At a time when many churches are simultaneously wondering how to connect with people in a postmodern context while looking for practical ways to remain faithful to their calling, Tim Conder and Dan Rhodes point us all to one of the most basic (and perhaps most forgotten) practices of the church: reading scripture in community. In Free For All, Conder and Rhodes warn us about the highly-individualized impulses of our society that have infiltrated our churches and determined the ways in which we practice our faith. They suggest that reclaiming the communal aspects of our worship, missions, and scripture interpretation will enable the church to rediscover the story of God’s Word in a refreshing way. The Bible is a “community text revealed as a gift to the human community” (12). Conder and Rhodes posit that a full and “incarnational” reading of the Bible necessitates communal interpretation, featuring a commitment to dialogue and listening to the variety of voices within a congregation as a means of opening up the scriptures.
In a creative, thorough, and authentic explication of their theme, Conder and Rhodes invite the reader to explore the need for a symphony of diverse voices in the interpretation of scripture. In the first section they explore the various historical, contextual, and personal biases that influence our reading of scripture. They present the dangers of individual interpretation and proclamation and then suggest congregational practices necessary for good communal reading. They even explore some of the challenges to this radical way of reading the sacred text. In the second section of the book, Conder and Rhodes invite the reader into their own ministry context at Emmaus Way Church, the congregation they serve as pastors. Moving through four actual communal-reading events at Emmaus Way, they introduce you to the various congregational voices and insights as the reading group delves into four scriptural texts. By witnessing communal reading in action, we experience the richness of dialogue, imagination, and transformation that can take place when the entire congregation is invited into the interpretive process. In the final section of the book, Conder and Rhodes remark on the intersection of text and community, detailing five practices they have found essential to good scripture interpretation. They explain the importance of each practice and then offer examples of how each is exercised in their own church.
I highly recommend this important book to any minister or lay person searching for greater depth and faithfulness in their congregation’s Bible reading. Now that we have witnessed in modern history the dangers of individualistic hermeneutical practices, Conder and Rhodes provide a step forward in calling the church to the radical practices of hospitality, inclusion, and forgiveness while wrestling with difficult, familiar, and enigmatic scriptures. Their message about scripture and community deeply resonate with us as Baptists as a group that maintains both a high view of scripture and a commitment to the principle of the priesthood of all believers (it is no coincidence that both authors were raised in Baptist contexts). Free for All extends an invitation to put our belief in the priesthood of the community of faith into practice through our reading and interpretation of the Bible. Conder and Rhodes lead us away from our modernized, individual tendencies when it comes to faith, preaching, study, worship, and the Bible, while guiding us to a more communal—and more faithful—church practice. This is a timely and much-needed book that is sure to impact the way we all engage and rediscover the Bible in a new time and place in the ongoing life and mission of the church.