A return to early Church worship? Worship part 2

What was the early Church worship like?

We can at times feel dissatisfied with set Christian worship services.
It can become just like a performance that we attend and then leave with no real involvement.

What was it like in the early church, what did they do when they met together?

Jesus washes disciples feet
A woodcut: Jesus washes disciples feet 1500 – 1550 [i]


From the Bible we can see that the early Church worship consisted of:

  • Celebrating Communion, but not exclusively in a church service:

For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”

1 Corinthians 11:26
  • An important part of the early Church worship was having the Bible read aloud.
    Also it was important to have preaching AND teaching:
    Preaching, the Greek is ‘paraklesis’ which means an exhortation, or consoling and comforting word.
    Teaching, the Greek is ‘didaskalia’ which means that which is taught – doctrine, teaching and instruction:

Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching.”

1 Timothy 4:13
  • The early Church sometimes fasted.
    There could be the imparting of a gift or blessing by putting a hand on someone’s shoulder or head
    Notice that the offices of prophets and teachers were plural:

Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers:
Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul.
While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said,
‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’
So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.”

Acts 13:1-3
  • In early Church worship they often lifted up their hands in worship. Paul wrote:

Therefore I want the men everywhere to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or disputing.”

1 Timothy 2:8
  • Part of the early Church worship was donating money to the poor and for supporting those who studied the Word and for itinerant teachers:

On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with your income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made.”

1 Corinthians 16:2
  • Also from the above verse we can see that they were gathering on the first day of the week, the Sunday.
    The day on which Jesus rose from the dead, the Sunday became the day to gather together:

On the first day of the week we came together to break bread…”

Acts 20:7

The early Church worship were exercising spiritual gifts in there meetings:

Everything must be done so that the church may be built up.
If anyone speaks in a tongue, two—or at the most three—should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret.
If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and to God.
Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said…
Therefore, my brothers and sisters, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues.
But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.”

1 Corinthians 14:26-29 & 39-40

The early Church worship included music and singing. Paul wrote:

be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit.
Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Ephesians 5:19-20

The rise of a select few

Most church worship services consist of one minister or a leader running through the different elements with one, or a few others, reading a set Bible passage, prayers, etc.
Sometimes there can be a worship leader.

Generally the congregation has no input although they can ‘join in’ with the worship.
The congregation can become onlookers and passive.
This is probably the form of worship that most people are used to and is generally the default one.
This corporate worship is mainly expressed by a few dominant voices and probably often only one per congregation.
It relies on a leader who prefers to restrict participation to themselves or to a few selected other people.

In it’s strictest form it can be known as ‘mono-voiced worship.’

Why did worship become restricted to a few dominant voices?

The early Church worship can be known as multi-voiced worship.

But in about the 3rd century mono-voiced worship became absolutely dominant.
The reasons for it becoming the default position of worship are varied:

  • Large congregations made it more difficult for many people to contribute.
  • New converts from pagan backgrounds could result in no contributions or inappropriate ones.
  • Charismatic gifts were dropping away at this time which meant less contributions.
  • The power of the leaders increased thus creating ‘clergy’ and a passive ‘laity’.
Clergy vestments from early paintings.
Clergy vestments from early paintings [ii]

Does multi-voiced worship always degenerate?

It may theoretically be possible for all to participate in this worship, but in practice relatively few do.

Also some may often participate but in a very predictable way which varies little at every meeting.
Multi-voiced worship can therefore become dull, boring, uncreative and unedifying.

Different people can guide a meeting giving space for different contributions, but as the size of the congregation increases that becomes more difficult.

Even when we look at these negatives it has been the instinctive approach of numerous renewal movements over the years who have attempted to restore biblical principles to church worship.

What is multi-voiced worship?

Multi-voiced worship anticipates that God may speak through any member of the church:

you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”

1 Peter 2:5

Christians are a kingdom of priests all of whom are anointed with the Holy Spirit and are gifted to contribute.

