What Did A Church Service Consist of in 150 AD? Take a Look…

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 2012 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 February 5, 2012, in Christianity, Early Church History, The Christian Life and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. Jim,
    What is the best way to change the are to were? You are a pastor. IF you were pastoring an are chuch, in what ways could the congregation get you to consider being a were church? I realize you can’t speak for all pastors but can you give us a starting point?

    In Christ Alone


    • Hi Wactober,

      Often time leaders look at things differently than those they lead. We have more training, more experience and better access to those who know more about things than we do. Unfortunately, these people are seldom in the congregation we lead. They are experts, and we tend to listen to them. At the same time a pastor gets an email or an offer in the mail every week for the ‘next awesome thing’ to help his church become succesful. Those voices are loud, relentless, and very well packaged. How can the congregation compete with that?

      My expereince, and that of a lot of other people, has been that the pastor knows best. If something is going to change in the congregation, it often doesn’t happen unless the pastor wants it to. Period. So how does the congregation influence that process? Let me answer that by saying three things:

      First, the way it happened for me as that I left pastoring. Then I went back to being a regular church person. It was then that I began to expereince the types of ministry I talk about on this blog. What I had done to others (my ministry model and leadership style) I had done to me. As a receipient of this kind of ministry, I started to see how empty and shallow it truly was. For me, that is how the process began.

      Secondly, pray for your leaders. I can not underestimate this. They have to have a major shift in their view. That does not happen overnight, or without pain and stretching.

      Thirdly, sometimes the best time to make a change is when a pastor leaves. Volunteer to be on the search comittee and prayerfully bring up these kind of issues with the other members. Do they believe God wants the church to continue in the same vain or could there be something different he wants to do?

      Sadly, most of the time the change will not happen. The best thing to do in that case would be to leave the congregation and find one that is more in line with your understanding. There is no such thing as a perfect congregation, so beware of that snare. If the church is “sucessfull” already, it is almost impossible for the leaders to change it, even if they want to. There is too much money involved. In that case, the leader usually leaves to start something else.

      I wish I could offer more words of wisdom. Perhaps someone who has been through it could help us.


    • I would suggest that the problem (and solution) comes from theology. Earlier in his apology, Justin wrote the following:

      “Taking [the bread and wine mixed with water], he gives praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and he offers thanks at considerable length for our being counted worthy to receive these things… To those who are absent, [the deacons] they carry away a portion”

      Why were the Christians in Rome so grateful to receive bread and wine? Why did the Deacons take the Eucharist to those sick or in prison?

      The answer to these questions was given fifty years previously by Ignatius of Antioch when he said “[the Eucharist] is the medicine of immortality”.

      The Early Church’s liturgy was built around Holy Communion because of their great love for Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. If we “recognize Him at the breaking of bread” (Luke 24:35) then Eucharist will finally become the “source and summit” of corporate worship…

      “They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they do not confess the Eucharist is the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, in His loving-kindness, raised from the dead. Those, therefore, who speak against this gift of God, perish in the midst of their disputes. But it were better for them to treat it with respect, that they also might rise again” – Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Smyrnaeans

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow that sure reenforces what God seems to be awakening in the hearts of men today. Good job once again!


  3. Wow…. Incredible article. It is very close to the synagogue and keeps in line with the OT scriptures ( as it should:)


  4. In Acts chapter 2 there was no sermon at all. Things have changed; things need to change back.


  5. Nickel Boy Graphics

    I started attending an Episcopal Church in August 2017 and the pattern of worship is like what you have written about the early church: “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.” (This last one is done with a table of different freshly baked breads, so that may not be quite a total match, but the idea is the same.) Thanks for posting this!

    Liked by 1 person

  1. Pingback: The Early Church Teaches Us…How To Pray! Instructions on the Lord’s Prayer from the 300’s | Not For Itching Ears

  2. Pingback: The Early Church Teaches Us…How To Pray! Instructions on the Lord’s Prayer from the 300’s | Not For Itching Ears

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