Worship and praise meetings
Meeting together for worship is a fundamental part of the Christian life. It is an opportunity for believers to gather together with like-minded people in order to praise God. This meeting is the most important meeting of the fellowship, so it seems to be important to me that Christians get this meeting right.
There is no specific time given in the bible as to when the fellowship should assemble but the early Christians met together on the ‘Lord’s Day’ in memory of Jesus being raised from the dead on that day (Luke 24; John 20; Acts 2 v 1; Acts 20 v 7; I Corinthians 16 v 1, 2). There is no obligation for Christians to keep the Sabbath as it is defined under Judaic Law. However, Christians may, if they wish to, follow the example of the early fellowships in meeting together on the first day of each week.
It is not clear how many members made up any one church in the bible. At first there seem to be a lot of converts, but I suspect that some fellowships were quite small, especially as persecution arose from the state. Christians did not meet in specially designed buildings as many do now, but rather in the houses of believers. So these communities are rather like house fellowships. I only mention this because size matters. Some structures, forms and procedures work well in small gatherings but not in large ones, and vice-versa. The number of people in a particular fellowship will determine whether some of the ideas below will work out in practice or not. Procedure has to be adjusted accordingly.
Aspects of the worship meeting
Christians worship God by offering gifts, public honour and respect to God. The aspects of worship are:
- Prayer (I Timothy 2 v 1; Acts 6 v 4; I Thessalonians 5 v 17). Prayer takes the form of united prayer where an Overseer leads the rest of the fellowship in prayer. The fellowship participates by supporting these expressions of prayer and praise. When the overseer prays, members of the fellowship say ‘Amen’ (‘so be it’) when the ideas expressed are understood and agreed with (I Corinthians 14 v 16). In addition, there is also individual prayer, where individuals pray silently to God.
Giving thanks: to God for Who He is and for His the way He deals with us
Making requests: declaring personal needs with a childlike trust in God.
Intercession: bringing the needs of others, both unbelievers and believers, to God in prayer, making requests for them on their behalf.
2. Singing (Ephesians 5 v 19; Colossians 3 v 16) Singing songs in praise to God as a group or as individuals, accompanied by musical instruments.
3. Sharing teaching, songs, personal spiritual experiences, gifts and portions of the Bible that have been meaningful or helpful (Ephesians 5 v 19; Colossians 3 v 16; I Corinthians 14 v 26). In this way the fellowship instructs and improves itself
4. Preaching, teaching and exhortation (II Timothy 4 v 3; Acts 2 v 42; I Corinthians 14 v 3; Hebrews 13 v 7). Those people who are able to teach present apostolic teaching and also explain the meaning of apostolic doctrine so that the fellowship is built up. For Overseers, this is their main way of presenting the good news as Jesus commanded them (Matthew 28).
5. Sharing in the ceremonies and rituals of the Lord’s Supper and Baptism.
When individuals meet together there are different gifts, personalities and temperaments but there is also the unity of one Lord, one Baptism, one Spirit and one Church (I Corinthians 12 v 12….). Some individual believers bring a song of praise, others bring a bible verse or passage, others bring some teaching, some individuals bring a revelation, or a tongue or an interpretation (I Corinthians 14 v 26).
Thus the meeting is not dominated by or structured solely by Overseers – rather, all fellowship members have the opportunity to interact and actively participate. Most of the services that I attend are completely dominated by the Elders/Overseers. Overseers choose the hymns, select and read the bible readings, lead in prayer and deliver the sermon. I am used to services where the emphasis is on teaching, and sermons may last for about thirty minutes, taking up to a third to a half of the length of the entire service. If I attend such a service, I have no contribution to make at all except to sing the hymns provided, agree with prayers that are made and listen to the sermon. In many respects, I remain quite passive. Even if I have something to bring, I have no opportunity to share it. In fact, it has even been said by the leaders of such fellowships that the ‘life of the church’ really takes place at the mid-week house study groups. It does not take place in the main worship service at all! Even id I went to a mid week meeting, very often, I would once again listen to someone else delivering a bible study lecture. Yes there would be opportunity for prayer, to make prayer requests and probably opportunities for limited discussion. But even here, I would still have limited opportunities. I am well aware that other fellowships are not teaching based. The same structure is still used very often, except that the ‘sermon’ is usually only about ten minutes long and that it may sometimes be very patronizing – as if the congregation was about ten years old. It might also be less of a biblical message and more of an exhortation to love everybody and be charitable and tolerant. I think that both of these have got the balance wrong.
