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 first-century church. This 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. In general, 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, encourage) all the other believers present.
A major profit of participatory worship is in allowing for a fuller expression of the spiritual gifts that involve speaking. It is in keeping with the principle of the various “one another” passages of Scripture. It gets people more involved in church meetings. Congregational interest is heightened, as 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.
What scriptural proof is there that New Testament 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. 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! As Jewish Christians comprised the first churches, it is no wonder the meetings of these Jewish believers were also open to audience input.
Encourage One Another: Early believers were responsible for thinking carefully how each could spur others on when they met together as a church. Thus, the 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.” 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 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.
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.” 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. Their motto for church meetings could have been “Every member a minister.” There was lively audience participation. (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.” 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. Any comment made in participatory worship was driven 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). 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 the participatory nature of early church gatherings as each person ministered according to his oral spiritual gift.
Music: 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 had the freedom to edify the congregation through his gift. Those gifted in music also facilitate the entire church’s singing in worship. It was the elders’ duty to be sure all music was 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.” 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.”
Paul Talked with Them: Acts 20:7 records that Paul, when visiting Troas, spoke until midnight. The Greek verb describing what he did is dialegomai. Our word “dialogue” is transliterated from it. It primarily means discuss. 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 church meetings were participatory.
Lessons: In-depth biblical exposition that was application-oriented was 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 weekly “lesson” (1Co 14:26). There clearly was an opportunity for supernaturally gifted and mature brothers active in the fellowship to teach (with the elders’ approval and coaching). 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.
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.” An interpretation was required “so that the church might be built up.”
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.” The impromptu nature of prophecy is clear: “If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent.” The goal of prophecy is “so that all may learn and all be encouraged.”
“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. 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). 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.
Prophecy and teaching were completely different gifts. 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). As the source of a prophet’s message was somewhat subjective, his revelations had to be judged (1Co 14:29b, 1Th 5:20-21).
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.” 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.”
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 monologs. 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.’ ”
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.”
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 little girl replied, “Because people are sleeping in there.” Many feel they may as 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 B for practical examples).
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. 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?” 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). 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. How will you lead your church to obey the command of the Lord regarding participatory worship?
Is the time the body comes together supposed to be focused only on one or two leaders or is it an opportunity for God to speak through multiple brothers 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 elders, open worship taps into the spiritual gifts of the congregation. People get excited about coming, as 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.
Audio and video on participatory worship, along with a teacher’s discussion guide, can also be found on our web site.
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?
- “Let all things be done for building up” (1Co 14:26).
- 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.
- Acts 13:14-15, 14:1, 17:1-2, 17:10, 18:4, 19:8.
- 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.
- Hebrews 10:24-25.
- 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.
- 1 Corinthians 14:26.
- Not every person should be expected to say something at every gathering.
- 1 Corinthians 14:33b-35 apparently limits the participation to men. See Appendix A for more on this.
- 1 Corinthians 14:23.
- Joseph Thayer, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1977), 40.
- Even convicting reproofs can be edifying.
- Ephesians 5:19.
- Colossians 3:16, NASB.
- Baurer, Arndt, Gingrich, Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1979), 185.
- 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.
- Teaching is listed as a spiritual gift in both Romans 12:7 and 1 Corinthians 12:28.
- Since 1 Timothy 2:12 prohibits women from teaching men, only brothers should be allowed to bring the lesson.
- James 3:1.
- 1 Corinthians 14:27-28.
- 1 Corinthians 14:5.
- If Charismatic churches followed 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.
- 1 Corinthians 14:29.
- 1 Corinthians 14:30.
- 1 Corinthians 14:31.
- Bauer, 723.
- To learn more about prophecy, see The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today by Wayne Grudem.
- It is the elders’ duty to save the church from needless vexation by the emotionally unstable that fancy themselves prophets and would give weekly warnings of atomic holocaust.
- Romans 12: 6-7, 1 Corinthians 12:28.
- Jimmy Milikin, “Disorder Concerning Public Worship,” Mid America Baptist Theological Journal (Memphis, TN: Mid-America Baptist Seminary Press, 1983), 125.
- Ernest Scott, The Nature Of The Early Church (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1941), 79.
- John Drane, Introducing the New Testament (Oxford, UK: Lion Publishing, 1999), 402.
- G.W. Kirby, Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, IL: Zondervan 1982), p. 850.
- William Barclay, The Letters to the Corinthians (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1977), 135. 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.
- Henry Sefton, A Lion Handbook —The History of Christianity (Oxford, UK: Lion Publishing, 1988), 151.
- Gordon Fee, NICNT, The First Epistle To The Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987), 698.
- Proverbs 14:4.
- 1 Corinthians 14:36.