Worship is man’s foremost duty and his greatest privilege. In worship man makes two affirmations: he affirms the existence of a being higher than himself, and he affirms his own capacity for worship. In brief, worship is an affirmation of God and of self. The person who worships God will not exclaim with Swinburne: “Glory to man in the highest!” Nor will he agree with Stevenson’s description of man as a mere “disease of agglutinated dust.” Rather, in worship man gives recognition to the “worthship” of God as creator and redeemer, and to his own worship as creature and object of redemption.

The last decade has brought a spirited resurgence of interest in religion and transcendent reality. Unfortunately, we have not seen a corresponding revitalization of the Church’s worship. If anything, interest in corporate worship appears to be waning.

Modern definitions of worship all too frequently reflect the mood of the day. Interest is focused more on the “psychology of worship” than on the “theology of worship.” There is, of course, a subjective side to worship. The worshiper experiences feelings of love, joy, confidence, and submission. More important, however, is God’s objective self-disclosure in Jesus Christ, and man’s response to this divine self-disclosure. Christian worship is inseparably linked to our understanding of God, the nature of divine revelation, God’s way of communicating with man, and the nature and mission of the Church. Such understanding comes to us through the Scriptures. True worship then occurs at the point where the objective revelation of God blends with the subjective experiences of the worshiper.

The word for worship is used in the Bible in some form or another no fewer than two hundred times. More than twenty times the people of God are explicitly instructed to “worship the Lord.” When the early Christians organized as a visible body of believers, their main reason for organizing was worship. In the words of A. B. MacDonald, the believers “possessed nothing tangible beyond their worship assemblies. They possessed no buildings; no sacred book that was distinctly their own; no defined creed, nor any rule, such as Benedict or Bernard left—nothing, except their worship assemblies, that could serve as a rallying-point for their loyalties” (Christian Worship in the Primitive Church, p. 17). All that the early Christians possessed that could be said to be distinctly Christian were a few burning convictions, born out of their experience of God’s redeeming work in Christ. Before them lay the immense task of thinking through the significance of their experience, of fitting their experience into the thought forms they had inherited from Judaism, and of finding new forms to express what had not been expressed before.

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Much of what we observe in early Christian worship was taken over from the synagogue. But there were important differences. Christians worshiped in the “freedom of the Spirit.” They read, in addition to the Old Testament, the writings of their esteemed leaders. They observed the Lord’s Supper. Most of all, they brought to their worship thoughts and emotions not found in the synagogue.

The New Testament nowhere prescribes a detailed order of worship; however, it has a great deal to say about the content of worship. Worship in the early Church consisted primarily of teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread, and prayers (Acts 2:42).

According to Acts 2:46 the early Christians went daily with one accord to the Temple. The purpose was threefold. In the first place, they continued to take part in Jewish worship. Second, these Jewish services gave them excellent opportunities to witness. And third, Christians used these public gatherings to receive instruction from the apostles. Justin Martyr, writing in the second century, speaks of the custom in his church for the president to exhort the worshipers to imitate those things that had been read from the Scriptures. Unfortunately, we have no example in the New Testament of such apostolic teaching or exhortation. The sermons recorded in Acts are mere summaries of missionary preaching directed to unbelievers. It is generally assumed, however, that much of what the apostles said in these worship assemblies of the believers was later committed to writing and is contained in our New Testament epistles.

Teaching or preaching plays a dominant role in Protestant worship; nearly half of the time of the worship service is devoted to the sermon. In this we show that we are children of the Reformation. Luther was a great preacher; no fewer than 2,300 of his sermons have been preserved. But increasingly cries are heard in our churches for more worship and less preaching. Good preaching is not inconsistent with worship in its purest and most spiritual form, but poor preaching may indeed interfere with worship.

One reason why preaching is often inadequate is that modern shepherds spend too much time mending fences and not enough time feeding the sheep. More effort is put forth in perfecting the organization than in building the Christian personality. In a day when many are turning to nature-mysticism and occultism, good preaching—doctrinal preaching of high caliber—is essential to the well-being of the Church.

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It is not that people are implying today that the preacher has nothing to say; rather, they would like to hear more plainly what is being said. In Jesus’ day, nearly all information was communicated orally. This is no longer true. Preaching in the age of television needs to be supplemented by other forms of communication.

Worship in the early Church also included fellowship. Worshipers were not passive recipients, they were active participants. They were not only gathered in one place but were also of one accord (Acts 1:14; 2:46; 4:24). It was in Christian fellowship that the individual believer was best able to realize and demonstrate his fellowship with Christ. Hence, absenteeism was considered to be spiritually disastrous (Heb. 10:25). Among the strongest appeals that early Christianity made to the world was its human warmth and fellowship. Such fellowship was not merely a fruit of worship; it was an integral part of worship.

In the pragmatic climate of America, fellowship is seen too much as a product of activity and interaction, and not enough as a matter of relationships. One might well find in a church bulletin the notice, “After the worship service we will have fellowship in the lower auditorium.” But the purest and most spiritual form of fellowship takes place in the sanctuary when God’s people unite in worship. By participating in corporate worship, the worshiper avails himself of the healing powers of Christian fellowship. It is interesting that the name disciple is used in the New Testament approximately 230 times before Pentecost and only 28 times after. By contrast, the name brother is used approximately 30 times before, and more than 230 times after, Pentecost. True discipleship inevitably leads to brotherhood.

