Singer-songwriter leads interactive “Reading the Bible with Jesus” workshops
By Annette Brill Bergstresser
ELKHART, Indiana — Bryan Moyer Suderman believes that paying attention to Jesus as interpreter of Scripture can transform how we, too, engage Scripture and each other.
The singer-songwriter and Bible teacher from Kitchener, Ontario, experiences this firsthand as he leads interactive “Reading the Bible with Jesus” workshops for congregations across the U.S. and Canada — since 2016 as a teaching associate of the Church Leadership Center of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) in Elkhart, Indiana.
In the workshops, Moyer Suderman facilitates a process of exploring how the New Testament Gospels portray Jesus as interpreter of Scripture as he taught and healed those around him and joined in the hot-button conversations of the day.
“It’s often an aha moment for people when they realize how much Jesus draws upon what we call the Old Testament — constantly, and in all kinds of ways,” he said. “There can be a kind of stereotype about the Old Testament: ‘We’re so glad we have Jesus and don’t need to bother with all that Old Testament stuff.’ Well, if you pay attention to Jesus as interpreter of Scripture, you’re very hard pressed to make that case.”
A shared process of discovery
The workshops bring together Moyer Suderman’s passion for biblical scholarship, creative musical expression and contextual ministry. He has spent the last 25 years finding creative ways to engage diverse communities in what he likes to call “the ongoing scriptural story of God’s love for the world.” Having worked in various ministry roles with churches in Colombia and Canada, since 2001 he has focused on writing Scripture-based songs for people of all ages. Songs from his eight studio albums have found their way into curricula, conventions and congregational singing throughout North America and beyond.
In 2011 Moyer Suderman began to study Gospel accounts of Jesus’ use of Scripture, which resulted in invitations to share his learnings and prompted him to complete a Master of Theological Studies at Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, Ontario, writing his thesis on the topic. The “Reading the Bible with Jesus” experiences he now facilitates are one of the fruits of this study.
During the workshops, Moyer Suderman leads participants in mapping out Jesus’ interactions with those around him in a selected Gospel story. He then invites them to observe how Scripture is coming into play in the conversation, and together they flip back to the corresponding Old Testament texts and spend time exploring them. After that, they return to the Gospel story and consider how what they’ve learned informs their understanding of the text.
He’s heard people comment, “All those notes I see in the margins in my study Bible that identify different passages — I’ve never known what they’re for, but they’re there for a reason!”
Participants then repeat the process with different Gospel stories, looking for patterns in Jesus’ approaches. And along the way, Moyer Suderman plays his guitar and weaves music into the conversation to engage the group and encourage reflection. For example, he pairs a musical setting of Psalm 119:105 (“Thy word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path”) with a song he wrote titled “Wrestling with the Scriptures” as a way of acknowledging people’s varied experiences with the Bible.
“It’s fruitful to have people in the group approach the text in different ways,” he reflected. “When we express the experiences we bring to the text, we can approach the process together with trust and confidence that God has something here for us.”
The participatory nature of the work is a key factor for him: “It’s a process of exploration and discovery together, and my role is to guide and resource and shepherd that. The group owns it. At the end, there’s a sense of, ‘We did that. My idea is on that piece of paper.’”
He said he’s found that paying attention to Jesus as interpreter of Scripture is a new approach for many people.
“It opens things up for people, and it equalizes — giving a sense that we’re all discovering, whether you’ve studied Scripture a lot or if it’s your first time doing a Bible study,” he said. “People at all kinds of levels of experience are getting something they can take forward with them.”
And, he added, the interactive process can also connect people who might not agree theologically, focusing on their common desire to grow as disciples of Jesus and helping equip them for the ongoing interpretive task.
Jewel Gingerich Longenecker, AMBS dean of Lifelong Learning, is excited about the seminary’s partnership with Moyer Suderman and appreciates his “boundless energy for travel and working in the church.”
“Bryan’s teaching ministry connects biblical scholarship with the life of the church and fits well with AMBS’s mission of preparing leaders who are rooted in the Word and growing in Christ,” she noted.
