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The Power of All: Book Review

Over the past two thousand or so years the Christian church has consistently, in its worship, its leadership structures, its pedagogy, and its general ethos, deviated from the spirit and intent of the community Christ envisioned.  Rather than becoming a community of believers gifted and called to participate together in the ongoing task of becoming disciples of Jesus in life and worship, the church has become an institution maintained by professionals.  There have been exceptions along the way, to be sure, and of course God has seen fit to work with and through the church with all of its errors, but the general trend throughout most of church history has been to move away from multivoiced communities of active participants toward monovoiced institutions filled with passive consumers.  It is time for this trend to change.  This is the provocative thesis of Sian and Stuart Murray Williams in their book The Power of All: Building a Multivoiced Church.

From the beginning, the church was meant to be a community—anda community of a very particular sort.  A community where all are valued and where the voices of all are heard, where different modes of learning and engagement are valued, where cultural assumptions about power and influence are overturned, where the Spirit gifts all, where listening to other voices is at least as important as speaking, where stories are shared together and where God’s voice is collectively heard and God’s will is communally discerned.  But communities like this are and have been the exception, not the rule.  It is far easier to revert to predictable church, to familiar forms of worship, to well-established patterns of authority and control, to safe and manageable modes of teaching and worship.

And this is what we have done and continue to do in most churches.  Think about it.  How many voices do you tend to hear during a typical Sunday morning service?  Two?  Four?  The worship leader, perhaps the person charged with leading in song, the preacher.  Anyone else?  How much opportunity is there for engagement from the people in the pew?  Often, not much.  Even the language we use around this is interesting.  Do we refer to the front as “the stage?”  Do we refer to those who gather on a Sunday morning as “the community/congregation” or “the audience?”  Do we refer to those preaching as “guest speakers?”  Is our architecture and building layout more conducive to the gathering of a multivoiced community or the witnessing of a performance?  Of course there’s much more that could be said about each of these questions, but in very general terms, our common answers to each indicates a shift toward a less participatory and more monovoiced understanding of how church “works.”

The Murray Williams push against this monovoiced approach in every realm of church life.  After laying the biblical foundations for a multivoiced approach in an early chapter (1 Corinthians 14 figures prominently here) and locating the shift toward monovoiced church in the fourth century and the beginnings of Christendom (poor Constantine—he gets blamed for everything!), they move on to challenge the reader to rethink our assumptions about worship (ch. 4), learning (ch. 5), community (ch. 6), and discernment (ch. 7).  In each of these domains, they advocate increased community involvement and participation, experimentation (i.e., fewer sermons and more communion for Protestants!), risk-taking, imagination, multi-sensory approaches, shared leadership, and less top-down control.  The entire package is based upon the foundational assumption of the authors that

[this] is the norm for Christian communities, derived from the teaching and practice of Jesus, modeled by the early churches, congruent with the nature of the new covenant and with the designation of the church as a “kingdom of priests,” all of whom are anointed with the Spirit and gifted for ministry.

Coincidentally and entirely unrelated to my reviewing of this book, this Sunday our worship service will be putting some of the ideas from The Power of All to the test.

  • We will be taking time to hear stories
  • There will be no sermon (imagine!!)
  • The service will be centered on the Lord’s Supper
  • There might be a drama of some kind
  • There will be more voices involved than usual… and less of mine!

While I am very proud to say that our church is already characterized by a strong commitment to multivoiced worship, this service represents an even more intentional effort in that direction.  And, entirely predictably, I am a little nervous!  The authors of The Power of All are right—it’s much tougher to do church this way.  It’s messier.  It’s not as predictable or manageable.  It might not be as slick or polished.  It might seem strange to newcomers.  Some might not even like it.  But, whatever it ends up looking like, our attempt is guided by the same assumption that guides The Power of All: the church’s worship is not a stage for religious professionals but the gathering of a diverse community of faith where all have a voice.

I enthusiastically commend this book to you.  While the narrative does come across as a bit simplistic at times, with the early church (and the Anabaptists!) being the heroes and the big, faceless institutional churches being the villains, and while the contrast between “monovoiced” and “multivoiced” occasionally comes across as a little too stark, the questions the book raises are legitimate and worth considering—especially for those of us living and worshiping in the postmodern, post-Christian west. The Power of All might make you a bit uncomfortable (it certainly made me squirm at times!), but it will make you think and it will challenge you to reexamine your understanding of and participation in this beautiful, messy, hope-filled thing that we call church.

