How could early church practice make your worship services more meaningful? Consider unleashing the laity. Ordinary believers regularly and significantly contributed to the corporate worship of the early church. An open format allowed those prompted by the Spirit to offer testimony, share a spiritual experience, give an exhortation, lead out in prayer, testify, sing, give praises, etc. Each person who spoke operated out of his spiritual gifting. According to Scripture, the prime directive for anything said or done was that it had to edify, strengthen, build up or encourage all the other believers present.[1]


The Purposes

One purpose of participatory worship is to allow for a fuller expression of the spiritual gifts that involve speaking. It also provides more opportunity for the fulfillment of the various “one another” passages of Scripture. [2] Congregational interest is heightened since the proceedings of the meeting can be contributed to in a truly meaningful way. Furthermore, since the things shared come directly from the congregation, they tend to be practical, from the heart and drawn from the application of God’s Word to everyday life situations.


The Proof

What Scriptural proof is there that early church worship was participatory?

Open Synagogue Format: Even though he was a stranger to them, Paul was able to preach the Gospel in synagogues throughout the Roman world because first century synagogues were open to participation from those in attendance.[3] Had ancient synagogue meetings been anything like most modern worship services, Paul would have had to find another way to reach the Jews with the gospel! Since Jewish Christians comprised the first churches, it is no wonder that the meetings of these early Jewish believers were also open to audience input.[4]

Encourage One Another: Early believers were responsible for thinking carefully how each could spur others on when they met together as a church. Thus in author of Hebrews urged ordinary Christians to “consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together . . . but encouraging one another.”[5] Watchman Nee pointed out that all members of Christ’s Body bear equal responsibility to encourage one another. Worship was formatted in such a way so as to allow ample opportunity for mutual encouragement. The focus was not exclusively on leaders. It was about each member doing his part as led by the Spirit.[6]

Each One Has: 1 Corinthians 14 regulates the use of multiple verbal spiritual gifts in church gatherings. In describing their meetings Paul wrote, “What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation.”[7] Those brothers with verbal spiritual gifts used them in the gathering to build up the church. New Testament believers did not merely attend services. They were active, vital participants who could significantly contribute to what went on in the gathering.[8] Their motto for church meetings could have been “Every member a minister.” There was lively audience participation.[9] (See Appendix A for practical examples of this).

Edification: 1 Corinthians 14 deals with the regulation of participatory worship when “the whole church comes together.”[10] The over-arching purpose for anything said or done in such a gathering is that it must edify the church: “Let all things be done for building up” (1Co 14:26). The Greek for building up, oikodomé, means strengthening or edifying. One lexicon described oikodomé as the action of one who promotes another’s growth in Christian wisdom, piety and holiness.[11] Any comment made in participatory worship must be driven by the Spirit and lovingly designed to encourage, build up, strengthen or edify the other believers present. If not, it is inappropriate and to be left unspoken. Every testimony has to be thought out so as to build up the church. To be edifying, all teaching must be both true and application oriented. Any music must honor the Lord and be theologically sound. Those who prophesied spoke to others for “upbuilding and encouragement and consolation” (1Co 14:3). [12] The Corinthians were told, “since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church” (1Co 14:12). This all points to the participatory nature of early church gatherings as each person ministered according to his oral spiritual gift.

Hymns: 1 Corinthians 14 is about the regulation of spiritual gifts in worship. Paul wrote that “each one” had the opportunity to bring a “hymn” (14:26). He likely meant each one gifted in music. Any Spirit led musician in good standing with the church should have the freedom to edify the congregation through his gift. Those gifted in music are also to facilitate the entire church’s singing in worship. The elders’ responsibility is to be sure all music is edifying (theologically accurate, easy for the average person to sing and beautiful).

Even the early church’s singing had a “one another” emphasis with believers   “addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart.”[13] It appears that believers in the early church generally had the freedom to request or introduce songs. Colossian Christians were exhorted to be “admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God.”[14]

Paul Talked With Them: Acts 20:7 records that Paul, when visiting Troas, spoke until midnight. It was a special teaching time, not a regular church meeting. The Greek verb describing what he did is dialegomai. Our word dialogue is transliterated from it. It primarily means discuss.[15] Thus the ESV states that Paul “talked with” them. In Acts 18:4 and 19:8 the same word is rendered as reasoned and reasoning. Paul doubtless did most of the speaking that night, but the way he taught was not via an uninterrupted sermon, as if broadcasting over the radio. Thus we see even the early church’s teaching times, led by an apostle, were to some degree discussion oriented, another indicator church meetings were participatory.[16]