An example of a fellowship meeting
Believers adopt a circular seating arrangement such that each member can see at least most of the other members. This means that they can see anyone who contributes to the meeting. When someone does have something to say, then they stand up to make their contribution. Only one person should stand up at a time, but if someone is standing up and contributing and sees that another person is at that moment receiving a revelation, then the contributor should stop speaking and sit down (I Corinthians 14 v 30). One purpose of the meeting is that everyone is encouraged and receives some knowledge and teaching. Those that receive spiritual gifts during the meeting do not lose their self-control – they are able to take their turn to contribute to meeting in an orderly way. In this way, if there is no interpreter present at the meeting, then those with a gift of tongue-speaking can remain silent – just speaking to themselves and God. Everything should be done in an appropriate and orderly way and everything that is done should build up the fellowship. This element of addressing the mind and building up the fellowship is emphasized in what the apostle Paul says concerning the gift of tongues:
‘Now, brothers and sisters, if I come to you and speak in tongues, what good will I be to you, unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or word of instruction? Even in the case of lifeless things that make sounds, such as the pipe or harp, how will anyone know what tune is being played unless there is a distinction in the notes? Again, if the trumpet does not sound a clear call then who will get ready for battle? So it is with you. Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying? You will just be speaking into the air. Undoubtedly there are all sorts of languages in the world, yet none of them is without meaning. If I do not grasp the meaning of what someone is saying, then I am a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker is a foreigner to me. So it is with you. Since you are eager for gifts of the Spirit, try to excel in those that build up the fellowship. For this reason the one who speaks in a tongue should pray that they may interpret what they say. For if I pray in a tongue, my breath prays, but my mind does not gain anything. So what shall I do? I will pray with my breath, but I will also pray with my understanding; I will sing with my breath, but I will also sing with my understanding. Otherwise when you are praising God in the Spirit, how can someone else, who is now put in the position of an enquirer, say ‘Amen’ to your thanksgiving, since they do not know what you are saying? You are certainly giving thanks but no one else gains any knowledge or teaching. I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. But in the fellowship I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue’ (I Corinthians 14 v 6 – 19).
When someone claiming a gift of prophecy declares a message or teaching in the fellowship, then such teaching is not simply accepted at face value. ‘Two or three prophets should speak at the meeting, and the others should weigh carefully what is said’. There an element of evaluation, of ‘testing’, an element of discussion and debate in the fellowship. Certainly this was present in the Hebrew tradition and the Synagogues: ‘As was his custom, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead. ‘This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Messiah,’ he said’ (Acts 17 v 2, 3). ‘Every Sabbath he reasoned in the synagogue, trying to persuade Jews and Greeks’ (Acts 18 v 4). ‘He vigorously refuted his Jewish opponents in public debate, proving from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Messiah’ (Acts 18 v 28). This element of discussion and debate is certainly present in the fellowship when unbelievers come in and enquire and ask questions about what the fellowship is doing or believes. But I think that it is more extensive than that. We are not being presented with Christians who merely attend the meeting in order to be lectured to, or with Christians passively and unquestioningly accepting whatever message is declared by the teachers or even the prophets. There is a sense of debate, discussion, inquiry and evaluation. But it seems that this debate, this discussion, was not an equal one where everybody’s opinion carried equal weight with the teacher. Rather, the authority of the teacher was recognized, but a format was chosen whereby problems, difficulties, questions and objections could be raised immediately and dealt with promptly. This required a thorough knowledge of Scripture and apostolic teaching on the part of the teacher together with wisdom in directing the meeting to avoid error and division. But it is a good way of helping believers to actively participate and think through various issues.
Debate and inquiry is not done to promote doubt, or to encourage division or controversy however:
‘As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain people not to teach false doctrines any longer nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies. Such things promote controversial speculations rather than advancing God’s work – which is by faith. The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. Some have departed from these and have turned to meaningless talk. They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm’ (I Timothy 1 v 3 – 7).
‘Avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and arguments and quarrels about the law, because these are unprofitable and useless. Warn a divisive person once, and then warn them a second time. After that, have nothing to do with them. You may be sure that such people are warped and disobedient; they are self-condemned’ (Titus 3 v 9 – 11).
Rather, the apostolic instruction is:
‘Let the message of Jesus – the one sent and approved by God – dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts’ (Colossians 3 v 16).
There seems to be little in the way of a formal pre-planning to these worship meetings except that things are done in a fitting and orderly way in order to build up, teach, encourage and strengthen the fellowship. What is secured is that fellowship members are free to contribute in an orderly way. Fellowship meetings seem to have the following aspects:
1) Prayer and praise
2) Singing of sacred songs and psalms
3) Readings from sacred literature
4) Sharing of spiritual experiences
5) Teaching by teachers and Overseers
6) Discussion, debate and evaluation
7) Practice of spiritual gifts – healing, tongue-speaking, revelation e.t.c.
