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.