Lessons: In depth biblical exposition that is application oriented should be an integral part of each weekly church meeting. Taking disciple making seriously means teaching all that Jesus commanded. Although elders rightly do most of the teaching on the Lord’s Day, in New Testament days “each one” of the brothers who had the gift of teaching also had the freedom to bring the “lesson” (1Co 14:26).[17] There clearly was opportunity for supernaturally gifted and mature brothers active in the fellowship to teach (with the elders’ approval and coaching).[18] James’ caution that “not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” makes sense in light of the participatory meetings that characterized the early church.[19]

Two or Three Tongues: The participatory nature of early church meetings is also evident in the guidelines concerning those who spoke in tongues: “If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret. But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God.”[20] An interpretation was required “so that the church might be built up.”[21]

Speaking in tongues is a controversial topic. Even if it is still for today, in many churches it would be inappropriate because it would not be edifying to the congregation. This is where the discernment of leaders is needed. However, the principle of participation remains. Brothers could still bring teachings, request or introduce songs, share testimonies, lead out in prayer, question the teacher, offer an encouraging word, etc.

Two or Three Prophets: No matter how you understand the gift of prophecy, the participatory nature of New Testament gatherings is seen in the guidelines for prophecy: “let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said.”[22] The impromptu nature of prophecy is clear: “If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent.” [23] The goal of prophecy is “so that all may learn and all be encouraged.”[24]

“Prophet” is transliterated from prophétés; pro means before or forth and phétés means to speak. In general, prophets received divine revelation and passed it on. They proclaimed and interpreted divine truth.[25] This revelation may have concerned sin in someone’s life (1Co 14:24-25), may have been a word of encouragement (Acts 15:32) or may have been a prediction about the future (Acts 11:27-30). [26]

Prophecy and teaching were completely different gifts.[27] Though both resulted in learning and encouragement, prophets tended to get their messages by direct revelation from the Spirit whereas teachers spent hours in the study of written revelation (Scripture). Since the source of a prophet’s message was somewhat subjective, his revelations had to be judged (1Co 14:29b, 1Th 5:20-21).

Modern prophets often give practical insight into the correct application of Scripture. They are people of passion who speak forth words of encouragement, exhortation, motivation and application. They are agents for change who impart life into small church meetings.[28]


The Professors

In the Mid America Baptist Theological Journal, Dr. Jimmy Milikin stated that in early Christian congregations “there was apparently a free expression of the Spirit. In the public assembly one person might have a psalm, another brother a teaching, another a revelation, another a tongue, another an interpretation.”[29]

Church historian Ernest Scott wrote in The Nature of the Early Church that “The exercise of the spiritual gifts was thus the characteristic element in the primitive worship. Those gifts might vary in their nature and degree according to the capacity of each individual, but they were bestowed on all and room was allowed in the service for the participation of all who were present . . . Every member was expected to contribute something of his own to the common worship.”[30]

Professor John Drane, in Introducing the New Testament, wrote, “In the earliest days . . . their worship was spontaneous. This seems to have been regarded as the ideal, for when Paul describes how a church meeting should proceed he depicts a Spirit-led participation by many . . . There was the fact that anyone had the freedom to participate in such worship. In the ideal situation, when everyone was inspired by the Holy Spirit, this was the perfect expression of Christian freedom.”[31]

Concerning  public worship in the New Testament church, London Bible College lecturer G.W. Kirby concluded, “There appears to have been considerable fluidity with time given for spontaneous participation.”[32] William Barclay pointed out that “The really notable thing about an early Church service must have been that almost everyone came feeling that he had both the privilege and obligation of contributing something to it.”[33] [34]


The Perspective

It is helpful to have a good perspective on why participatory worship is important and how it was lost. After Christianity was made the official religion of the Roman Empire by Theodosius (around A.D. 381), huge pagan temples were turned by government decree into church buildings. Church gatherings moved out of the relative intimacy of Roman villas and into large, impersonal basilicas. Such huge gatherings naturally morphed into more of a performance or service. Socratic teaching gave way to eloquently orated monologues. Questions from the audience were prohibited. Spontaneity was lost. Individual participation was squelched. The “one another” aspect of an assembly became impractical. Informality fossilized into formality. Church leaders began wearing special clerical costumes. Worship aids were introduced: incense, icons, candles, hand gestures, etc. Church of Scotland minister Henry Sefton, in A Lion Handbook – The History of Christianity, wrote, “Worship in the house-church had been of an intimate kind in which all present had taken an active part . . . (this) changed from being ‘a corporate action of the whole church’ into ‘a service said by the clergy to which the laity listened.’ ”[35]

Many judge traditional worship services to be participatory simply because the congregation joins in responsive readings, partakes of the elements of the Lord’s Supper, enjoys congregational singing and gives financial offerings. These things are good, but there is no real open format. Commenting on the contrast between early and modern church meetings Gordon Fee observed, “By and large the history of the church points to the fact that in worship we do not greatly trust the diversity of the body. Edification must always be the rule, and that carries with it orderliness so that all may learn and all be encouraged. But it is no great credit to the historical church that in opting for ‘order’ it also opted for a silencing of the ministry of the many.”[36]

Not allowing the ministry of the many could cause atrophy and even apathy. A Sunday school teacher once asked her children, “Why must we be quiet in church?” One perceptive one little girl replied, “Because people are sleeping in there.” Many feel they may was well stay home and watch a church service on television.