A third element in early Christian worship was breaking of bread. It appears that Christians observed communion whenever they met for worship. However, it never became an addendum to the preaching service. Rather, it was the climax of worship. The significance of communion was derived not so much from historical antecedents—whether Jesus ate the passover, or a kiddush meal, or a chaburah supper—as from the meaning Jesus attached to the event.

The early Church thought of Christ in terms of the past, the present, and the future (1 Cor. 13:13; Heb. 13:8). Communion, which was the symbolic representation of Christ, had the same threefold orientation. It was first of all remembrance: “This do in remembrance of me.” As the Church celebrated communion from Sunday to Sunday it recalled the atoning work of Christ. Communion was also proclamation: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death.…” Participation in communion was an act of preaching. It was proclamation by symbols other than the spoken word. The communion table was not a place where Christians lingered in spiritual ecstasy; it was a point of departure. Finally, communion was an expression of the hope of the Church: “… you proclaim the Lord’s death until he come.” Communion was an affirmation of the Church’s faith in the second advent of Christ.

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Symbols can help us formulate ideas and awaken feelings appropriate to worship. Our feelings are not under the direct control of the will, but our actions are. Using suitable images and doing things that in the past have been associated with feelings of worship can help us develop feelings of awe, reverence, and submission. Even a child who can not understand the full meaning of communion may nevertheless experience feelings and attitudes that can help him in his Christian life.

Our extreme dependence on words (verbal symbols) tends to confine our worship to patterns that can be verbally expressed. The symbols of bread and wine in communion and the symbol of water in baptism possess a quality that allows for mystery and development. They not only touch the worshiper in his mundane experiences but also take him far beyond these experiences.

But when symbols are used repeatedly, they tend to seem common, routine, and ordinary. They lose their power to evoke the expected response. Much of the current agitation against the traditional worship service is due to this “symbolic collapse.” The solution is not to devise new symbols, as some are advocating, but to interpret symbols freshly in the language of our day.

Early Christian worship also included prayers. It appears that prayer followed the reading of Scripture and preaching, an order adopted from the synagogue. Prayers of the early Church contained notes of praise and thanksgiving, confession of sin, intercession, and petition.

The favorite word in Jewish worship was eulogein, meaning to praise or bless. It suggests the idea of homage paid by a subject to his king. The term the early Church adopted to designate its prayers of praise and thanks to God was eucharistein, a warmer, more intimate term. It suggests the feelings of gratitude and love that a child has toward his father. Although the prayers recorded in Acts reveal dependence on the Old Testament and Jewish liturgical tradition, they also reveal a great deal of freedom from the restraints of rigid forms and fixed modes of thought.

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In many of our churches today, prayers have largely been removed from worship and placed in the context of a special midweek service. Since these midweek services are poorly attended, it may well be that our worship has lost an important element. God meets his people in the Word, in Fellowship, in communion, and in prayer. All four must be permitted to function in worship, although they may receive varying emphases depending on the nature of the occasion and the participants.

Should the Church of the twentieth century advocate a return to the simple, spontaneous worship of the early Church? Impossible. In the first place, says B. H. Streeter, “in the Primitive Church there was no single system of church order laid down by the apostles.… Uniformity was a later development” (The Primitive Church, p. 261). In the second place, there are signs that even the primitive Church toward the end of the first century moved toward a more structured and formal service of worship. We can never recapture the exhilarating sense of newness that characterized the experience of the early Christians. What we can strive for, however, is a recovery of the early Christians’ sense of the immediacy of the action of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit still leads his people to the Word, to fellowship, to the communion table, and to prayers.

Worship in the freedom of the Spirit is Christ-centered worship, for the Spirit glorifies Christ (John 16:14). The early Church remained in the apostles’ teaching because Christ taught his disciples; they had fellowship because they all belonged to the Church, Christ’s body; they celebrated communion because Christ ordained it; they prayed because Christ taught them how to pray. The early Church did not detach its religion from historical roots, nor did it sublimate it into a system of idealism or a religious philosophy. When Christians united for worship, their thoughts were centered on actual happenings in history—things that they had seen with the eye, and heard with the ear, and touched with the hand (1 John 1:1).

Worship in the early Church was for believers. Christians met in homes to receive a new mandate from the Lord for the week ahead. Evangelism happened in the world. For us the relations between worship and evangelism is somewhat unclear. Evangelical practice reflects the influence of the revival movement. As revival swept westward in America, the pulpit became more an instrument of evangelism than of instruction. It would undoubtedly be of benefit to us if we returned to the New Testament pattern, in which worship preceded evangelism; evangelism was the fruit of worship. If we fail in worship, we will inevitably fail in evangelism also, for we cannot meet the world until we have met God. If we succeed in leading people into a vital experience of worship, we will discover anew the dynamic thrust of New Testament evangelism, for the early Church worshiped daily and the Lord added daily those who were being saved (Acts 2:47).

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Once on a midnight, two were three,
Resting on a hollow tree,
The one, long blind, but could he see?
Imprisoned, yet, was he free?
As for the other, he was me,
Present, though an absentee,
With eyes so light he couldn’t see,
Shackled, though he held the key.
After the resting, he and He
Parted from my company.
Then down the lane toward dawn went he,
Just the opposite of me.

George M. Marsden is associate professor of history at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has the Ph.D. (Yale University) and has written “The Evangelical Mind and the New School Presbyterian Experience.”

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