Worship like the first Christians. What will our future look like? (3)

I have been reflecting on the “where” of how we want to be, as the church, in post-COVID times, as well as the “when” of how we want to be. Do we want to be simply back in the church building on a Sunday morning? Do we want simply to be doing things in the old, familiar ways of past years?

You can read those posts at https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/24/its-been-two-months-under-restrictions-what-will-our-future-look-like-2/ and https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/22/its-been-two-months-under-restrictions-what-will-our-future-look-like-1/

In this post, I pick up the theme of “who” we are imagining ourselves to be in this future time. What might worship look like for us? Who do we reveal ourselves to be, when we gather for worship?

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If we want to rethink how we worship in the post-COVID era, and reimagine what we might do in a gathering of people as “church”, perhaps we could get some inspiration from what our scripture tells us about the early followers of Jesus? Could we being to rethink and reimagine so that church looked more like what these people did? After all, we have scriptures which we use as guidelines for various doctrinal and moral matters; why not also with worship?

The earliest followers of Jesus, we know, did not worship in English. They used their own languages—Aramaic, for Jewish People, and probably Greek, in many of the early Christian communities. And, no doubt, the native language of the particular region where new faith communities were established. Syriac. Coptic. Phrygian. Arabic. Latin. Each spoke to the other in their own language.

Unsurprisingly, that sounds just like Pentecost, the festival that we celebrate this coming Sunday, when those gathered in the Temple heard the early followers Jesus, and declared in amazement, “how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” (Acts 2:8, 11).

Of course, I am not advocating that we take up speaking in Aramaic, or Koine Greek, or Syriac, or Phrygian, or Latin. In the Reformed churches, we have long adopted the custom of worshipping in our native language. But are there other practices from the early church that we could consider taking up? For instance, the early church did not have organs or pianos to accompany singing. Is that something that we could adopt? How many other places in society still have group singing accompanied by organ or piano?

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The earliest believers being Jewish, they most likely followed the pattern of worship that is attested in the Temple: “Praise the LORD! Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty firmament! Praise him with trumpet sound … with lute and harp … with tambourine and dance … with strings and pipe … with clanging cymbals, with loud clashing cymbals!” (Psalm 150).

I know stories from Congregations where drum sets, complete with cymbals, were introduced into worship—leading to even louder noises, as church conflicts broke out! But such musical accompaniment is actually biblical. Can we head in that direction in our worship today?

We know also that those early believers sang “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Col 3:16). That sounds familiar. Not too much different from today. Except: singing. All the evidence points to the fact that singing, indoors, in a group with other people, standing close to one another, is one of the most risky behaviours in this current time of the pandemic.

So, there is very little room to move: if and when we gather together in person to worship, we will not be singing. We will, necessarily, be quite different in our worship practices, from the early believers.

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The early followers of Jesus did not have paid ministers leading worship. This was the case from the very earliest days, and this practice lasted for a long time. (They did, however, have provisions to provide for their leaders—hospitality, places to stay, the provision of resources to enable their living—as Paul makes clear.)

Not having a Minister in placement is a reality for a growing number of our Uniting Church Congregations, now, as the decrease in numbers has brought with it a decline in offerings and therefore a reduced capacity to support a stipended minister.

Is this something that might be considered by more congregations, in an intentional way, into the future? Do we need to move away from dependence on “the paid person” as the local leader (and often, the person expected to “do all the ministry”), and strengthen the resilience of the whole people of God who make up the Congregation in each of these places? Could we reshape local ministry so that it equipped and resources the gifted people of God to lead worship and other church activities, rather than sitting back and being consumers of whatever the paid person delivers?

And perhaps alongside that: should we be encouraging our stipended ministers to focus elsewhere than on the Sunday worship? To be resourcing and equipping people for their own ministries, to be developing missional plans and fostering community engagement? To be enabling the whole people of God to be confident in sharing their faith, serving people in need, and living as active disciples in all of their life? This would be more in line with the way that leaders functioned in the early church.

That’s a challenge that is worth considering. After all, our Basis of Union (picking up on 1 Cor 12) actually affirms that “every member of the Church is engaged to confess the faith of Christ crucified and to be his faithful servant … the one Spirit has endowed the members of Christ’s Church with a diversity of gifts … all ministries have a part in the ministry of Christ.” (Basis of Union paragraph 12).

We are all ministers. We are all gifted by the Spirit. We are all equipped to serve. We are all part of the ministry of Christ—not just the paid person! How might that best translate into a reshaped form of worship?

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Another insight into the nature of worship in the early church communities is that it was spontaneous. That is very clearly the case in Corinth, a community that caused Paul quite some angst. Indeed, the critical issues he addresses in the later part of the letter (1 Cor 12–14) arise out of the highly spontaneous, seemingly chaotic situation that characterised worship in Corinth.

