Multi-Voiced Worship

Stuart Murray Williams

I first heard the term ‘multi-voiced worship’ from Eleanor Kreider and found this a helpful description of an approach to corporate worship that challenges the apparent default position of worship that is reliant on one or very few voices. This article attempts to spell out some of the components of multi-voiced worship and to offer some practical guidelines.

What is multi-voiced worship?

There is nothing mysterious about the meaning of the term ‘multi-voiced’. It means simply that when God’s people gather, our corporate worship is expressed by many people and in many tones and accents.

The inspiration for this approach to worship is found in 1 Corinthians 14, one of the very few passages in the New Testament that describes corporate worship. Here Paul addresses the tendency of the Corinthian Christians to engage in rather disorderly and unedifying practices, not by restricting who might participate but by giving guidelines to enable maximum participation but in a more constructive format. Evidently, multi-voiced worship carries with it dangers of misuse, but Paul does not counter these by proposing restrictions on who might participate.

We have much less information about the conduct of worship in other first-generation churches, so we cannot be certain that Corinth was typical. But multi-voiced worship seems coherent with the conviction of the early Christians that at Pentecost God had poured out his Holy Spirit on all – young and old, male and female from many ethnic groups (Acts 2). It also fits well with the teaching in various New Testament passages about the church as a body comprised of many members, each of which contributes according to their gift and each of which should be honoured (for example, Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, Ephesians 4, 1 Peter 4).

Multi-voiced worship anticipates that God may speak or act through any member of the church for the benefit if the whole community. It recognises that no one person or small group has a monopoly on this. It welcomes the richness and diversity that flows from multiple contributions. It values the different perspectives, insights, angles of vision, experiences and convictions that different members bring. It does not require that all contribute or that all participate equally; nor is leadership abolished. But the ethos of multi-voiced worship is very different from corporate worship that consists of one or very few voices or allows wider participation only through pre-ordained words or actions.

There are various ways in which multi-voiced worship can operate:

  • The planning and preparation of worship may involve many people meeting together in advance of when the church gathers.
  • When the church gathers, part of the time may be guided by one person and part of the time open to many participants.
  • When the church gathers, there may be no obvious leadership but reliance on the Spirit to prompt various members to offer contributions.
  • There may be a carefully ordered liturgy which makes room for many voices.
  • There may be occasions when people participate one by one, but other times when the whole community participate in unison.
  • In larger communities there may be less opportunity for multiple participation when the church gathers, but opportunities are given for interaction between smaller groups.

The demise of multi-voiced worship

Although we cannot be sure how widespread multi-voiced worship was in the early churches, it seems clear that this practice gradually gave way to what became the default position within the Christendom church: mono-voiced worship. Before the 4th-century revolution associated with the Christendom shift, after which mono-voiced worship became absolutely dominant, there is evidence for a decisive shift in this direction.

The Christendom shift exacerbated this in various ways:

  • The sheer size of congregations made multi-voiced worship more difficult.
  • The limited catechesis provided for converts meant that they were ill-equipped to make helpful contributions.
  • The demise of charismatic gifts associated with this era limited the scope for multiple participation.
  • The growing power and status of the ‘clergy’ led to the increasing dependence and passivity of the ‘laity’ (using terms that are themselves open to challenge).
  • The emphasis on performance and correct words and procedures inhibited all but those duly qualified from active involvement.

These factors also affected the capacity of church members to perceive the church as a learning community and resulted in monologue preaching becoming a further default position (see the church resource notes on this subject).

For much of its history, the corporate worship of the church has been expressed by a few dominant voices (often one per congregation), supported by a largely passive and uncreative community participating only in prescribed ways. This has been defended on various grounds: the higher quality it is meant to ensure, the need for training and accreditation to protect against heresy, the value of order within the church, etc. The persistence of mono-voiced worship relies on collusion between those who prefer to restrict participation to themselves and those who prefer to let others conduct worship on their behalf.

The recovery of multi-voiced worship

The desire for multi-voiced worship, however, has continued to prompt Christians in many generations to challenge the default mono-voiced position. As early as the late 2nd century, the Montanists (or New Prophecy movement) were encouraging multiple participation in ways that alarmed other Christians. Renewal movements throughout the centuries have restored aspects of multi-voiced worship – at least during the first generation.

However, the second or third generations of these renewal movements often revert to the default mono-voiced position. Why? Some would argue that it is too demanding to practise multi-voiced worship year after year and that this is feasible only in the first flush of enthusiasm in new movements. Others suggest that the default position is so strong that many movements gradually revert to this and give up their resistance. Or it may be that other dimensions of community life take precedence and the movements provide inadequate training to sustain this practice.

