There is much here to help you think through how to recover vibrant church life…. Unmuddle your ecclesiastical grey matter by reading and contemplating these challenging principles.—Jim Elliff, Baptist pastor, Kansas City


Jesus equipped the early church with a worship strategy designed to encourage, strengthen, and instruct God’s people, at the same time stirring up love and good deeds. His original design was to allow ordinary believers to regularly and significantly contribute to corporate worship. There was an open format for sharing, with orderly spontaneity, designed to build up the church. In contrast, worship services today have become a spectator’s sport . . .

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        Did you know that Jesus actually commanded that we unleash the laity through an open-pulpit format? In New Testament churches, those prompted by the Spirit were free to offer testimonies, share spiritual experiences, give exhortations, lead out in prayer, testify, sing, praise, etc. In general, each person who spoke operated out of his spiritual gifting. The prime directive was that it had to be crafted to edify (strengthen, build up, encourage) the congregation.



A major profit of this open format is a fuller expression of spiritual gifts that involve speaking. Participatory worship is also in keeping with the principle of the fifty-nine “one another” passages of Scripture (Jo 13:34, Ro 12:10, 1Pe 4:8, 1Jn 3:11, 23, 4:7, etc.). More people become actively involved in building up the church. This “open mic” helps avoid the atrophy of not being allowed to use one’s spiritual gifts, the apathy that arises from frustration over inaction, and the entropy of wasted spiritual energy. Since the proceedings of the meeting can be contributed to in a truly meaningful way, congregational interest is heightened. Furthermore, the things shared tend to be practical, from the heart, and drawn from the real-life application of God’s Word to everyday life situations. This not takes a tremendous load off the pastors, but it allows them to enjoy being ministered to themselves.



        Open Synagogue Format: Even though he was a stranger to them, Paul was free to preach the Gospel in synagogues throughout the Roman world. This was because first-century synagogues were open to participation from those in attendance (Acts 13:14-15, 14:1, 17:1-2, 17:10, 18:4, 19:8). 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 the church meetings of these Jewish believers were also open to audience input.[1]

        Encourage One Another: The author of Hebrews urged his readers (ordinary Christians) to “consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together . . . but encouraging one another” (Hebrews 10:24-25). Before coming to church, every early believer was responsible to give thought to how he might spur others on when they all came together for church. From this, it is obvious that early church meetings were formatted in such a way to allow ample opportunity for mutual, one-another encouragement. The focus was not exclusively on pastors, it was on “one another”. There was a principle of participation. It was about each member doing his part as led by the Spirit.[2] Watchman Nee pointed out that all members of Christ’s body bear responsibility to encourage one another. Ways to do this included testimony, song, praise, prayer, exhortation, teaching, and sharing a lesson learned.

        Paul Talked with Them: Acts 20:7 records that Paul, when visiting Troas, spoke until midnight. The Greek verb describing what he did is from the root dialegomai. Our word “dialogue” is transliterated from it. It primarily means discuss, not preach.[3] 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 undoubtedly 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 the early church’s teaching times, even those led by an apostle, were to some degree discussion oriented, another indicator that in early church meetings there was a principle of participation.[4]

        Each One Has: 1 Corinthians 14 lays out guidelines for the use of spiritual gifts when “the whole church comes together” (14:23). The ESV Study Bible states, “These verses give a fascinating glimpse into the kinds of activities that took place when the early church gathered as the body of Christ to worship the Lord.”[5] The glimpse reveals a principle of participation: “What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation” (14:26).

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To whom was 1 Corinthians 14:26 written? It was directed to “each one” of the “brothers”—not pastors. Of course pastors are brothers, too, but the point is that these early meetings were not nearly so pastor-centric as are modern worship services. Suppose we replaced the words “each one” with “only one”; which would be more descriptive of your church services? In fact, 1 Corinthians 11-14 is a long section about church meetings and—amazingly—pastors were not even mentioned in the entire section. This does not mean pastors are unimportant. To the contrary, they are critical to the proper functioning of any church. As relates to worship services, it appears that pastors are to be more like side-line coaches rather than star players. Thayer defined an episcopos as “one charged with the duty of seeing that things to be done are done rightly.”[6] They are essential personnel.

“Each one” was free to use his spiritual gift to build up the gathered 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.[7] Their motto for church meetings could have been “every member a minister.” There was lively audience participation.

        Edification: The over-arching purpose for anything said or done in such a gathering is that it must edify: “Let all things be done for building up” (1Co 14:26). The Greek for “building up” (oikodomé) refers to the act of strengthening or encouraging. One lexicon described oikodomé as the action of one who promotes another’s growth in Christian wisdom, piety, and holiness.[8] Any comment made in participatory worship had to be prompted by the Spirit and lovingly designed to encourage, build up, strengthen or edify the other believers present. If not, it was inappropriate and was to be left unspoken. Every testimony had to be thought-out so as to build up the church. To be edifying, all teaching had to be both true and application-oriented. Any music had to honor the Lord and be theologically sound. Those who prophesied spoke to others for “upbuilding and encouragement and consolation” (1Co 14:3).[9] The Corinthians were told, “since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church” (1Co 14:12). All this points to a participatory of participation in early church gatherings; each person ministered according to his oral spiritual gift. As Romans 12:6 says, “having gifts . . . given to us, let us use them” (italics mine).