Such worship had more the nature of a dialogue between conversation partners, rather than a monologue delivered by one person to a group of silent listeners. We can see this in a simple way, with the references to “interpreters” in what Paul writes to the Corinthians. Whilst there are people who contribute words of prophecy, pray in tongues, or speak in tongues (1 Cor 14), in each case there is the need for someone to interpret these phenomena.

What would it take to move towards a style of worship that more closely reflected this central ethos of gathering? That’s a challenging way ahead for us to consider. Could our worship be different, in this regard? As we explore the different possibilities for worship, once we start to gather together again in person, we ought to be stimulated by this kind of exploration of different options, of fresh expressions, of evolving ideas.

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Another question: where did the early followers of Jesus gather? Luke’s account of the early church in Jerusalem indicates that they met in homes on a daily basis (Acts 2:46; 5:42). Commentators on the letters in the New Testament have made it clear that the earliest churches met in the homes of wealthy patrons—there are pointers towards this in letters to Corinth, to Rome, and in the letters of John. (See Rom 16:5; 1 Cor 16:19; Col 4:15; Philemon 2; 2 John 10, and perhaps also 2 John 1.)

When we start planning to regather as Congregations, how should we do this? Perhaps we should consider, not gathering en masse in a large building, but meeting others in smaller groups, in homes, sharing together on a regular basis (and not necessarily on a Sunday morning!)—with appropriate social distancing, of course. Let’s plan for some different ways of gathering, not all together in one large body, but in focused smaller groups.

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It is also worth pondering the fact that, for so many of the early followers of Jesus, coming together for worship was not the primary purpose for gathering. The indications from New Testament texts are that the earliest followers of Jesus came together to share in meals, to pray together, to share their lives with one another, to receive teaching on the life of faith, and to strengthen practices that are integral to discipleship.

Worship was part of that, but not ever the primary purpose (and certainly not the sole purpose) of gathering together. Worship was but one stream amongst a number of elements essential to these gatherings. What would it mean for us to work to this set of priorities into our planning for the future?

This central feature of the life of the early followers of Jesus is worth pondering and exploring: how might we follow this, and foster it, in our own times?

For Jews in the first century, the synagogue was more akin to a community centre, and much less like a sanctuary set aside for worship. Archaeology has shown that first-century synagogues did not have “Jewish” features; they were simply public buildings with benches lining the walls. The architecture of the buildings reflected the primary role of synagogues as Jewish community centres. People gathered for all manner of social and community activities. Worship was a secondary use of the space.

This carried over into the ways that early followers of Jesus lived out their faith in their daily lives. There was no separation between “church” and the rest of life. Faith was to be lived out in the actions and behaviours of life. Faith informed everything. Faith was a way of living, a way of doing, rather than a set of beliefs, a doctrinal creed. To be a follower of Jesus meant to be engaged with other people, assisting them, caring for them, serving them, attending to their needs.

Indeed, there is a strong view amongst scholars that the main reason for the growth of the church over the first two centuries was much less to do with doctrinal beliefs and verbal evangelism, much more to do with acts of charity, deeds of care and compassion towards others. Christians, simply, loved one another (just as Jesus commanded them to do!)

(See the work of Rodney Stark, summarised in https://thejesusquestion.org/2013/01/20/the-rise-of-christianity-by-rodney-stark/; for a discussion of the contemporary relevance of this view, see https://time.com/5824128/early-christian-caritas-coronavirus/ )

So, when Paul writes about “spiritual worship” (Rom 12:1), he makes it clear that this means living a life wholly committed to discipleship in every way—reaching out to others, serving people in need, giving up self-interest, and not totally focussed on the worship gathering alone. That is most surely a way of being that we could well emulate in our own lives, today.

So Paul encourages the Romans to “contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers” (12:13) and reminds them that “each of us must please our neighbour for the good purpose of building up the neighbour” (15:2). He advises the Corinthians to maintain positive relationships with those who do not share faith in Jesus (1 Cor 10:27) and to follow the principle, “do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other” (1 Cor 10:24).

To the Philippians, he writes “let each of you look … to the interests of others” (Phil 2:4), and he urges the Thessalonians to “encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them” (1 Thess 5:14). All of this is outward-oriented, community-focussed, and following the direction of the injunction to “love your neighbour” (Lev 19:18, quoted by Jesus at Mark 12:31).

And that, more than any particular style or form of worship, is what should best characterise the followers of Jesus today. Are we up for the challenge??

Author: John T Squires

My name is John Squires. I live in the Australian Capital Territory. I have been an active participant in the Uniting Church in Australia (UCA) since it was formed in 1977, and was ordained as a Minister of the Word in this church in 1980. I have served in rural, regional, and urban congregations and as a Presbytery Resource Minister and Intentional Interim Minister. For two decades I taught Biblical Studies at a theological college and most recently I was Director of Education and Formation and Principal of the Perth Theological Hall. I've studied the scriptures in depth; I hold a number of degrees, including a PhD in early Christian literature. I am committed to providing the best opportunities for education within the church, so that people can hold to an informed faith, which is how the UCA Basis of Union describes it. This blog is one contribution to that ongoing task.

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