Sunday, March 8, 2015

Multiple Voices: The Bible's Guide to Organizing a Church Service

"When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, 
a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation.
Let all be done for building up."
- 1 Corinthians 14:26


The apostle Paul would be confused by most modern church services. This doesn't necessarily make them wrong, it just means Paul would have a hard time wrapping his head around much of what we do. Think of all the things that we do that would have been foreign to Paul! We meet in church buildings, Paul's churches met in homes. We meet on Sunday mornings, they would have met on Sunday evenings (Sunday was a work day until Constantine declared it a day of rest in 327 A.D.). We have printed orders of service, where first century services were more spontaneous (1 Corinthians 14:26). We celebrate communion once a month or quarter. New Testament believers celebrated it weekly. We don't eat meals during our services, whereas they clearly did in Paul's day (Acts 2:46; 1 Cor 11:20-21). It's also hard to imagine that first century believers would have removed their children from their worship services. Things such as a nursery, children's church, and age-specific Sunday School classes are very new concepts. Another custom peculiar to Western cultures is the need to start and stop services at specific times.

This doesn't make our practices wrong, it just means that Paul would be confused by them. But there are other differences as well, some of which may actually push us away from important Biblical principles rather than towards them.

One particular difference is the number of people who participate in a typical Western church services. Now, there are churches that have many, many people participating, but the typical norm in the non-charismatic Protestant world is for a small handful of people to be the only ones verbally leading a church service. 

Yet as we read passages like 1 Corinthians 14:26, we see multiple people involved. Some requested hymns. Others shared "lessons", which is the Greek word didachē, meaning 'teaching' or 'instruction'. Notice both are in the plural, meaning multiple people were requesting hymns and at least more than one person shared messages from the Bible.

But it went further. Whatever you believe regarding the relevancy of the sign-gifts for the modern church, all believers understand that these gifts were operative during the New Testament era. In the Corinthian church, multiple believers stood and offered revelations, or spoke in a tongue, or provided the interpretation of those tongues. The picture we see is many believers taking part in the church service.

We do need to remember two important things. First, the early churches were fairly small. Since believers met in private homes, which were quite small, a typical congregation would have comprised 20-50 believers, if even that large. It is one thing to involve 20 people in a church service, it is another thing to individually involve 100, 300, or 500 believers. Second, even among this small group of people problems started. 1 Corinthians 14 makes it clear people were talking over one another and dominating the church services. This was such a problem that Paul had to directly rebuke it and remind the Corinthian believers that everything must be done "for building up".

Now compare this picture with our modern church services. One guy gives announcements. Maybe someone performs special music. Perhaps another prays over the offering. In some cases, another to read Scripture. Finally, the pastor ascends to the pulpit and delivers a sermon.

Don't misunderstand. If all of that is done to honor the Lord, I just described a faithful, God-honoring church service. But I do wonder if we are missing out on much of the vitality, connection, fellowship, and power that the New Testament churches experienced. Remember the first church that was birthed in Jerusalem? The believers there gathered to hear God's Word, share a meal, worship, and engage in prayers (Acts 2:42). Plural. Multiple people praying. Can you imagine how powerful that would have been?

I think one of the reasons modern believers don't feel a sense of connection and fellowship with their local churches is because we've taught them to be passive. Their job is to come, sing, put money in the plate, and maybe take some notes. Once the service is over, they get up and go about their day. No wonder people don't feel connected! They are not involved! I strongly believe we can only reclaim the sense of fellowship and ownership of ministry experienced by New Testament believers once we do church like New Testament believers.

Some things can never be the same, nor do they need to be. We have the freedom to have Children's church, printed bulletins, paid worship leaders, and air-conditioned buildings. We are not required to have full-blown meals every Sunday morning (pancakes?), nor must we travel to church gatherings on a donkey. But one thing we must not continue to walk away from is the principle of multiple believers verbally taking part in church services.

Maybe this means our churches need to rethink how we conduct our Sunday morning services. Should we open a time for testimonies? Involve more people in public prayers? Perhaps. Maybe your church will find the answer by making the Sunday evening service more inclusive, or even the Wednesday services. Perhaps the answer is found in small groups, if your church has those. The Bible never gives us a manual for how a church service should be conducted. But it does give us principles, and this one we would do well to reclaim. 


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