8) Exhortations and admonishments
9) Celebration of the Lord’s Supper
Fellowship meetings – a comparison between then and now
I suggested that neither of the modern day approaches that I mentioned earlier is correct. They reveal a tension between formalized order and structure on the one hand and the spontaneity of the free movement of the Spirit of God – and potential disorder – on the other hand. Too much emphasis on a planned orderliness may be seen as stifling and limiting the movement of the Spirit and as preventing believers from giving their gifts and sharing, resulting in a dry, dead, formal orthodoxy. Those in the ‘orderly camp’ respond by saying that too much emphasis on spontaneous openness may lead to a lack of good teaching and to a superficial understanding of apostolic teaching which in turn may well lead to error and emotional excess.
The Spirit of God is not limited by external structure and order – providing that the Overseer is flexible, responsive and adaptable enough to take on board any unusual activity of the Spirit of God. If an open prayer time is planned to last about ten minutes and the Spirit of God is obviously blessing and moving people’s hearts and minds in a considerable and meaningful way, then it could well be that to stop the prayer after ten minutes for the sake of orderliness is indeed ‘putting out the flame’ of the Spirit. But, apart from this, the Spirit may well use order and structure – the normal ordered service – to bless Christians. It is also true to say that the fellowship in which the Overseer plans and executes everything from choosing the hymns, to selecting the Bible passage to be read, to reading it, to leading the congregation in prayer, to planning the sermon and delivering it as planned means that there is no room for spontaneous active fellowship or contribution by Christians. We have seen that as far as the bible concerned, Christians should be able to pray, to read portions of their choice from the Bible, select hymns for worship and so on, as long as it is done in an instructive, orderly way. So, an outline structure is necessary for things to be done properly, in order that everyone may be edified. So, within a flexible and loose outline structure, provision should be made for open, active participation by believers, to select a chorus or hymn, to read a portion of the Bible, to pray, to give a testimony or whatever. For such a moderately open worship time, any Christian can prepare an item prayerfully to then bring to the rest of the fellowship.
The work of a teacher and Overseer is always represented in the bible by occupations that require wise foresight and preparation – a steward, a husbandman or farmer, an architect, businessman, trader, fisherman and soldier. Under normal circumstances the teaching Overseer does not get up to speak without any preparation. Rather, he prepares the speech as any secular teacher would do, but with prayer, in order to help his hearers understand the teaching correctly if the Spirit of God is pleased to apply it to their hearts. That speech, that sermon, should be open for discussion, questions and debate to provide clarification and better understanding. If this is true of a man skilled in teaching and appointed by the fellowship to manage the assembly and to teach them, then how much more should it apply to ordinary believers? They too should prepare their offerings in order to encourage and build up the fellowship and they should be given a sufficiently open meeting structure to be able to give that offering, be it a choice of hymn, a testimony, bible reading or whatever.
What seems to have happened today is that churches have fragmented their meetings – fellowships often have a meeting on Sunday that is largely organized and planned by the Overseers who have selected the hymns of praise, lead the prayer, selected the passage of the Bible to be read out and then lectured the passive membership in a sermon. Then, in the week, there may be separate women’s and men’s study groups and there may be a Bible study meeting either at the fellowship’s meeting place or in a member’s house. There may also be an open prayer meeting. In addition there may be young people’s groups.
Let’s get back to basics. Firstly, the fellowship meeting that takes place on a Sunday is a gathering or assembly of Christian people for the purpose of worship, strengthening and encouragement. I strongly believe that it is a mistake to compromise such a meeting in order to accommodate, attract or entertain unbelievers. It should be the other way around. It is unbelievers who have to seek out such a gathering – (unbelievers seek God rather than believers seeking out unbelievers) – and when unbelievers find such a gathering it is they who have to change and turn about from their old ways and turn to God. The fellowship, like individual believers themselves, is something that is set apart from the world – it does not conform to the pattern of the world.
Secondly there can be an apprehension amongst Overseers that they will lose control of the fellowship if they let go of their organizing and structuring of the meeting. Yet these very same Overseers often do let go to some degree of such rigid organization when it comes to some of the other meetings such as Bible Studies, in which they are often happier to have open debate and discussion. Indeed, such a mid-week meeting can be quite a good example of what the pattern of the main Christian fellowship meeting should be: less predetermined selection by the Overseer and more spontaneous and open participation and contribution by believers, less passive reception of lectures and more active discussion and debate, less emotionless repetition of creeds by rote and more active participation and engagement, less dependency on the Overseer and more dependency on the Spirit of God.
In this way, each part of the fellowship when working properly, builds the fellowship up in love (Ephesians 4 v 16). Those who are listening are to weigh what is said, to balance matters, to ponder and consider arguments and probabilities in the light of the Bible and apostolic tradition (I Corinthians 14 v 29; Acts 17 v 11; Acts 18 v 24-28).