A number of years ago, a group of us asked our Indigenous elders about their often demonstrated dedication and faithfulness, “How did you do this? How do you do this?” We struggled to get people to attend meetings and even worship, much less to get involved in leadership. For our own work as leaders, we were overwhelmed by the alternating emotion of our meetings, veering from intense mediocrity and boredom to frustrated anger and conflict.
Our elders were active in church during a time of focused oppression of their identity. They had so few resources, in comparison to our relative wealth, yet they were much more active, faithful, and consistent than their counterparts today. We wanted to know, for our own well-being, the difference between our time and theirs.
The answer took more than a year to gel in our minds and it involved some translation from the elders’ idiom to ours. It looked like this:
- Life today is a series of little separate boxes: a box for work, a box for recreation, a box for church, and a box for the business of the church.
- Life in the past was a whole, centered by those things most sacred to the people. Life was lived in this circle, was dependent upon the integrity, at all times, of the circle.
- Everything was undertaken — hunting, pleasure, meeting, and so on — with constant reference and regulation by that which was most sacred in the centre of the circle.
- In earlier times, the circle’s centre was the drum or pipe. Now, the centre of the circle is the Gospel.
- We must do all things by first and always making the Gospel the centre of our life.
Some saw the revolutionary implications of this idea, right away. Others, including myself, took longer. Those responsible for business were worried that applying this insight would 1) divert us from important matters (“We are here for the business of the church, not Bible study!”) or 2) it would lengthen meetings already notable for their length.
So we adopted a new practice — we read the designated Gospel for the Day, as found in our schedule of readings. We would begin every gathering for whatever purpose — except for Sunday services — by reading the Gospel three times. During the first reading, we asked people to consider what stood out for them; what ideas, phrases, or words grabbed their attention. For the second reading, we asked what people heard Jesus saying to us in the Gospel. And for the third reading, we asked what people felt God was calling us to do.
We found it was important to have the Gospel selected by the scheduled readings, rather than by someone who sought to be topical for the meeting. The Gospels shaped us and the gathering rather than the other way around. Typically, there was no loss of effective and complimentary meaning in the deliberations. Over time, people began to “call for the Gospel,” a reading of the text later in the gathering that would either have a connection to our conversation, call us back to serious focus, or calm us down when in the midst of heated discussion.
We discovered that groups of ten to twenty could do this together without too much trouble. Larger groups could break up into twos or more and report back. Almost always, we found the Gospel spoke directly to the topic of the meeting. Often, there was a near miraculous coherence between in the Gospel and what mattered most in the context of the gathering. The business-oriented folks began to like it, because meetings went more quickly, contrary to expectations. Dealing with what was ultimately important added a perspective that helped keep other matters in their place.
As this practice shaped us, we began to notice what might be described as spiritual patterns emerging in our gatherings. Folks who normally didn’t speak were articulate. The authority of the group shifted from designated leaders or those with the expertise to the authority of the Spirit speaking through the voices and voice of the group. The work of the groups became holistic, weaving together the business at hand and the realm of the Gospel. Our groups began to show the communal style of consensus which has always been an Indigenous value. We called our practice and its goals “Gospel Based Discipleship,” contrasting this to institutionally based church membership.
Today, when a question arises or conflict, our folks will suggest “bringing it to the Gospel.” It is a way of dealing with conflict rather than avoiding it. We are convinced that this is a Christian, as well as Indigenous, sensibility, and approach. Through this, we desire to become a Gospel people. We would suggest that many other ways exist to “put the Gospel in the centre” and neither we nor anyone else should feel bound by our particular methods or techniques. It is not about that at all. What we do believe is that becoming a Gospel people, in business as well as worship, in conflict as well as agreement, is altogether necessary for our future as a Christian people.