Basic Bible study anchors Indigenous ministries

For the past two years, Archdeacon Larry Beardy of Keewatin has been leading some exciting and difficult conversations about a new Area Mission serving communities in the dioceses of Brandon and Keewatin. What’s been easing the way? Basic Bible study, in a method known to some as Gospel-Based Discipleship.

“At first when we started our consultation we were bogged down in issues. It felt like we were spinning our tires because we were concentrating on finances,” said Mr. Beardy. “Once we moved into the Gospel-Based Discipleship process to guide our consultation, the Spirit has been guiding it and making it easier.”

How does it work? First someone reads the gospel of the day, as determined by the lectionary. Then the group answers three questions, reading the passage again between each:

-What words, ideas, or sentences stand out for you in the Gospel of the Day?
-What is Jesus (the gospel) saying to you?
-What is Jesus (the gospel) calling you to do?

“Usually the gospels are dead on and they guide us through our consultation,” said Archdeacon Beardy. He named an example where the consultation heard the story of Jesus walking on water. This inspired them to step out in faith beyond familiar structures of the church.

A spiritual movement

Those involved with Gospel-Based Discipleship are reluctant to name its origin, or label it as a Bible study or a program. “It is an encounter with the Gospel,” explained one document from the Episcopal Church’s (TEC) Native American Ministries.

The way National Indigenous Anglican Bishop Mark MacDonald put it, the informal movement started at the beginning of the 1990s when a group of Native North American leaders realized that the problems in their communities demanded a spiritual solution.

“All the people involved had tried politics, government programs, this, that, and the other thing,” said Bishop MacDonald, at that time bishop of Alaska. “They realized that as far back as anyone can remember, the only thing that was of true help to the Indigenous Peoples was something that had as its fundamental basis a spiritual program.”

“This was a conscious choice not to escape issues through piety,” he explained, “but to create transformational spiritual communities in some very, very difficult places.”

TEC’s Native American Ministries program refined the three-question format and distributed it on a small card. They also published a related document, A Disciple’s Prayer Book, which Bishop MacDonald, and the Rev. John Robertson, missioner, helped put together.

Although Gospel-Based Discipleship is used in many denominations, Bishop MacDonald noted its deep Anglican roots: “Basically we took the genius of the prayer book and Anglicanism and tried to distill it to make it more accessible, usable, and clear for modern audiences.”

Since these seeds were planted, Gospel-Based Discipleship has taken on a life of its own. People used the three-question technique for personal devotions and to lead meetings of choirs, women’s groups, and business sessions. A Disciple’s Prayer Book was translated into Spanish, and the Navajo people adapted it around traditional Navajo times of prayer.

“Indigenous Peoples are noticing how their story is weaving in to the gospel story,” noted Bishop MacDonald.

Often groups would leave the Bible on the table during the meetings, so during points of conflict or stress, someone could call for the gospel to be read again.

The common element was that all people—lay and ordained alike—were encouraged to follow a life of discipleship: reading the gospel and praying every day. This is a model that works well in Indigenous communities where clergy are few and lay leaders are overworked.

Gospel-Based Discipleship is not without its opponents. Some have complained that these Bible studies can distract from the business of the church, while others have worried about the consequences of too much lay leadership.

“For some people it’s like an awakening that takes a while,” said Bishop MacDonald. “You have to be disciplined in getting people to do it. People will do anything to get away from the important things that challenge them to a deeper life in God.”

Canadian connections

The movement is just starting to catch on in the Anglican Church of Canada, particularly in Indigenous Ministries. One place it’s popping up is Sacred Circle, the gathering of Aboriginal Anglicans in Port Elgin, Ont. from Aug. 9 to 15. Gospel-Based Discipleship will be used around seven traditional Indigenous teachings there.

Even in the heart of church bureaucracy—the national office—Gospel-Based Discipleship has had an effect. Bishop MacDonald has led management meetings in this style, and Indigenous Ministries staff frequently gather to encounter the gospel.

Teresa Mandricks, program associate at Indigenous Ministries, said the practice has been helpful to her work. “In Church House we’re geared to be businesslike. This is a resolution! This has to be done! When we think of what we are and what church is about we have to reflect that we are spiritual people.”

“It’s a great tool for anybody,” she said enthusiastically. “for healing, for prayers, for people, for catechists, for anyone.”

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