One message, many voices

In Mennonite Brethren circles, we often talk about community hermeneutics, and affirm it as the primary way of reading and understanding the Bible. Yet most Sunday mornings, one person stands up and tells everyone else what a certain text means. Is there another way? If so, what does that look like? And what are we hoping will happen as we proceed?

The Corinthian correspondence

Because of my conviction that God’s revelation should not be limited to one person’s interpretation, I decided to invite more voices to speak as I planned to preach through 1 and 2 Corinthians a few years ago.

First, I asked one of my congregants to gather a team to decide how each portion of the Corinthian correspondence would be read in our Sunday gathering. This Scripture reading team of three met to read and study each passage ahead of time. Some passages were dramatized, some were read in groups, others by an individual – sometimes a woman, sometimes a man. The team involved youth, seniors, families, and also made full use of audio resources, props, and other visual aids. Through it, they captured the imaginations of many people in our congregation with a bigger picture of the story in Corinth.

Each decision about how to read, what emphasis to have – even what tone of voice to use – became an interpretation of the text. The community was beginning to decide together what the text meant.

Second, I created a sermon discussion team that gathered for an hour every Monday to read and discuss the following Sunday’s passage. We were not required to prepare in any way beforehand. We would pray and ask God to guide our discussion. Whether I or someone else was preaching the next sermon, this discussion produced many wonderful ideas that were woven into the script of the story told on Sunday.

I thought this would make sermon preparation much easier; I could simply summarize what we had said. But what happened when two or more different perspectives were brought forward? More studying was required. Not only did the preacher have to honestly wrestle with the text, but now the preacher had to also wrestle with the community’s discussion of the text.

This was hard work. Yet both the Scripture reading team and the sermon discussion team were a fantastic help in locating the meaning of Scripture beyond the study and perspective of one person in the pulpit.

I learned two very important things through this experience.

One, God does not need to speak through every person in the church on every matter, but neither should we limit God to speaking through only one person. We don’t need to hear every opinion, but we benefit greatly when we allow for more than one voice to speak (1 Corinthians 14:26).

Two, as a teacher and preacher, I tend to focus most of my attention on explaining correct biblical interpretation and theology. Others illuminate themes and ideas by creating pictures. Some draw listeners into the text by telling stories, giving them better clues to understanding Scripture. Some are pragmatic and remind us to not remain in the abstraction of theology. What a healthy church we have become when we empower all these beautiful voices to speak together!

The sermon as the first word

This year, our congregation decided to begin our services at 9:30 a.m., followed by Sunday school for all ages. We wanted to create conversation around the ideas expressed in the sermon. Adult Sunday school has now become a time for honest discussion and reflection on the content of the sermon. Our conviction is that a sermon is not the final word, but the first word that invites discussion.

Personal stories, great insights, challenges, and questions of clarity have allowed us to digest more of what is normally a fleeting 25 minutes of explanation. You might argue we’re pooling our ignorance and blurring the lines of correct thought with common opinions. Yet, as members of the congregation share different perspectives, the community begins to take ownership of the text. Many who learn minimally through lecture are learning through the stories and illustrations from the person next to them.

Is our discussion always profound? Do we always find more clarity? Is it always a thoughtful process? No. Are we learning more about each other and in turn grasping more of the truth spoken through a sermon? Do we feel like we are being more faithful to what we are called to as a community of God’s people? Yes.

In no other context does “practice what you preach” mean so much! The community does this by following our conviction that the holy work of interpreting Scripture matters enough to be examined, weighed, and considered by all who gather.

Jeff Peters is lead pastor at Hepburn (Sask.) MB Church and will be concluding 7 years of ministry there in June. He and his family are seeking guidance for what will come next.

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