Before the Church of the Brethren had formed as a discrete group, there were smaller collectives of people called conventicles that gathered for Bible study and prayer. One conventicle of eight people became the seed for what would eventually be the Church of the Brethren. This conventicle was careful to avoid making any member the leader, but eventually Alexander Mack was elevated to founder status anyways.
Over the years Brethren have moved from a decentralized power structure toward a more rigid hierarchy. The ban (shunning) established lines of discipline and clarified who was an outsider. Opinions became Annual Conference Statements. Informal gatherings became congregations. Discussions of the Bible became sermons.
Sermons became a way of reinforcing the power structure in a congregation. Several men would preach one after another for hours. The views of a few became elevated over the views of many. One important pushback came in the 1800s in the person of Sarah Righter Major. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, Sarah Righter Major began to preach. Her sermons were so powerful that they won grudging respect from the men of her time and filled the buildings where she spoke.
Today, Brethren are more likely to have only one preacher preaching. Still, there is a usually the sense of a speaker and an audience. In the Richmond Church of the Brethren of Richmond, Indiana a new pattern is growing. With seeds from the early conventicles, Doug Pagitt’s dialogue preaching and semi-programmed Quakers, sermons no longer end when one person listed as that day’s preacher stops speaking.
After that Sunday’s preacher finishes speaking, the congregation moves into a time of response and the sermon continues. Speaking out of the silence, members of the congregation speak from their own memories, experiences, and the Holy Spirit in their hearts.
Beyond just the response time, varied members of the congregation are called preacher and start the sermon. The power of a single preacher is spread among the many. Between many preachers to begin the sermon and many joining in during the time of response the power is once again released.