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.
Posted on December 7, 2010, in Christianity, Contemporary Church Culture, Early Church History, Prayer, The Christian Life, Worship and tagged christianity, church, communion, early church history, Justin Martyr, ministry, prayer, seeker-sensitive, singing, tithes and offerings, worship. Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.