Multi-voiced worship was a feature of the early charismatic movement in the 1960s, especially of the House Churches. 1 Corinthians 14 once again acted as inspiration in many churches. Marginalised gifts were rediscovered and multiple participation was encouraged. Gradually, though, as numbers grew and the initial egalitarian approach faded, fewer were able to contribute. Gifted musicians, ‘worship leaders’ and worship bands clawed back from the congregation as a whole responsibility for corporate worship. Quality of participation (measured in rather different ways than indicated in 1 Corinthians 14) was regarded as more important than the multi-voiced approach. Although some elements of multi-voiced worship persist, more restrictive practices are widespread.

Within some traditions multi-voiced worship has persisted for several generations and reversion to mono-voiced worship is resisted. The Christian Brethren in the mid-19th century introduced a form of corporate worship in which no one person led or was responsible for what happened when the church gathered together. All the men (but none of the women) were free to participate, exercising their gifts and sharing their insights (although ‘charismatic’ gifts were not recognised). Many Christian Brethren today continue to operate in this way (some now allowing both women participants and ‘charismatic’ gifts). An older tradition with a similar reluctance to move away from multi-voiced worship is the Quakers.

However, these traditions have struggled in other ways with multi-voiced worship. It may theoretically be possible for all to participate but in practice relatively few do – and often in predictable ways. Multi-voiced worship can become moribund, banal and uncreative. The problem may not be disorder, as in Corinth, but the result is equally unedifying.

Very recently so-called ‘emerging churches’ are once again recovering multi-voiced worship. Some invite many people to plan and create corporate worship; some are ‘leaderless’ and multi-directional; some encourage diverse contributions using many different expressions and media. It will be interesting to see how successful they are in resisting reversion to mono-voiced worship and sustaining edifying practices.

Multi-voiced worship in the Anabaptist tradition

Multi-voiced worship has been a feature of the Anabaptist tradition since the earliest years of the movement. Swiss congregations, meeting in homes or in the open air, encouraged all to participate. Indeed, the expectation was that members were obliged to participate if the Spirit prompted them.

The earliest Anabaptist congregational order, known as The Swiss Order, probably written by Sattler in 1527 and circulating with the Schleitheim Confession, explained how the Swiss Anabaptists operated: ‘When brothers and sisters are together, they shall take up something to read together. The one to whom God has given the best understanding shall explain it, the others should be still and listen.’

Swiss Anabaptists regarded the mono-voiced approach of the state churches (Catholic and Reformed) as deeply inadequate and unspiritual. An early Anabaptist tract quoted Paul in 1 Corinthians 14 urging that all should contribute when the church gathered together and complained: ‘When someone comes to church and constantly hears only one person speaking, and all the listeners are silent, neither speaking nor prophesying, who can or will regard or confess the same to be a spiritual congregation or confess according to 1 Corinthians 14 that God is dwelling and operating in them through his Holy Spirit with his gifts, impelling them one after the other in the above mentioned order of speaking and prophesying?’

Was this multi-voiced approach limited to the Swiss branch of the movement? Some have suggested that this was so. However, Ambrosius Spitelmaier, an Anabaptist leader in Nicholsburg, wrote: ‘when they come together they teach each other the divine Word and one asks the others: how do you understand this saying?’ It seems that a communal approach was operating elsewhere than in Switzerland.

Furthermore, Leopold Scharnschlager, in his Seven Articles, described an order of service among Anabaptists in central Germany in which members stood in turn to read, prophesy and discuss Scripture. George Williams comments: ‘In this church order we see a community with a common treasury for the sustenance of the needy members and an order of worship beginning with prayer and ending with the admonition to steadfastness, a service in which, besides the Vorsteher (church leader), all the members one after another rise to read the scriptures or the communal writings, to discourse, and to prophesy.’

There are some indications also of a multi-voiced approach among the early Dutch Anabaptists.

Nevertheless, it seems likely that multi-voiced worship was less common in some branches of the movement, especially the communitarian Hutterites, and that over the years (as in other renewal movements) reversion to the default mono-voiced position occurred.

We do, however, have one fascinating account of multi-voiced worship from later in the 16th century, which suggests that this practice persisted longer than some have assumed. It comes from the pen of a Lutheran minister who infiltrated an Anabaptist gathering in a forest and observed what happened. His description and assessment of what he witnessed needs to be interpreted in light of his hostility to the Anabaptists, but the multi-voiced nature of the meeting is very clear.