I received a copy of The Power of All courtesy of the good folks at MennoMedia.

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. I was first introduced to this type of gathering of believers in the early 60’s. It was referred to as “body ministry” rather than “multivoiced”. The first time I experienced this in a gathering was one of the most wonderful experiences of church life I ever have known. I’ve experienced such gatherings numerous times since. It is certainly not to be feared, if leadership is given to the Holy Spirit and every one present is willing to submit to the Spirit’s leadership. Of course, if it just becomes an open session where everyone just speaks whatever comes to mind, rather than following the Holy Spirit’s leading, it could be of much less value. I’ve been in Sunday School classes where such was the case, in I felt that it was a waste of time.

    October 24, 2012
    • Thanks for this, Phil. I’m glad to hear of the ways in which multivoiced expressions of church can be a source of light and life, even if there are challenges along the way and pitfalls to avoid. If we really do believe that the Holy Spirit is alive and at work in each of us, it should theoretically not surprise us to discover that grace and truth show up in surprising ways (with or without the “religious professionals” :)).

      October 25, 2012
  2. Paul Johnston #

    …”we believe that in the Eucharist we really receive Christ, the Risen One. And if every member receives the same Christ, then we are really gathered in this new, risen body as the locus of a new humanity. It is important to understand this and so to conceive the Church, not as an organization that is supposed to perform every possible function-the organization is part of the larger picture, but it has to remain limited-but as a living organism that comes from Christ himself.” – Benedict XVI from “Light of the World”

    Ryan assuming that we would agree that the true church is a, “living organism that comes from Christ himself” how exactly does a “multivoiced” expression reveal, “Christ himself”. For Catholics we say it is the Eucharist, “Here he is! Come, commune with the Risen One!”.

    Instinctively, my first response to alternative expressions of our faith that do not recognize the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist, is to say something like, “OK then, if what you say is to be true to me, show me Jesus?”.

    Also, while it is clearly the intention here is to both broaden and deepen the faith of believers I am concerned with the analogous implications of the term, “multivoiced”. Isn’t it just, “one voice”; His voice?

    October 25, 2012
    • Ryan assuming that we would agree that the true church is a, “living organism that comes from Christ himself” how exactly does a “multivoiced” expression reveal, “Christ himself”.

      The church is the body of Christ (1 Cor 12:12-31). This body collectively points to Christ as it follows his teachings and worships (including celebration of the Lord’s Supper). In doing this (or trying) we point to the “one voice” of Jesus.

      October 25, 2012
  3. Paul Johnston #

    One voice, different mediums. We have some common ground here. 🙂 Ironically I nearly referenced First Corinthians in my response.

    As I reread this post I am struck by how similar it seems to the Charismatic intention/experience within our church that emerged in the 80’s. While not necessarily advocating a charismatic approach here, I hope you have or will soon develop a framework for understanding and interpreting the Spirit. How you define and do “discernment” will be crucial to your success. One of the great challenges of, “leading from behind” is how to re-orient diversity when it becomes dysfunctional. The self centered often challenges the Spirit centered. Discerning between the two is often no easy task.

    Teachings about the Spirit are very useful in this regard. It gives the community a common understanding from which to begin. Contemplative prayer is as powerful a tool to this new type of leadership as delivering sermons and programs once was. I would encourage you and your “leadership” to invest a similar amount of time to reading scripture and praying as they once dedicated to creating programs.

    May God bless you abundantly. And may you stay rooted in prayer and Word. If you do, you’ll see the “fruit” for what it is. There is no deceit in the Spirit. 🙂

    October 26, 2012
    • Yes, very true. Nothing easy about the task of separating the leading of the Spirit from the inclinations/desires of the self. But this is as true when it comes to monovoiced worship as it is in multivoiced worship. Perhaps the chief benefit is that on more traditional approaches there are fewer selfish voices to regulate :).

      Thank you for your words of blessing.

      October 27, 2012

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