A Feature Review of
The Power of All: Building a Multivoiced Church
Sian and Stuart Murray Williams
Paperback: Herald Press, 2012.
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Reviewed by Hilary J. Scarsella
Reading this book as a life-long Anabaptist who hears about the importance of making space for all voices in the church practically every Sunday (and often again on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday…), I expected to be a bit bored reading Sian and Stuart Murray Williams book The Power of All: Building a Multivoiced Church. Much to my surprise, I found myself hooked.
Sian and Stuart Murray Williams bring a wealth of wisdom and experience to their first coauthored book. Sian comes as a minister, a teacher, and a spiritual director; Stuart as a church planter, a teacher, and a writer. Together, they cast an inspiring vision for what church can look like, feel like, and be like when it allows itself to be shaped by all of its members.
Though the authors take special care to resist limiting the concept of multivoiced church to any one particular definition, the basic idea behind the term is that the voices, feelings, concerns, and gifts of all who are a part of any particular community of faith are invaluable to the continued life and mission of that community. The Murray Williams’ stand in gentle yet concrete opposition to ‘monovoiced church,’ a fairly common expression of church in which a select group of “professionals” is solely responsible for primary elements of congregational life, from preaching and pastoral care to organizing outreach programs and making financial decisions. The authors certainly believe that formal leadership and structure have an important place in church life. But they insist that a vital function of strong leadership is to make space for a multiplicity of voices to be shared, and a healthy structure is one that utilizes the gifts of many. The Murray Williams’ do an excellent job of holding together a call for churches to allow all members to shape the course of the congregation with affirmation of continued need for strong church leaders.
The Power of All starts not by offering definitions but by telling stories – intriguing stories that let the reader know right away that there is no cookie cutter model into which multivoiced church must fit, nor is becoming a multivoiced community all or nothing. Chapter one takes great care to communicate that many churches already have at least some multivoiced characteristics. The authors go on to ground the argument for multivoiced church in the biblical narrative and survey its presence in church history, claiming that multivoiced church has been a basic element of Christian renewal movements for centuries. The task today, according to the Murray Williams’, is to cultivate forms of multivoiced church in such a way that they will not revert to monovoiced church after a only few generations as happened in most renewal movements. Chapters four through seven discuss particular ways that a multivoiced approach might shape worship, learning, community, and discernment. The book ends by squarely acknowledging a long list of concerns about the multivoiced church model and asking readers to instead put their faith in an equally impressive list of reasons to hope that multivoiced church will transform our lives.
The authors clearly wrote this book with a broad audience in mind. It has something valuable to offer those who have deep skepticism of a multivoiced approach as well as those who have been convinced for ages. It is written simply enough to be accessible to those who have never encountered its ideas before, while it is at the same time nuanced in a way that holds the attention of those who have spent their lives trying to live them.
On one hand, its attempt to be relevant to churchgoers across such a wide spectrum may leave readers wanting in certain respects. Understandably, opting to maintain breadth limits the degree to which the message can address detail. The book probably does not include enough “proof” that multivoiced church works to convince serious skeptics. It does not specifically engage traditions that choose monovoiced church based on theological conviction. It offers helpful and practical examples for how churches can move toward becoming multivoiced communities, but the examples are not organized strategically enough for the book to function as a handbook for churches ready to commit to that process. It provides quality and wisdom that will offer both challenge and support to readers who have already been working hard and long to build multivoiced churches, but it doesn’t dive quite deep enough to be fully satisfying to those who already think about these issues day in and day out.
On the other hand, what the book does accomplish by pursuing such a wide audience is fascinating and very well crafted. It leaves the reader, whoever that may be, full of energy to answer for themselves whatever may have been left unaddressed on the pages. The reader finishes and sets down the book with a mind full of churning gears and an itch to call up friends from church for a bit of discussion. The genius of the authors’ approach to this book is that the very act of reading it can actually function as a step toward multivoiced church for the reader. It motivates the reader to ask questions and thereby participate in her or his own church experience.
The Power of All will be a good read for just about anyone who picks it up. Read it on your own. Read it in your small group. Read it with your church leadership team. Read it as a resource that has potential to serve as a springboard from which any faith community might discover for itself what its own unique form of multivoiced church might look like.
Hilary J. Scarsella is Transformative Peacemaking and Communications Associate for Mennonite Church USA.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com