And the Anabaptist tradition, despite its reversion to a more mono-voiced position, has never entirely lost the instinct towards multi-voiced worship. One of the core convictions of the Anabaptist Network picks up this issue and states: ‘Churches are called to be committed communities of discipleship and mission, places of friendship, mutual accountability and multi-voiced worship that sustain hope as we seek God’s kingdom together. We are committed to nurturing and developing such churches, in which young and old are valued, leadership is consultative, roles are related to gifts rather than gender and baptism is for believers.’

Resourcing multi-voiced worship

These church resource notes are offered as an encouragement to churches to recover this approach to worship, to experiment with different ways of participating together, to discover how this practice can be as edifying as possible and to learn how to sustain a practice that is in constant danger of being lost or becoming moribund.

What follows are some very practical ideas and suggestions, rooted in the experience of those who have worked with multi-voiced worship. We welcome comments on these – and suggestions for further material.

A. Setting the scene

1. Multi-voiced worship happens more readily if the seating arrangements when the church gathers encourage this. Sitting in rows facing in one direction does not make multi-voiced worship natural. Arranging the seating so that members of the church can see and interact with each other is more conducive to multi-voiced worship. If there is no obvious ‘front’, it is harder for mono-voiced worship to be re-established.

2. Establish the principle of multi-voiced worship within the core values of the church and regularly rehearse this and other values. Be aware that the default position is not multi-voiced but mono-voiced and that this will only be resisted with persistence and care. Develop a community identity as multi-voiced.

3. Talk together about the practicalities of multi-voiced worship. Reflect together on experiences of this, good and bad, so that the community is learning how to take part and respond more effectively. Encourage an ethos of reflection on what works well and less well.

4. Induct newcomers into an expectation of multi-voiced worship, explaining what this means and why it is important to the church. Encourage all to contribute.

5. Display appropriate sections of 1 Corinthians 14 in the space where the church meets. Refer to this regularly as the pattern of worship for a multi-voiced community.

B. Encouraging participation

1. Develop liturgical patterns that are well-known and within which members know when and how to contribute. These can be flexible but familiarity will enhance multi-voiced participation.

2. Skilful leadership is more likely to encourage multi-voiced worship than absence of leadership. Most of those who experiment with ‘leaderless’ worship tend to revert to some form of leadership. But this leadership needs to be regarded by all (including the leaders) as facilitative rather than dominant, providing space and context for many to participate.

3. Encourage diversity of participation, drawing on the varieties mentioned in texts like 1 Corinthians 14. Encourage individuals to avoid becoming stereotyped and to participate in different ways on different occasions.

4. Communicate an ethos of permission and openness, so that everyone can contribute without fear of giving offence or being criticised. Build trust within the community.

5. Provide an explanation of what is happening for any visitors. Paul shows concern in 1 Corinthians 14 for ‘outsiders’, who may not understand what is going on.

C. Developing maturity

1. Encourage the community to pause deliberately after each contribution in order to receive it and reflect on it. This honours each contribution and allows space for the ‘weighing’ Paul commends in 1 Corinthians 14.

2. Establish the principle that all contributions are open to gracious challenge. This provides the community with protection from error and unhelpful contributions and provides those who contribute with confidence that others will weigh what they bring.

3. Discourage over-participation on the part of those who are liable to this. This might involve quiet words with those who show signs of participating too frequently, or it might be appropriate to establish known limits (two contributions per gathering, for example, or three in a month of gatherings).

4. Encourage a balance between contributions that are directed towards God (prayer, tongues and interpretation, songs, etc.) and contributions directed towards the church (prophecy, exhortations, biblical readings, etc.).

5. Encourage the use of a wider range of media for contributions (art, dance, video, mime, drama, photography, poetry, story-telling, etc.). These may require preparation beforehand, but multi-voiced worship is not equivalent to spontaneous worship.

6. Maintain a focus on the world and on mission. Encourage people to participate in language and imagery that is contextual, and to bring into worship experiences and challenges at work and in the local community.

Why does it matter?

There are several reasons for encouraging multi-voiced worship:

  • It is congruent with the new covenant and the designation of the church as a ‘kingdom of priests’, all of whom are anointed with the Holy Spirit and gifted.
  • It has been the instinctive approach of numerous renewal movements that have attempted to restore biblical principles to church life.
  • It hinders clericalism and the domination of churches by powerful, eloquent and unaccountable leaders.
  • It encourages spiritual growth in those who participate (whereas passivity does not encourage such development).
  • It off It is appropriate for a postmodern context that values creativity and is wary of domination and institutional leadership patterns.
  • According to Paul, multi-voiced worship can be deeply attractive to outsiders, communicating the reality of God’s presence to them.

For further reading, Sian & Stuart Murray Williams: Multi-voiced Church (Paternoster, 2012)

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