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multiple voices – mark keown


One of the key texts in the NT for understanding how the early church did its worship is 1 Cor 14:26. Paul is dealing with the problems at their worship gatherings—an obsession with flamboyant rhetoric (1 Cor 2), inappropriate dress and abuses of the Last Supper (1 Cor 11), a fixation on tongues, and more. He advocates less concern for rhetoric and tongues, and a desire for prophetic proclamation – proclamation that is encouraging, comforting, and strengthening. Preaching that is Christ-focussed and speaks God’s word with future consequence into the present life of the community.

In 1 Cor 14:26 Paul urges the all the Corinthians to bring to their gatherings something to share – a veritable pot-faith spiritual smorgasbord. He includes a list of five specific gifts: a hymn, a teaching, a revelation, a message in tongues, or and interpretation. He then states, ‘let all things be done for building up’ the church. As with all lists of spiritual gifts in 1 Cor 12–14 and elsewhere (e.g. Rom 12:4–8; Eph 4:11), these are not to be read as exhaustive of what people are to bring. They are to bring such things – in other words, the full range of God’s gifts are to be bought to the gatherings and shared. Individualising this – every one of you bring something to share. This builds on 1 Cor 11 where they bring food to share – also bring something from your spiritual giftedness. We then have a picture of the early Christian gatherings in the Pauline churches as more akin to a homegroup where everyone brings food, spiritual and actual, to share, and space is given for all. It is highly participative.

Such a vision has led some to set up micro-church enterprises which mirror this. This is not a bad idea, and will no doubt be part of our church’s future. However, it can tend to forget that there were as many sociological reasons as spiritual for the church being as it was in Paul’s day. They met in small groups because they had to. When the persecution of the church ended in later generations, they took over the Basilicas and gathered in larger groups. There are multiple ways of doing church.

That said, I think there is something important to gain from Paul’s injunction here. One thing is that we need to move away from the dominance of one voice in the Christian gathering. Our contemporary services tend to have one key leader/preacher who week in week out, preaches God’s word (we can discuss music here too, but not in this blog). Having one voice has some real advantages. Assuming that person is a good preacher, the church can really grow under such a ministry. It also can maintain continuity and a level of quality control. If that person is the core visionary for the community, the vision can be upheld loud and clear.

However, I wonder whether the weaknesses outweigh the gains? What if they are not that good? Further, even the best preachers can get over-exposed – fresh voices are required in the dressing room. All preachers have blind spots and hobby horses. What about the other aspects of the gospel being overlooked, albeit inadvertently. What if that preacher is male, when do people hear a woman’s perspective? If a Pakeha, when another culture? If young, how can they relate to the older? If they have grown up in a Christian home, can they connect with the lost? Etc.

One thing this text tells me is that while our best preachers need to be given opportunity to preach, we need a multiplicity of voices from the front of our churches bringing the word through lives shaped differently? This then challenges us to find those budding preachers and train them. This means humbling ourselves and giving up the pulpit. This means allowing quality to at times be sacrificed for the bigger picture of growing others in the task. This means the preaching guns humbling themselves and realising that they aren’t Jesus – let his body speak.

While in a large gathering it is implausible to live out 1 Cor 14:26 literally (we will be there all day), I think we need to hear more voices in our churches and from our pulpits. They don’t have to be sermons, they can be sharing times, testimonies, interviews, etc. This is certainly something I am pondering.


  1. Helen Brereton says:

    Nga mihi Mark,
    I appreciate your comments regarding a multiplicity of voices in relation to the building up of the body.
    If congregations gain from the occasional ‘giving up’ of a pulpit to new or different voices from the congregation, how much more do they gain if the one doing the giving up chooses to position her-himself primarily as an expectant listener of, rather than a magnanimous mentor-coach to these different voices?
    Kaikai bilong tingting indeed,

  2. Mike says:

    An outsider’s perspective (as a non-pastor and someone who hasn’t preached): our church is currently without a senior pastor so is going through a season where there are a multitude of voices preaching (to the extent that it would be unusual for one person to preach more than once a month). This has been fantastic – it’s enabled those in our church community who have a gift of preaching (developed to various degrees) to step up and contribute.

    Looking to the wider church – I hope that senior/sole pastors would actively look to preach less – focusing on building up the gifts of those in the church (assuming there are people in the church who are gifted in this area). While this does require humility and a willingness to relinquish control (and accept that things potentially aren’t always going to go as smoothly as if they were preaching), I think in the long term this is for the best of both the pastor (reducing the preaching workload/burden) and the church community (building up leaders and preachers in your midst to continue to minister to your congregation and/or to send out for further training/ministry elsewhere).

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