Digging into the Word in a fresh way
In January 2017, Reba Place Church in Evanston, Illinois, hosted Moyer Suderman for a workshop, joined by North Suburban Mennonite Church in Libertyville, Illinois, and Illinois Mennonite Conference. Reba Place Lead Pastor Charlotte Lehman said that while the event happened to be on the same weekend as the presidential inauguration and the Women’s March on Washington, D.C., it was well attended, drawing around 40 people. Participants came from the sponsoring groups as well as Living Water Community Church in Chicago and Evanston (Illinois) Mennonite Church.
Lehman described Moyer Suderman’s process of exploring the Gospel of Matthew with them as “a wonderful and enlightening exercise” that revealed that as Jesus joined into the conversations of his time, he did not just apply the Scriptures in the way they seemed to be in their original context.
“He was, as a rabbi might, adding his own insights and current applications to the text … as opposed to using Scripture in a more ‘flat dead rulebook’ sort of way,” she said. “Bryan also helped us see that these conversations continued after the time of Jesus and that we’re continuing to be part of them now; it’s not like a topic was frozen at the time [Jesus] talked about it.”
Lehman observed that participants responded well to the combination of Moyer Suderman’s enthusiasm and deep knowledge of Scripture.
“Some folks who had been finding that the perspective of the Bible they had grown up with was not so satisfying to them anymore — but who hadn’t really known how to reengage Scripture in a meaningful way — felt that Bryan’s approach really helped them with that,” she said. “It was a really good time of digging into the Word in a fresh way.”
“Where do we go from here?”
Like the Illinois congregations, three congregations in the Goessel (Kansas) Ministerial Alliance partnered to host Moyer Suderman for a workshop in April. According to Phil Schmidt, lead pastor of Tabor Mennonite Church in Newton, Kansas, where the event was held, about 50 people participated from Tabor Mennonite, Alexanderwohl Mennonite and Goessel Mennonite.
Schmidt said he and Katherine Goerzen (MDiv 2015), associate pastor at Tabor, had heard Moyer Suderman present at Pastors Week at AMBS in January 2016 and had begun looking for a chance to invite him to their area.
“It was a new and unique opportunity for us to get together across church boundaries and study Scripture together; that was definitely a highlight,” Schmidt said, noting that participants from along the theological spectrum connected with Moyer Suderman’s leadership style and way of incorporating music into the study of a passage.
Schmidt said he especially appreciated the last workshop session, in which participants identified repeated themes and asked, “Where do we go from here?”
The Tabor congregation didn’t hesitate to apply what they’d begun learning. They used some of Moyer Suderman’s songs for their Bible school in the summer — songs Schmidt describes as “singable, theologically rich and in tune with Scripture, from an Anabaptist perspective.” He noted that he and other leaders have also sought to keep the “reading the Bible with Jesus” mindset in their Scripture reading together.
Also, three people from local churches are in the process of creating a curriculum based on Moyer Suderman’s “Detectives of Divinity” song, which encourages listeners to watch carefully for signs of God’s activity all around them. At Tabor, this curriculum is being used for the congregation’s weekly Wednesday evening ministries, which draw about 75 children through junior high age from around the community.
Moyer Suderman has also been lined up to lead “Reading the Bible with Jesus” at Western District Conference’s 2018 Annual Assembly on July 27–28 in central Kansas. In preparation for the assembly, Schmidt says the Tabor congregation hopes to do a corresponding worship series.
Hosting a workshop
Since 2016, Moyer Suderman has led experiences of “Reading the Bible with Jesus” with communities in eight states and two provinces. In January/February 2018, he will present further workshops in Kitchener-Waterloo and Niagara, Ontario; Goshen, Indiana; and Kidron, Ohio. In April, he’s planning a trip to the Pacific Northwest (Hubbard, Oregon), followed by a retreat with Central Plains Mennonite Conference pastors and leaders in Schuyler, Nebraska. He’s also scheduled to lead a workshop with pastors of Mennonite Church Alberta in mid-September.
Moyer Suderman noted that when congregations invite him to lead a workshop, he has also often participated in Sunday morning worship (speaking, singing, teaching) and given an all-ages community concert — offering the congregation and community multiple ways to engage Scripture together.
To learn more about “Reading the Bible with Jesus” workshops or to book an event (in English or Spanish), see www.ambs.edu/workshops.