Allowing members to participate verbally in church lends for a greater working of the Spirit as the various ministry gifts are freed to function. Based on what Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 14, God may burden a number of brothers, independently of each other, to bring a short word of encouragement, a testimony, to lead out in prayer, to bring a song, etc. Additional applications and illustrations can be offered by the body at large to augment a word of instruction. Allow brothers to ask questions or make comments during or after the teaching time. New believers learn how to think with the mind of Christ as they observe the more mature believers share in the meeting. Maturity skyrockets. The brothers begin to own the meeting, taking responsibility for the flow of the meeting as they become active participants rather than passive spectators. Edification is accomplished. (See Appendix A for practical examples).


The Proposition

The proposition is that you consider introducing participatory worship to your church. Perhaps you find the idea of participatory worship informative, but not worth the anticipated problems it might create. In response, it might be pointed out that where there are no oxen the barn is clean, but much increase comes from their strength.[37] The potential blessing is worth the risk. Beware the seven last words of declining churches: “We never did it that way before.”

Some in Corinth wanted to conduct their meetings differently than 1 Corinthians 14 requires. In response, two questions were asked of them: “Or was it from you that the word of God came? Or are you the only ones it has reached?”[38] The word of God clearly did not originate with the Corinthians and they most certainly were not the only people it had reached. (As such, whatever applied to the Corinthian church would apply to us as well.) These questions were designed to convince the Corinthian believers they had no authority to conduct their meetings in any other way than that prescribed by the apostles. The Scripture does not prohibit participatory worship; it regulates it.

There are to be edifying contributions and encouraging input by those who gather. When giving guidelines for participatory worship Paul wrote, “the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord” (1Co 14:37, italics mine). A command is not a suggestion. It is more than a good idea. The instructions in 1 Corinthians are not merely interesting history. It would appear these participatory regulations are not merely descriptive of primitive church meetings; in some sense they are prescriptive. How will you led your church to obey the command of the Lord regarding participatory worship?


The Practical

Church leaders new to the idea of participatory worship are wisely cautious. With good reason they anticipate unedifying scenarios. Lexicographer Joseph Thayer defined an episcopos as “a man charged with the duty of seeing that things to be done by others are done rightly.”[39] He described a presbutéros as one who “presided over the assemblies”.[40] One of an elder’s roles is to keep things on track, in order and true to the prime directive that all things be edifying. If what goes on in a meeting is not edifying, the elders more than anyone else are responsible to make it right.

Ephesians 4:11-12 reveals it is the duty of pastor-teachers to equip the saints for ministry. Church leaders are responsible for training the saints so that they are equipped to contribute meaningfully in a participatory meeting. If the Scriptures truly reveal God’s desire for participatory meetings, then we can expect God to work through the elders to see to it that the meetings will be successful in the long run. While there is order in a cemetery, there is no life. It is much better to have life and risk a little disorder. The Holy Spirit must be trusted to work in the life of a church.

Edifying participatory church meetings do not just happen. Although New Testament styled participatory worship is to be Spirit led, the Spirit uses elders to help make it edifying. They are behind-the-scene coaches, encouraging and training so that everyone operates from out of his spiritual gift and everything said and done is edifying. Appendix A contains some typical scenarios to be expected. These are detailed in the hope that those just beginning to experiment with participatory meetings can avoid some of the more common pitfalls.


The Profit

Is the time the Body comes together supposed to be focused on one or two leaders or is it an opportunity where God speaks through multiple brothers to those gathered? Often when a gifted pastor leaves a church, attendance plummets. Distributing the focus to multiple men’s speaking gifts strengthens the church as a whole. The church is not so dependent on the gifting of just one man. The chances of a personality cult developing are lessened. One of Martin Luther’s points of reformation concerned the priesthood of all believers. Do we really believe in the priesthood of the believer?  If so, perhaps we could prove it by allowing the priests to carry out their ministries in the church meetings.

One home field advantage small churches have is the very real possibility of experiencing truly edifying participatory worship. When managed properly by the elders, open worship taps into the spiritual gifts of the entire congregation. People get excited about coming since they can meaningfully contribute to the meeting or be blessed by what others share. Sometimes God will speak a complete message through His people during a meeting where the testimonies, teaching, songs and encouragement all mesh beautifully together, many springs combining into one river.  Promoting “one anothering” in the assembly can be a great encouragement to those involved with small churches. Why would Scripture speak of these things if they were not important? Participatory worship can take small church meetings from ordinary to extraordinary.


