How did the first-century Christians worship?
It’s a question many 21st-century Christians ask, regardless of whether we attend church regularly or are part of a growing number who … leave.
Within the pews, stacking chairs or sofas, many look around and wonder, “Is this it? Is this what Christians 2,000 years ago got so excited about, that they were willing to die to profess and live?”
In one of my more confrontational moments, I asked the pastor of the last church we attended something along those lines, but not quite so tactfully. More like,“If we were thrown into the Roman Coliseum, with the lions, for showing up each Sunday morning, would it be worth the sacrifice?”
To his credit, he imperceptibly shook his head, no. And further to his credit, he didn’t offer the tiresome excuse, “There's no perfect church, you know, and you shouldn’t expect to find one.”
That is, however, as far as the credit goes. For this man, whose status as a shepherd rests upon a PhD specializing in church group dynamics, the status quo was not worth changing. Despite first century Christians not having professional worship teams, weekly announcements, and 20-minute sermons built around an amusing introductory story, this is what his church organization had to offer to those desperately and determinedly seeking God.
It is, unfortunately, not an unusual or unique business model.
And this is why, increasingly, people are looking around for more satisfying options, options that lead one closer to an experience that we feel our first century brethren lived, and why we are asking the question that opened this essay: “How did the first century Christians worship?”
As anyone who seriously looks for an answer to that query knows, it’s not simple finding it, the practices of the early Christians not laid out in an easy to follow format that we can mindlessly copy. Liturgy, or not? Prescribed prayers, or free-form ones? Women allowed to preach, or not? Long meetings, short ones, several through the week?
Depending upon what one is looking for, multiple verses can be found to support differing beliefs, which is one reason behind our plethora of denominations and sects.
Sadly, the best description we have of what a first century “worship service” would look like, 1 Corninthians 14:26 — in which individual, ordinary members of the body are encouraged to share a hymn, a revelation, a word of instruction — is lost in the exigencies of group dynamics: the congregation sits when it’s told to sit, sings what it is told to sing, and listens to the man in front with the suit.
Is this it, Lord?
No, it isn’t, but to find the answer, it might be best to rephrase the question into one which supplies more answers from which to choose: “How did first century Christians change, and live their lives in accordance with Christ’s words?”
And here, we find a surfeit of answers — in Jesus’ words, teachings, and parables, not the least of which are recorded in Mark 12:29-31, the familiar admonition to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and love our neighbor as ourselves. Perhaps it’s so familiar that we don’t really listen to, and try to live, the words.
Because while Jesus did not teach how to conduct a weekly church service, he did have a lot to say on how his people, the first of many brethren, are to live and behave.
When we seek his guidance and help on fulfilling these words, then how we worship, or where, or when, or how often, or whether or not we sit on sofas or light candles, takes care of itself.
Carolyn Henderson is a non-church-professional, ordinary Christian. She has written a column, Commonsense Christianity, for BeliefNet, and presently blogs at ThisWomanWrites.com. Questions and comments should be directed to editor Lucy Luginbill in care of the Tri-City Herald newsroom, 333 W. Canal Drive, Kennewick, WA 99336. Or email firstname.lastname@example.org.