Several authors have called for a return to what I call “shared church.” But their books don’t appear on best-seller lists, and few Christ-followers know about them. This blog series will introduce some of those writers and their books.
“Churches have structured for passivity!”
With this quotation Anne Wilkinson-Hayes opens her Foreword to The Power of All: Building a Multivoiced Church, by British authors, Sian and Stuart Murray Williams.
Multivoiced, of course, contrasts sharply with monovoiced where one person—typically a pastor—does nearly all the speaking on a Sunday morning. As the Williams explain, “Multivoiced church is an alternative to the dominant tradition in which large numbers of the Christian community are passive consumers instead of active participants.”
Most contemporary Christians have never experienced multivoiced church. So the book’s eight chapters describe what that looks like in today’s Western culture. “Mulltvoiced church matters,” contend the Williams, “because it is the biblical pattern, however much cultural influences and prevailing church practices have obscured this over the centuries.”
Multivoiced Church is Biblical
In a fast-paced overview, the Williams recount the New Testament basis for meeting in a multivoiced context. It all began on the Day of Pentecost, with many people in various languages “declaring the wonders of God” (Acts 2:11). In his brief message, Peter explained that the outpouring of the Spirit meant that “all” would speak. The authors then trace the multivoiced nature of the Church in the remainder of Acts, on into the Church at Corinth, and throughout the rest of the New Testament.
They also point out that “Jesus rarely preaches a sermon.” Instead, he “devises parables, tells stories, asks questions (but rarely answers them), teaches through symbolic actions, engages people in conversation, invites others to interpret Scripture, and presents those who listen to him with enigmatic sayings that require them to wrestle with their meaning.”
One whole chapter explains multivoiced worship. “It simply means that when God’s people gather, our corporate worship is expressed by many people and in many formats, tones, and accents.” The chapter is peppered with accounts from various churches. In one, gatherings allow 20 minutes or more in which people, using microphones from where they are seated, tell how they have or have not experienced God during the week. “There is no room to hide,” say the Williams, “as there is in monovoiced churches, behind a few spiritual superstars.”
The Williams devote another whole chapter to multivoiced learning. They make it clear that they value sermons—and often preach them. But they argue that monologue sermons are out of step with the way people communicate today: “Nowhere else does one person speak at length to a silent and passive audience that has no expectation or opportunity of engaging with the speaker.” This, however, is not a capitulation to contemporary culture. In first-century churches, dialogue was the norm. “Sermon” and “homily” come from Latin and Greek terms that mean conversation.
Multivoiced learning, the Williams write, rests on three underlying bases. It is “learner oriented,” “multivoiced” (participatory), and “open-ended.” Those principles unfold in the following practices:
Pausing to reflect
Discussing and responding
Providing space for comments
Living in the Word
Preparing sermons jointly
Multivoiced practices not only foster learning, they also build community. The dozens of one-another/each-other passages show that Jesus and the New Testament writers expected many voices to contribute to church life. “What we have here,” say the Williams, “is the persistent rhythm and heartbeat of multivoiced community. . . . What multivoiced churches need are leaders who can broker and encouraging one-anothering.” In this kind of community, real friendships—not merely the superficial “fellowship” that too often fills the gap—can develop and thrive.
Community nurtures two more benefits: “discerning and deciding.” The Williams summarize three traditional church-governing patterns—the episcopal, congregational, and presbyteral—and explain the strengths and weaknesses of each. They list a half-dozen techniques multivoiced churches have used to reach their decisions as a body.
Multivoiced Church Leadership
What role do leaders play in discerning and deciding? “The task of those with leadership responsibilities is neither to dominate nor to abdicate, but to facilitate. Encouraging those with valuable insights who are reticent to speak, noticing those who might otherwise be marginalized, challenging those who respond ungraciously to others, reminding those who speak a lot that listening is even more important, judging when it is time to move from discerning to deciding, summarizing the conversation and drawing out the salient points, making sure everyone knows what decision has been made and why, helping the community reflect on the process and learn from it—providing leadership for multivoiced discerning and deciding is multifaceted and demanding.”
Con: the Case Against
In their final chapter, the Williams set forth several reasons churches might not want to adopt a multivoiced model. Tradition: the Church has practiced monovoiced gatherings for centuries. Difficulty: multivoiced church is hard to keep up over time. Schedules: it demands too much time from busy people and church leaders. Capability: few church leaders have the training, ability, or motivation for it. Immaturity: those in the church, so their leaders think, don’t have what it would take.
Pro: the Case For
But the Williams urge that, despite these obstacles, churches should move forward into multivoiced mode, because it:
Represents “the biblical norm.”
Has been the path on which the Holy Spirit has led many historic “renewal movements.”
Works against a monopolizing clergy, pastoral exhaustion, and “abusive leadership.”
Encourages Christians to learn the Bible and theology well enough to carry out their life roles.
Unlocks spiritual gifts for the benefit of all.
Develops grownup learners instead of immature, passive dependents.
Contributes to “the emergence of missional churches in post-Christendom societies. . . . Most people in our society are much more likely to encounter individual Christians in the places in which they live, work, and relax than they are to respond to invitations to participate in church-run activities. . . . The skills we learn in multivoiced churches are transferable to other spheres of life.”
In The Power of All, the Williams recognize the obstacles that stand in the way of participatory church gatherings. But they write with the “hope . . . that setting alongside each other arguments for and against multivoiced church will clarify the issue and ensure that those who choose to embrace multivoiced practice will be under no illusions about what may be involved.”