I have seen Dwelling in the Word change lives and churches. It has happened to my church and to people I know and minister among, as well as to countless churches around the world.* Dwelling in the Word is a grassroots practice of congregational listening to Scripture, to the Spirit, and to the neighbor that can help address the crisis of biblical disengagement in many churches today. It is not a replacement for Bible study, but rather a complementary practice.
Many congregations today struggle to help their members meaningfully engage the biblical story. It seems many Christians—even those who faithfully participate in various aspects of the church’s life—feel intimidated by the Bible. Let’s face it: the Bible isn’t an easy book to read. Sometimes, people pick up the message (spoken or unspoken) that reading and interpreting the Bible should be done primarily by those with expert knowledge, leaving others disenfranchised. Or the Scriptures get reduced to instrumental use as a kind of rule-book for right living. Many American churches seem caught between explaining away the Bible’s relevance and enforcing a kind of biblicism that refuses to acknowledge the genuine complexity and ambiguity that it contains. Dwelling in the Word seeks to break out of these patterns by inviting people to attend imaginatively to a biblical text, to listen carefully to a neighbor, and to advocate publicly for the neighbor’s voice. It is as much a practice of spiritual transformation as it is a means of scriptural engagement.
Here’s how it commonly works:
A scriptural passage (usually no more than dozen or so verses) is read aloud in a group. Participants are invited to listen to where their imagination was “caught” or captured in the text—what word or phrase leapt out? Or, is there something in the passage about which they would like to ask a biblical scholar? After a brief period of silent meditation, people are invited to pair up with someone else, preferably someone they do not know well. Then there is a time of ten to twelve minutes of sharing in pairs, during which people must listen attentively to what their neighbor heard, because when it comes time to share with the larger group, they share not what they heard or wondered about, but rather what their partner heard. The practice concludes with prayer.
Dwelling in the Word creates space for a different kind of attentiveness to the Scriptures, the Spirit, and the neighbor than is often practiced in congregations. To begin with, Dwelling in the Word assumes that everyone can access the Bible meaningfully, while acknowledging that difficult questions will arise (questions for which expert knowledge is indeed helpful). Inviting people to wonder imaginatively about what they hear resists a kind of instrumentalization of the text—where there is one “right” theological or moral answer that people are supposed to find in it. Perhaps, most profoundly, it assumes that God’s Spirit is alive and working in this process, including speaking through the neighbor.
In a world where difference so often divides people and where congregations are typically not accustomed to listening attentively to another’s voice (even in their own midst), the practice of Dwelling in the Word cultivates a new posture of attending to what the word might be saying to us and to our neighbor—even the neighbor whom we do not know. Advocating publicly for the neighbor (with the accountability of that neighbor sitting there to correct if you get it wrong) helps church members learn to value and appreciate how God’s Spirit speaks through others in our midst. In a world where so many churches have grown disconnected from the neighbors around them (who are often even strangers), these are critically important habits to develop.
What I have seen over the years of practicing Dwelling in the Word with various groups is a remarkable transformation. People begin to feel more empowered to attend to Scripture and to each other. They see that pretty much any text of Scripture contains a fathomless depth of meaning, especially if they dwell in the same passage repeatedly over time. The Bible begins to speak to people in new and fresh ways—ways that typically invite them to learn more and to engage more deeply, including through pursuing more traditional methods of study.
The church where I currently serve offers a firsthand example. When my wife and I arrived seven years ago, people seemed quite hesitant to read the Bible or venture interpreting it, probably out of fear of being shamed for having the wrong answer. Introducing Dwelling was not easy—there were plenty of awkward silences. But then it all began to change. The Scriptures began to come alive, and people began to listen more closely to one another. People found new ways to relate the Bible to daily life. Church board members started showing up on time at meetings because they did not want to miss the Dwelling segment. One lay leader, for whom the Bible had been a rather distant text, gathered her family when her father died and led them in Dwelling in the Word. Through this practice, the biblical story had become her own, and now she had a way of inviting others into it.
*See Pat Taylor Ellison and Patrick Keifert, Dwelling in the Word (St. Paul: Church Innovations Institute, 2011), or Patrick Keifert, ed., Testing the Spirits (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009).
Both copyright © 2012 by Word & World, Luther Seminary, Saint Paul, Minnesota. All rights reserved.
Reprinted with permission of the author. Original article in its entirety is available at Word and World.
DWIGHT ZSCHEILE is assistant professor of congregational mission and leadership at Luther Seminary and associate priest at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Saint Paul, Minnesota.