Click here for practical ideas on implementing participatory worship.


Discussion Questions

  1. Taken as a whole, what indicators throughout 1 Corinthians 14 combine to show the participatory nature of early church meetings?
  2. Suppose 1 Corinthians 14:26 was a criticism of what the Corinthian church was doing; why is it significant that the inspired solution was a regulation of participatory meetings rather than a prohibition of them?
  3. Why is it important for everything said and done in the church meeting be edifying? See 1 Corinthians 14:1-25.
  4. What are some of the guiding principles for participatory church meetings, based on 1 Corinthians 14 and Hebrews 10:24-25?
  5. What role should elders play in participatory meetings? See 1 Timothy 1:3-5, 3:5, 4:11-14, 5:17, 6:2b, 2 Timothy 4:1-2, Titus 2:1, 2:15.
  6. What can be done if week after week few share anything of significance in participatory worship?
  7. Why would the absence of charismatic gifts not nullify the general principle of participatory church meetings?
  8. What is it that the Lord is commanding in 1 Corinthians 14:37?
  9. What are some appropriate contributions to a church meeting, based on Acts 2:42, Acts 14:26-28 and 1 Timothy 4:13?
  10. Why would a smaller congregation have an advantage over a huge congregation when it comes to participatory worship?


[1] “Let all things be done for building up” (1Co 14:26).

[2] There are 59 “one another” passages, such as John 13:34; Romans 12:10; 1 Peter 4:8; 1 John 3:11, 23; 4:7, etc.

[3] Acts 13:14-15, 14:1, 17:1-2, 17:10, 18:4, 19:8.

[4] We do not advocate incorporating Jewish synagogue practices in church. The point is simply to show how participatory worship was not an unfamiliar idea to the earliest Christians.

[5] Hebrews 10:24-25.

[6] The Spirit’s prompting is an essential element in participatory worship.  Otherwise, it would merely be a religious version of the amateur hour. Every believer has been given a spiritual gift to be used to build up the church and is to operate out of this gifting. It is leadership’s duty to equip the church to understand and practice this.

[7] 1 Corinthians 14:26.

[8] Not every person should be expected to say something at every gathering.

[9] 1 Corinthians 14:33b-35 apparently limits the participation to men. See Appendix A for more on this.

[10] 1 Corinthians 14:23.

[11] Joseph Thayer, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI:  Baker Book House, 1977), p. 440.

[12] Even convicting reproofs can be edifying.

[13] Ephesians 5:19.

[14] Colossians 3:16, NASB.

[15] Baurer, Arndt, Gingrich, Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1979), p. 185.

[16] Allowing for questions and dialog is good. Not so good are endless bull sessions with off the cuff comments, unedifying add-ons, or allowing the undisciplined to go off topic.

[17] Teaching is listed as a spiritual gift in both Romans 12:7 and 1 Corinthians 12:28.

[18] Since 1 Timothy 2:12 prohibits women from teaching men, only brothers should be allowed to bring the lesson.

[19] James 3:1.

[20] 1 Corinthians 14:27-28.

[21] 1 Corinthians 14:5.

[22] 1 Corinthians 14:29.

[23] 1 Corinthians 14:30.

[24] 1 Corinthians 14:31.

[25] Bauer, p. 723.

[26] To learn more about prophecy we recommend The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today by Wayne Grudem.

[27] Romans 12: 6-7, 1 Corinthians 12:28.

[28] It is the elders’ duty to save the church from needless vexation by the emotionally unstable who fancy themselves prophets and would give weekly warnings of atomic holocaust.

[29] Jimmy Milikin, “Disorder Concerning Public Worship,” Mid America Baptist Theological Journal (Memphis, TN:  Mid-America Baptist Seminary Press, 1983), p. 125.

[30] Ernest Scott, The Nature Of The Early Church (New York, NY:  Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1941), p. 79.

[31] John Drane, Introducing the New Testament (Oxford, UK:  Lion Publishing, 1999), p. 402.

[32] G.W. Kirby, Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, IL:  Zondervan 1982), p. 850

[33] William Barclay, The Letters to the Corinthians (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1977), p. 135.

[34] Barclay’s “everyone” needs qualification. The Scripture states that each one of the “brothers” was free to contribute something (1Co 14:26). For more in this see Appendix A.

[35] Henry Sefton,  A Lion Handbook  – The History of Christianity (Oxford, UK:  Lion Publishing, 1988) p. 151.

[36] Gordon Fee, NICNT, The First Epistle To The Corinthians (Grand Rapids:  Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987), p. 698.

[37] Proverbs 14:4.

[38] 1 Corinthians 14:36.

[39] Thayer, p. 243.

[40] Ibid, p. 536.

Revised October 18, 2016.