word, and future clergy experience how dwelling helps them remain under the influence of the text. Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Anglican ministers also train here, and they bring the practice into their own traditions.”
Congregational clusters and varied denominations on three continents have participated in the Partnership for Missional Church process developed by Pat Keifert and the Church Innovations Institute. This 2017 report from Anglican and Methodist churches in high- and low-income communities in the UK cited Dwelling in the Word as the top “holy habit” that helped churches learn to “dwell in the world.” They developed mission innovations aligned with “God’s preferred and promised future” for them. A 2022 report confirmed that finding.
For more on understanding the Bible as a story we are still living in, consider buying these books for your church library and gathering a group to discuss them:
- Faith Speaking Understanding: Performing the Drama of Doctrine, by Kevin J. Vanhoozer
- The True Story of the Whole World: Finding Your Place in the Biblical Drama, by Michael W. Goheen and Craig G. Bartholomew
- The Universal Story: Genesis 1–11, by Dru Johnson