        Music: Since 1 Corinthians 14 is about the regulation of spiritual gifts in worship, when Paul wrote that “each one” had a “hymn” (psalmos, 14:26), he meant each one of the “brothers” gifted in music. All Spirit-led musicians in good standing with the church had the freedom to edify the congregation through this gift. Furthermore, it appears that there was at least some degree of spontaneity in the music.

The early church’s singing also had a “one another” aspect, with even non-musically gifted believers “addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart” (Ep 5:19). Colossian Christians were exhorted to be “admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Co 3:16). Those gifted in music should facilitate the entire church’s singing in worship. It has thus been cautioned that, “the music must not turn the church into an audience enjoying the music, but into a congregation singing the Lord’s praises in His presence.”[10] As the Psalmist invited, “Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!” (Ps 95:2).

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        Teaching: Application-oriented, in-depth biblical exposition was an integral part of each weekly church meeting. Taking disciple-making seriously means teaching all that Jesus commanded. Although pastors 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 weekly “lesson” (1Co 14:26). 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 (Ja 3:1). In keeping with the principle of participation, there clearly was an opportunity for supernaturally gifted, mature brothers to teach (with the pastors’ approval and coaching).[11]

        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” (1Co 14:27-28). An interpretation was required “so that the church might be built up” (1Co 14:5). Multiple people participated, one at a time, and there was clearly a degree of spontaneity.

Speaking in tongues is obviously a controversial topic.[12] Even if it is no longer for today, the principle of participation remains. People could still bring teachings, songs, testimonies, prayers, exhortations, encouragements, public Scripture readings, etc.

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        Two or Three Prophets: The participatory nature of New Testament gatherings is also seen in the guidelines for prophecy: “let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said” (1Co 14:29). The impromptu nature of prophecy is clear: “If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent” (1Co 14:30). The goal of prophecy is “so that all may learn and all be encouraged” (1Co 14:31).

“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.[13] 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).[14] Modern prophets might 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.[15]

Prophecy and teaching are completely different gifts (Ro 12: 6-7, 1Co 12:28). Though both result in learning and encouragement, prophets tend 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: “let the others weigh what is said” (1Co 14:29b; see also 1Th 5:20-21). The overall point to be gleaned here is a principle of participation with a fair degree of spontaneity. It is the pastors’ duty to be sure everything is done “decently and in order” (1Co 14:40).

Let Women Keep Silent: Scripture states that “women should keep silent in the churches” (1Co 14:33b). Whatever it this means, it would not have been written unless first century church meetings were participatory. For example, there would be no need to write it to most of today’s churches because in general no one speaks, man or woman, except the clergy. Even this prohibition shows a principle of participation.



In the Mid-America Baptist Theological Journal, seminary professor 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.”[16]

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.”[17]

Theologian 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.”[18]

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.”[19] Scottish commentator 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.”[20]



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 massive services naturally morphed into more of a performance. Socratic teaching gave way to eloquently orated monologs. Spontaneity was lost, and along with it, the principle participation. The “one another” aspect of an assembly became impractical. “Each one has” morphed into “only one has”. 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.’ ”[21]

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. 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.”[22]

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

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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 will skyrocket. 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.



Our 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. Beware the seven last words of declining churches: “We never did it that way before.” Where there are no oxen the barn is clean, but much increase comes from their strength (Pr 14:4). The potential blessing is worth the risk.

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?” (1Co 14:36). 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 that they had no authority to conduct their meetings in any other way than that prescribed by the apostles. 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). A command is not a suggestion. It is more than a good idea. The instructions in 1 Corinthians are not merely interesting history. These participatory regulations are not merely descriptive of primitive church meetings; in some sense, they are prescriptive. Paul even gave advice on how to deal with those who argue against obeying these guidelines: If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized” (1Co 14:38). How will you lead your church to obey the command of the Lord regarding participatory worship?

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Is the time the body comes together supposed to be focused on one or two pastors or is it an opportunity for God to speak through multiple saints to those gathered? Often when a gifted pastor leaves a church, attendance plummets. Distributing the focus to multiple men speaking 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 pastors, open worship taps into the spiritual gifts of the congregation. People get excited about coming since they can meaningfully contribute to the meeting and be blessed by what others share. Sometimes God will speak a complete message through various people when 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.

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Discussion Questions

  1. Taken as a whole, what are the various indicators throughout 1 Corinthians 14 that 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 to 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 brothers 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 one when it comes to participatory worship?

Revised 03/05/2020


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

[2] 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.

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

[4] Allowing for questions and dialog is good.

[5] Dennis & Grudem, eds., ESV Study Bible (Wheaton: Crossway Bibles, 2008), 2212.

[6] Joseph Thayer, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Grand Rapids:  Baker Book House, 1977), 243.

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

[8] Thayer, Lexicon, 40.

[9] Even convicting reproofs can be edifying.

[10] DA Carson, ed., Worship by the Book (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 212

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

[12] Were all Charismatic churches to follow the guidelines of 1 Corinthians 14 (a maximum of three, only one at a time, must be interpreted) much of what passes for legitimate tongues would be ruled out of order.

[13] Bauer, Lexicon, 723.

[14] To learn more about prophecy, see The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today by Wayne Grudem.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[22] Gordon Fee, “The First Epistle To The Corinthians”, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987), 698.