Missional Thoughts: Empowering Others to Contextualize

If we are going to take  statements like “every member a missionary” seriously we need to change the way we do things.

The Thingy is a church Wendy and I became a part of two years ago.  It’s leadership is decentralized and one of its primary focuses is empowering others to live as missionaries – or as we put it, love like Jesus in their world.  We do that by approaching the Scripture in a refreshing way – we read a passage and ask, “How should this passage change your life?” (It is a little more complicated than that…but not much.)  My friend Bob who is a professor of education at a local university has told me that in his field they call this the “Reader Response Method” of learning.

For the last year I’ve been working with another congregation named Valley Baptist.  We’ve been trying to make the transition from a traditional model to a more missional one.  Our goal is that everyone in the congregation will live as a missionary.  We are going about this move in a variety of ways – one of which is modeling the Thingy’s Responsive Reading style of study.  At Valley we’ve begun calling those environments “Jesus Story” classes.  Translating the practice from a decentralized to a traditionally centralized crew has been difficult because individual empowerment is easier when everyone sees themselves as a leader.  That disclaimer made, here is the introduction to a “How To” sheet we created at Valley.  (All the quotes come from a paper by Dr. Robert Blake entitled “Science as a Way of Knowing: Using Reader Response as a means to construct a personal understanding of science literature.”)


How To Process in a Jesus Stories Class

Our goal is to “move beyond content knowledge” and focus rather on the “implications and applications” of the Biblical narrative to one’s life.  It is important therefore that you, the facilitator, recognize that there is no “correct” application of the passage.

While the major tenants of the Gospel are historically unchanging: Jesus is God and man, He came to earth to save us from our sins, etc… the application of those tenants is a work of contextualization.  Every believer (as a missionary) is faced with the task of taking the narrative and applying it into their culture.   Each person’s world (or culture) is different and therefore each person’s application will be different.

As a group, therefore, you are not looking for the “one right answer.”  Rather, seek to develop a guiding principle each week that will then be open to interpretation throughout the week by the class.

I cannot over stress; this is different than how we typically run Sunday School Classes.

The Traditional Method of 

Biblical Processing

The Reader Response Method of 

Biblical Processing

Emphasizes the Bible as a document to be studied. Emphasizes the Reader’s response to the Bible.
Readers hope to find the “correct” meaning of the passage.  It is a closed reading for the purpose of gaining content based knowledge only. The reader is hoping to create personal application through engaging with the passage and the community of learners.
Application I systematic, concrete, inductive, and factual.. Feelings are allowed.  Memories and associations are encouraged.
Dissenting opinions and debate with the teacher (expert) is discouraged. Processing and debating thoughts with the team is highly encouraged.  Each reader should come to see their application as uniting to the group but also as individualized toward their personality and world.

Each week there are four things you need to accomplish in your class.

1) Process the Previous Week’s Practice – The real learning and transformation will not happen in your classroom.  It will occur during the week as the team practices the principle.  Start each week by allowing the team to share what they’ve learned and how the Holy Spirit pushed them.  To facilitate this conversation, simply ask them, “How did it go this week?”

Note – You, as the facilitator, will need to be the most passionate practitioner.  The rest of the group will follow your lead.  If you forget about the principle until Friday, so will they.

2) Discuss the Story – This should be an open discussion of the story.  Simply ask the class open ended questions like, “What about the story pops out to you?” or “What do you love about the story?”  These open questions allow the class to share their currently held understandings of the story while engaging differing opinions of others.  This discussion will lay the foundation for the next two steps.

Balancing time with this question can be tricky.  You want to leave the team at least ten minutes for the next two questions.  Don’t be afraid to cut off the conversation before everyone is done.  Leave them wanting more.

3) Apply the Story – Once the team has thoroughly discussed the story, review the group’s thoughts (this is why obsessive note taking on a white board or in a note book is necessary).  This will help the group back up and take a birds eye view at the discussion you just had together.

Next ask the group to summarize the discussion into actions.  I personally like to use the question, “Because of this text, how should we live this week?”  If they point out a word on the board, underline it or circle it.  This is a process of working down the larger conversation you just had into a summary of action.  At the end of this time you want four or five strong action statements.

4) Develop the Principle to Practice – Finally, in the last five minutes, take the strong action statements you just developed and work them into a one sentence statement.  If there is time, let the group word-smith; but don’t let the team get stuck in wording and rewording.  At some point draw the line and say, “This is it.”  Here are a few examples of good principles:

Seek the Lost – This week outrageously seek the lost with loving perseverance.

Service – Longing to see people restored, we will love others this week with reckless and messy abandon.

Forgiveness – With an attitude of brokenness, considering others to be better than ourselves, we will seek to offer forgiveness, restoring others to a right relationship with God and one another.


We can’t keep on teaching in the same old ways and sitting in the same old Bible studies and expect things to be different.  If we want different results we need to change our practice.  (There is a second half to the handout above.  If you would like it leave a note in the comment box and I will get it to you.)


About the Author: Jeff Elkins

Jeff and his wife Wendy live in the north east corner of Baltimore city with their four crazy children. They belong to a small group of believers called "The Thingy" who are trying to rethink what it means to be the church in Baltimore. Jeff is also currently serving at a traditional Southern Baptist church in north Baltimore working to help the beautiful family there be defined as a people who love like Jesus loves. He has a BA from Baylor University and an MDIV from Truett Seminary. Jeff and Wendy regularly blog at

  • Circles

    “You, as the facilitator, will need to be the most passionate practitioner. The rest of the group will follow your lead.” (love this)
    I think after #4…”Develop the principle to practice” there should be #5…”Execute”
    Sometimes for people who are learning to walk out their faith in a new way, they actually need someone to walk along side them encouraging them along the way. Walking with each other as we Seek the Lost, Live a Life of Service….Our response can’t end at the end of the day…but has to be active in the every day part of being a passionate practitioner.

    • Jeff Elkins

      “Execute” – so, so true. How sad is it that we need to put this in? Shouldn’t that be simply expected? But you are right. It needs to be said.