Back to the Future: Sunday Morning Church Service circa 150 AD

In the movie “Back To The Future”,  17 year old, Marty Mcfly, lives a lousy life. His dad, George, a nerdy scaredy cat, and his mom, Larraine, is an alcoholic, who met George through pity, when her dad hit George with a car.   All he has ever known is this reality.  The only thing that he can do for fun, is hang out with the local scientist, Dr. Emmit Brown (Doc) who has created a time machine.  You know the story.  Marty goes back in time and changes how his parents meet.  In the process everything that was wrong with his life and family  is dramatically changed for the good.

When I contemplate the current state of the American Evangelical church, I wish we could get into that DeLorean and head back in time.  If we could, perhaps we would be able to intervene at just the right moment so that today’s church reflected God’s design rather than our own.  We can not time travel back to the first century, but we can read their documents to see how they understood “Church.”   It is good to look at history to observe how things “were”.  We often look at how things “are” and assume that’s this is the way things  are supposed to “be”…

What was a Christian worship service like in the early church?  We have a very good description of a normal worship gathering in the writings of Justin Martyr.  The following description was written around 160 AD, less than 70 years after the death John, the last apostle.  This description is about one generation away from the actual writing of the New Testament.   We, in the 21st century,    are almost 2000 years farther away from the New Testament than they were.

“On the day called Sunday there is a meeting of all believers who live in the town or the country, and the memoirs of the apostles, or the writings of the prophets, are read for as long as time will permit.  When the reader has finished, the president in a sermon urges and invites the people to base their lives on these noble things.  Then we all stand up and offer prayers.  When our prayer is concluded, bread and wine and water are brought; and the president offers up prayers and thanksgiving to the best of his ability, and the people assent with Amen.
Then follows the distribution of the things over which thanks have been offered, and the partaking of them by all, and the deacons take them to those who are absent.  And those who are prosperous, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succors the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need.
We hold our common assembly on Sunday because it is the first day, on which God put to flight darkness and chaos and made the world;  and on the same day, Jesus Christ our Savior rose from the dead.”  Apology 1.67

From this account, we learn that the main elements of the “worship service” in the early church were:  1)  the extended reading of Scripture  2) a sermon based upon the reading and a challenge to shape ones life by these things 3) extended prayer, 4) communion and 5) giving  for the needy among the church. 

Now let us compare this with today’s modern service and see what the differences are, shall we?

First we sing for a long time.  Very little scripture is read. There are announcements.  There is a sermon.  A short prayer is usually offered somewhere by a leader.  An offering is always taken, but it is to pay for the building expenses and all the staff, not for fellow believers in need.  Then we sing some more.    Of course, I am generalizing.   But this does seem to be the pattern I have witnessed in the past two years of visiting different church fellowships.

Do you notice what I notice?  Communion held a remarkably high place in the early church.  The local churches celebrated it every Sunday and it formed a big part of their service.   You barely even find it in today’s church service.  Singing, which for many modern believers is such an important element of corporate worship is not even mentioned here.  We do know that the early church sang, but it was not such a big deal.  In my view, it looks like we have replaced communion, prayer and the public reading of scripture with extended singing.  Could this be one of the reasons the church has become so anemic?

It is always difficult for people to see the fallacy of what they are doing when they are steeped in the middle of it.   It is hard to ask ourselves the question “are we doing this thing right?”  It is easier to just keep things the way they are.   

Marty McFly, couldn’t see what his life could be, because he was overwhelmed with how things “were”.  Perhaps we can get in that DeLorean and go back and makes things right.  Who knows?

For more on this topic read our post titled “Whatever Happened To The Message of the Cross?”

Help us out by taking our Worship 2010 Poll.


About Jim

Not For Itching Ears is a blog dedicated to discussing the American Evangelical church. It is a place for people to share their thoughts on a host of issues relating to this subject. Jim is available to speak at weekend services, and retreats at no cost to churches in Florida. Contact us for more information.

Posted on December 7, 2010, in Christianity, Contemporary Church Culture, Early Church History, Prayer, The Christian Life, Worship and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. Piano Persona

    Time to seek out a church that offers Communion or… teach the American Evangelical Church congregation about the true nature of worship. Either way, it’s a life-changing decision. By the way, good article!


