Dwelling in the Word

A Testimony on the Dwelling in the Word Practice

“I just wanted to thank you for leading the adult Sunday school exercise today. I really liked how it is structured: sharing with just one person about “what captures my imagination”, “what questions do I have”, etc., listening closely and then hearing the different responses from the group has been a great learning experience. By not focusing on coming up with the “correct” interpretation (in which case I would be doomed!), I am looking at scripture with more curiosity and less intimidation. I like the freedom of not being so consumed with coming up with the answers and instead being able to sit with the questions.”

What is it?

Dwelling in the Word* is a calling, centering, and sending practice for Living Local. It is rooted in the way the Spirit is drawing us into the very life of God’s presence and promise through the other. It is a modified form of an ancient practice known as lectio divina. The reason this practice is such a key to the formative work of Living Local is that it provides a new imagination for where the Spirit encounters people, through one other. The practice encourages and disturbs people by slowing down, and paying attention differently than they once did. We use the Luke 10:1-12 text throughout Living Local journey, and invite guiding teams (the leadership teams of the Living Local process) to incorporate this into their own monthly meetings, as well as to introduce it to other areas of congregational engagement.

Who can do it? 

Anyone can do the practice, you only have to be willing to read, listen and share. The practice can be done by various leadership teams in the congregation. While devotions might be the frequent default to getting on with the real business of the church, leadership groups that have incorporated this practice into their meetings have discovered some key insights. First, that listening to how each of us hears the text matters, for we hear it differently each time, and differently from one another. Second, the practice has helped the ensuing meetings to be more focused around what God is up to in and through the ensuing work and conversations at hand.

I also use this in an evangelism class I teach. In fact, I invited students to gather with a couple church folks, and those who don’t really care much about church. I had them sit in the text together for 5 weeks paying stringent attention to the process for re-voicing one another’s thoughts of the text. The experiment initially caught a few of the students off guard because they viewed this in the default mode as a bible study. However, it’s not so much a bible study, as an opportunity to learn how to hear others and their thoughts in rich and interesting ways that, typically, we don’t get to recieve or patiently consider.

How to do it? 

It’s a very simple process and you can follow along here. The trick of it all is keeping steps 7-10 as closely aligned with the process as possible. Sure, it may feel a little clunky at first, but like anything else tried initially it takes some time to become more nimble a process. Here’s a Word Dwelling copy for you and others to share in your community, but for the quick overview:

  1. Pray: invite the Spirit to guide your attending to God’s Word.
  1. Text: Make sure everyone has a copy of the passage or use Bibles.
  1. Invite two different voice to read Luke 10:1-12; “Who will read for us?”
  1. Read for the first time. Following the first read, allow some silence in between readings.
  1. Read again, allowing a little more silence after the second reading.
  1. Find a “reasonably friendly looking stranger” RFLS, someone you have not dwelled with prior. (For large groups I typically have them all stand up and the invite them to find their RFLS; this helps people feel more free to move about).
  1. Listen to your partner’s response to only one of three questions: (1) Where was you imagination caught? (2) What word, phrase or idea stood out to you? (3) Where do you hear the Spirit nudging you in this text? Be prepared to listen to well enough to your partner that you could report on what they say, and yes, you may take notes.
  1. Re-voicing: Share what you heard from your partners.
  1. Track the conversation: Designate one person to track the contributions on a white board or large post-it board.
  1. What is God saying? After everyone has shared, stand back and look at the responses, and ask, “What might God be saying to us today?”

Each time you will start anew, with new listening partners, and by discovering once again what you think God might be saying to your team.

What text should we use? For how long? 

There are a number of texts we suggest for this practice. More than the kind of text you choose is to give one text a long season to in fact dwell within. A season means at least 6+ months, if not longer, to remain with the same text. There are several reasons we invite congregations to remain in the same text. One reason is that it challenges participants to listen carefully to one another. Most of the time when we engage Scripture we end up advocating from our own voice. What is unique about this practice is that it has participants learning to advocate for the voice of others. This happens to also be what the Holy Spirit is about (John 14). Frequently this step is avoided, primarily because of time, or because people really don’t recognize how valuable this part is.

Another reason we stay in the same text is to learn to see with new eyes in the places that have become familiar to us. Our neighbors, neighborhoods have often become so familiar that we think we know all of what is present, and going on. Similarly, if we can patiently endure dwelling with a text over time, we can grow a new awareness for where God’s Spirit emerges in and among the most familiar of places and people.

The final reason, is that remaining with the text is always freshly speaking to the current situations we find ourselves. It’s a continued way for keeping the Spirit before us, even as Jesus is ahead of us. Each time we return to the text we are a different person with different encounters at the fore of our imaginations. We bring new worries, anxieties, joys, and challenges. That the Spirit speaks to us in new ways through the voice of other is an important recognition that we never master the text, but in fact, are being shaped by the text. This turn, this new awareness is key to learning to let go and to hear with new and patient ears.

Here’s some suggested texts to try out:

Luke 10:1-12; Luke 17:11-21; Acts 10:1-12; Philippians 1:27-2:11; Galatians 1:1-16

*Adapted from Dwelling in the Word: A Pocket Handbook, by Pat Taylor Ellison & Patrick Keifert, (Church Innovations, 2011).