No one person, nor just a few, have a monopoly on having a godly input into the meeting, but that doesn’t mean that everyone has to contribute.

Multi-voiced worship is not necessarily spontaneous worship.
The worship meeting may be prepared by a number of people in advance.
Teachers of the Word need to study and prepare for sharing a teaching.
Other things can be planned before a meeting.

According to Paul, multi-voiced worship can be deeply attractive to outsiders, communicating the reality of God’s presence to them:

But if an unbeliever or an inquirer comes in while everyone is prophesying, they are convicted of sin and are brought under judgment by all, as the secrets of their hearts are laid bare.
So they will fall down and worship God, exclaiming,
“God is really among you!”

1 Corinthians 14:24-25

The idea is that corporate worship is expressed by many people.
This is what the Apostle Paul taught:

What then shall we say, brothers and sisters?
When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up.
If anyone speaks in a tongue, two—or at the most three—should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret.
If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and to God.
Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said.
And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop.
For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged.
The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets.
For God is not a God of disorder but of peace—as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people.”

1 Corinthians 14:26-33

Getting lots of people to contribute is dangerous!

The Corinthian church is renowned for excess and disorderly conduct.
So what does Paul do?
Does he restrict who may participate?
No! He gives guidelines to still enable maximum participation from as many people as possible.

Obviously multi-voiced worship can stray into misuse, bad teachings and no real content.
But according to Paul that is not controlled by choosing just a few people to contribute.

Paul’s guidelines for multi-voiced worship

Here are a few of the Apostle Paul’s guidelines:

I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy.
The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be edified.”

1 Corinthians 14:5

So what shall I do?
I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my understanding;
I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my understanding.
Otherwise when you are praising God in the Spirit, how can someone else, who is now put in the position of an inquirer, say ‘Amen’ to your thanksgiving, since they do not know what you are saying?”

1 Corinthians 14:15-16

But in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue.”

1 Corinthians 14:19

Therefore, my brothers and sisters, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues.
But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.”

1 Corinthians 14:39-40

Practical thoughts on multi-voiced worship

  • Multi-voiced worship happens more easily if the seating is not in rows but more circular.
  • Reinforce the idea of multi-voiced worship.
  • Discuss together the practicalities of multi-voiced worship, good and bad. Take note of what works and what doesn’t.
  • Don’t forget to keep informing newcomers about multi-voiced worship.
  • Keep encouraging all to contribute.
  • A mix of liturgy including different and familiar encourages people to contribute.
  • An absence of leadership is not good. It takes skilful leadership to encourage and steer the meeting.
  • A leader who hogs the time will stifle the meeting.
  • A leader needs to explain things and correct if necessary but not in an authoritarian manner.
  • Encourage individuals to avoid becoming stereotyped.
  • Create an atmosphere where there is no fear nor criticism. Build trust within the group.
  • Encourage people to pause after a contribution in order to reflect on it and ‘weigh it’.
  • All contributions need to be in agreement with the Bible. If it’s not it needs to be gently corrected from the Bible.
  • Some people need to have some boundaries if they start contributing a lot and for the sake of it.
  • Try to have a balance between contributions that are directed towards God and contributions directed towards the church.
  • Other forms of artistic worship can be expressed. This may include art, dance, video, mime, drama, pictures, poetry, story-telling, etc.
  • Don’t get insular, keep in mind the mission to the world, work places and local community.

Not everyone can teach

The Apostle Paul believed in the plurality of leadership. He wrote:

So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”

Ephesians 4:11-13

All are plural.

Notice that ‘teachers’ are in this list.
Obviously young converts cannot teach from the Bible – but they can share something that has spoken to them.
Also many people are not gifted to teach.

Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.
If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God.
If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ.”

1 Peter 4:10-11

For first article on worship see: What does it mean to worship – part 1

[i] The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection. “Christ washing the disciples’ feet” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. opens in a new window.
[ii] The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Picture Collection. “Pontefici, Vescovi &C.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1823 – 1838. Opens in a new window.


By Peter Reason

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