  2. Based upon that historical account I’m wondering that even one generation after the writing of the NT, the church had already begun to go astray from what should happen when believers meet together. Paul wrote what he expected to occur when believers gathered together: ” What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up” [1 Cor 14:26]. Although communion is not mentioned in this verse we know that it occurred when the body met as evidenced by 1 Cor 11:33-34 and that communion was part of a full meal. However in Martyr’s account communion appears to have become ritualized and limited to the serving of just the elements. Also judging by the description, the service has become programmed and ordered, led by a “president.” In comparison, the 1 Cor 14:26 meetings seemed to be more inclusive and participatory and not programmed by one man but more varied and spontaneous according to the leading of the Holy Spirit.


    • The thing that one must keep in mind is that Justin Martyrs account was describing something that was normative and had been normative for quite some time. I don’t think that Paul’s advice to the Corinthians necessarily means that every gathering of the church for all time should follow it. If that was the case, I think we would see that in early church history, which we don’t. By the time Clement wrote to the Corinthians, the gathering was more formal. Clement, by the way, wrote his letter to the Corinthinan’s around the same time John was penning Revelation.


  3. Although a practice is normative for the time it does not necessarily follow that the practice(s) adhere to apostolic tradition. Your question as to whether Paul’s instruction to the Corinthians is specific or universal in scope is a fair one. I view it as timeless and universal as Paul’s salutation is addressed not only to the Corinthian brethren but also to the “saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” in vs 2.

    What we do see in early church practice is the habit of the brethren meeting for the purpose of breaking bread and eating together [Acts 2:46]. Acts 20:7 states that “On the first day of the week we came together to break bread.” Thus we already have a “morphing” of the Lord’s supper from a full meal as depicted in Acts to a formalized ritual composed of only the sacramental elements as described by Martyr as the church grew into an institution.

    While examining the the beliefs/practices of the early church fathers can be insightful and useful, it also sheds light as to how they viewed the ekklesia as an assembly ruled by a hierarchy instead of the NT description of elders as a plurality of overseers with the terms elders and pastors used interchangeably. This is seen in the writings of Ignatius who was likely a disciple of John. Despite him being one of John’s disciples, Ignatius’ writings already begin to distinguish between church overseers using his terms – presbyters and bishops – and elevating the bishop above the presbyters as the head of the church.

    “I exhort you to study to do all things with a divine harmony, while your bishop presides in the place of God, and your presbyters in the place of the assembly of the apostles, along with your dear deacons, who are most dear to me, and are entrusted with the ministry of Jesus Christ.” Ign. Magn., 6.1 (ANF, 1:61)

    It is for reasons such as these that I view some of the early church writings as descriptive and not prescriptive or normative.


    • Hi Evan,

      I am sympathetic to the views you shared and to the house church concept where this can still be lived out today! However, I am less dogmatic about these as I once was for a whole host of reasons.

      One of the main reasons is the inability to answer the question as to “Why would God allow His church, the one His Son died to give birth to, to be radically transformed? Why would God not have stepped in to guide the church along the right path, at least in its infancy?” Clement was writing and leading the church while the Apostle John was still alive. Why didn’t John rebuke him and the other church leaders for such a brazen act as grabbing power for themselves and transforming the church into something it was not supposed to be? John did rebuke leadership in Revelation, but not for this.

      There are a lot of other reasons that I hold these things a little bit looser these days. However, I welcome the comments of a fellow traveler!


  4. You have a good point there Jim. I’ve also wondered why God would allow “errors” to creep into the church based on my admittedly feeble thinking. That leaves us with a host of denominational differences and different perspectives ranging from the timing of the rapture to the security of the believer – they all can’t be right.

    In terms of church worship and the increasingly ecclesiastical hierarchy I see an interesting parallel in the OT. Perhaps I’m stretching the analogy here but it seems endemic to human nature that we are creatures of habit and prefer to have “kings” rule over us and the security of knowing what to expect in worship service instead of being led by the Spirit. We prefer the security of knowing that our worship tent pegs are fixed in place instead of the uncertainty engendered in following the cloud by day and the fire by night.

    And like ancient Israel who clamored for a king after Eli’s death, we gravitate to preferring one-man rule in church polity. The amazing thing to me is that despite the error of our ways, God still chooses to oblige us.


  5. “And like ancient Israel who clamored for a king after Eli’s death, we gravitate to preferring one-man rule in church polity.”

    I think we gravitate towards what our leaders tell us. Shepherds matter. They matter a lot. Like Israel of old, many of today’s shepherds are doing the wrong things. Most people are not as involved in the intricacies of how things work in the church world. We are followers, who often blindly follow our leaders, never realizing that many of our leaders don’t know even where they are going!

