So what does worship in the early church look like? Paul gives us the clearest description in his letter to the Corinthians. He addresses them for two reasons: they had written him with pressing questions, and he had received inside information about serious problems.
In chapter 12 he takes up spiritual gifts, in 13 how the gifts flow out of love, then in 14 the two most common gifts, prophecy and tongues. In the second half of the chapter, he speaks about how these gifts find expression in worship. It does not look like the typical service we are accustomed to.
What strikes me is the level of trust in one another to pull off a service like this. But the trust is more in the Holy Spirit moving than in someone messing things up by saying something weird.
Jesus often chose the well-ordered worship services of the Jews in His day to change the agenda by healing someone. He was telling them that it was more important to show mercy to people than to give token worship to God, quoting from Hosea: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Matt. 12:7). If that Lord inspired Paul to write his letters, then we need to pay heed and go with the book rather than with our traditions.
ELEMENTS OF A SERVICE
Participation. Paul writes, “When you come together, everyone…” Pentecost leveled the playing field. This is not a one-man band. This extent of participation suggests a small assembly, house church size. We have drifted from this picture of highly relational and unscripted worship.
Relationship. This kind of service presupposes relationship and trust. Just as love remains on center stage for the operation of spiritual gifts, love for one another stays important for worship.
WEIGHING THE IMPACT
Liabilities. Opening up a service means that it will get messy. The person with nothing to say may speak too long. A pastor puts in many hours preparing a message. A person giving a spontaneous teaching takes one minute to gather thoughts. Some worship services may get a little thin. I have not, however, felt this way in the recent services of this kind that I have led. The prophetic words have hit their mark and have opened up rich ministry. The ministry times more than the instruction took center stage, because that seemed to be the greater need, echoing the words of Jesus, “I desire mercy…”
1) Release of gifts. We have seen slow growth in the maturing of spiritual gifts, because people have not had sufficient opportunity to develop them. Gifts grow when practiced. As faith grows, so do prophetic words, which further enriches the potential for engaging and encouraging worship services.
2) Ownership. People grow when they come to give rather than to receive. Congregations easily develop a co-dependent relationship with the pastor. See what John had to say about this (I John 2:27).
3) Growth of relationships. This service is charged with interactions, personal ministry, and words of exhortation and encouragement. It builds relationships better than the typical service, which provides little occasion for interaction.
Personal conclusion: I would rather deal with the messes of an open-ended service than miss what God has for us in Paul’s description. I have seen the gains when I have given it a try. In I Corinthians 14, Paul uses the word “edify” five times. He is concerned than the members are built up in worship. That has not been the main focus of our worship services. What could happen if it was? Let’s find out!