    I lay the responsibility for the ills of the church at my feet, and the feet of every leader. When I was pastoring, I did some of the very things I am so adamantly opposed to today. It’s our fault. People, for better or worse, are sheep and they follow us. If we lead them to a well full of stagnant water and tell them to drink up….they will.

    Should the people know better? Some will, but most won’t.

    I did an interesting study on idol worship in the OT. The priestly leadership in Jeremiah’s time didn’t abandon Levitical worship. They ADDED the idol worship to that. They worship God his way but added the high places. Why? To make it easier for the people far away from the temple to worship God! The leaders should have known, but the people just went along with it.

    BTW, That seems like a very seeker sensitive thing to do. The only problem was God judged them for it!

    Evan, you should start a blog!


  6. Thanks but blogging takes too much time and I would probably run out of things to write about, LOL. I rather enjoy reading blogs like yours that do not follow conventional thought and pose questions that most never consider. My leadership experience appears somewhat similar to yours. I went to seminary and pastored on a church staff for a few years. I did what I was trained to do but all the while I hated being called pastor because I felt that it only reinforced the divide between clergy and laity but tolerated it for the sake of tradition. I loved the people and I know they did it out of respect however it always bugged me that in our orthodoxy we proclaim the priesthood of all believers but our orthopraxy generally does not reflect that. I began to see how the system fosters dependency upon leadership as you point out and how our spectator-church way of doing things differed from NT practices. I got so disillusioned that I resigned my position and fortunately had another career to fall back on. But enough of my rant – keep on writing Jim and Lord willing, I will keep on reading!


  7. My 2 cents comments : Evan mentioned “Why would God allow His church, the one His Son died to give birth to, to be radically transformed? Why would God not have stepped in to guide the church along the right path, at least in its infancy?” Clement was writing and leading the church while the Apostle John was still alive. Why didn’t John rebuke him and the other church leaders for such a brazen act as grabbing power for themselves and transforming the church into something it was not supposed to be? John did rebuke leadership in Revelation, but not for this.
    Correct me if I am wrong as I am not good with the history of the church but I read that the early church was horribly persecuted by Nero. Surely no true Christians are spared. So many died for Christ’s sake in Nero’s time and God did not stop allowing this as we can hear of persecutions in China, India and other countries until today. How then can a church be allowed to be open to have Sunday services or to planted new churches openly under Nero’s rule? None, as the true Christians are hiding for their life. Who is allowed to teach what the apostles teach openly? None. Do you think that the teachings passed down from Clement (Justin, Augustine, etc…) or anyone who are permitted by the government are the true doctrines of Christ? “NO”. All of them are partly right and must be surely partly wrong or their writings will be in our Bible today (selected by God). For it is God who gave us the Bible. There were so many false letters (imitating to be Paul and the apostles) during Paul’s time. As to “Why didn’t John rebuke them” we don’t know that for sure but surely there are no evident that John approve of them (God didn’t approve them or it will be written in the bible for us today. We have to believe that the Bible is compiled by God even there is no one to proof this.).
    Why would God not have stepped in to guide the church along the right path, at least in its infancy? God DID… Paul was sent by God to do that, in all of Paul’s letters to the churches (Ro. Cor. Phi. Thes. Col.). Paul was warning every church of False teachings in all his letters (epistles) to every church. Today we must search the bible for corrections of doctrines. No one else in this world is able nor qualified to correct our doctrines except the Bible alone. No fore fathers are able nor qualified to correct our doctrines except the Bible alone. Those who are able and qualified to correct our doctrines are Paul and the 12 apostles chosen by God and their letters are put in the Bible for us to study from the early church til today. They are the only true teachers of God. If we are not careful, we will fall into error that is wise in our own wisdom / conceit. The bible is the only source for corrections.
    I believe that in any one time / era / century, there are some Christians who understand the true teachings of Christ (the bible) but they are rejected by the Council of Churches just as the high priest rejected Jesus our Lord.
    Paul was rejected by the church in Asia Minor :
    2 Timothy 4:10
    – For Demas hath forsaken me, having loved this present world, and is departed unto Thessalonica; Crescens to Galatia, Titus unto Dalmatia.
    – Alexander the coppersmith did me much evil: the Lord reward him according to his works:
    – Of whom be thou ware also; for he hath greatly withstood our words. (Teachings)
    – At my first answer no man stood with me, but all [men] forsook me: [I pray God] that it may not be laid to their charge. Note : ALL FORSOOK PAUL……


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