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Ancient Christian Worship: Concluding Observations

For the past little bit I have presented a general outline of Christian worship throughout the second and third centuries. Although local customs would have surely determined how congregations performed each element of the liturgy, the overall structure seems to have been quite universal. Free-church Christians may wonder, however, about the absence of certain elements that figure prominently in their worship services. Let us then consider briefly announcements, the pastoral prayer, presentational music, and the invitation.

Announcements. I do not mean to be facetious in listing “announcements” as a prominent feature of free-church worship. Dr. Constance Cherry presented some unpublished research to the Annual Convention of the American Baptist Churches of Indiana and Kentucky (Indianapolis, October 12, 2002) culled from her visits to numerous churches across the United States from various liturgical traditions. (If this research has since been published, somebody please let me know!) Her research suggests that announcements take up perhaps 8% of our worship. While this figure is only about 4% in liturgical services, it rises to a whopping 13% in a traditional Protestant service. This is about one-eighth of the worship time; about eight minutes out of a one-hour service. Traditional Protestants spend more time making announcements than they do praying (11%: six and a half minutes in a one-hour service) or reading scripture (5%: three minutes)!

This is not to suggest that announcements were never a part of ancient worship. Certainly the church would occasionally need to meet and deliberate important issues such as, for example, the selection of new clergy. These meetings and similar happenings would need to be publicized, perhaps at the close of the service as is done today in many liturgical churches. But the nature of church life was such that announcements could be kept to a minimum. The small, intimate nature of ancient churches would have naturally precluded most of the committees and business meetings that plague the Free Church today. The church of my wife’s childhood in rural Kentucky never had business meetings. When something needed to be decided, they just stayed late after the close of the service and decided what to do and who would do it. A small boat is more maneuverable than an ocean liner, and a small church can do more with less bureaucracy.

Furthermore, “fellowship” was an ongoing reality rather than a series of scheduled “special” events on the church calendar. People knew when a church member was hosting an agape meal because a close-knit congregation saw each other several times during the week and not just at a large Sunday meeting. Worshipers could share prayer requests (and actually receive prayer!) during the informal gathering time before the service began. Furthermore, the church‚ especially the clergy‚ gathered daily for prayer and Bible study, affording a constant opportunity to deliberate important matters as they arose.

Pastoral Prayer. Prayer in ancient liturgy was part of the “work of the people” (leitourgia), not the performance of the pastor, which the congregation appreciated in silence. Although the form of public prayer in the ancient church is debatable, it is certain that it was construed to be an activity of the entire church. Even in those forms of prayer that involved a series of collects prayed by the celebrant, there was the deacon’s bidding and the active engagement of the whole congregation in the work of intercessory prayer.

The closest thing to a “pastoral prayer” in the ancient church was the Eucharistic Prayer over the bread and the cup. This prayer was one of the main liturgical functions of the bishop, and bishops apparently put a good bit of effort into the crafting of their customary anaphoras. If free churches want their pastors to offer lengthy, rhetorical prayers every Sunday, perhaps they should give thought to celebrating the Lord’s Supper more often 🙂

Presentational Music. This category includes any kind of music performed by a choir, ensemble, or soloist, to be listened to by the congregation. According to Cherry, traditional Protestants spend as much time listening to presentational music as they do listening to announcements. There seems to have been little or no presentational music in ancient worship apart from the chanting of psalms by a cantor. Even here, there were congregational refrains requiring fuller participation. Choirs, where they existed, mainly supported the congregational singing, or perhaps sang as an accompaniment for other liturgical actions such as the Offertory or Communion.

Invitation or Altar Call. The invitation is an invention of nineteenth-century revivalism. Since ancient worship was for those who were already “members of the family,” there was no need to extend an invitation for unbelievers to be converted. Spiritual seekers who did attend the liturgy were dismissed before the prayers and may have received special instruction—and perhaps even impassioned calls to repentance—outside of the worship context.

Evangelization in ancient times did not depend upon getting unbelievers to come to church but on Christians being faithful in the world. The main factors in the church’s phenomenal growth during this period were a healthy catechumenate, the witness of public martyrdom, and ministries of caring, including physical healing and deliverance from demonic assault (see E. Glenn Hinson, The Evangelization of the Roman Empire [Mercer University Press, 1981]).

Nor did believers respond to an “altar call” in order to “rededicate their lives” after a period of spiritual backsliding. Penitence after gross sin or apostasy was a prolonged process involving exclusion from the Lord’s Table similar to that enforced for seekers and catechumens.

So, this is what ancient Christian worship was like. As I said early on, I think it is a model that the free churches could run with if they would study the pattern and discern how to transfer it into modern (or postmodern) forms. I think we would discover that there is ample freedom for diversity and experimentation, but also a certain substantiality and reverence that comes from tapping into the ancient sources of Christian worship. One Baptist pastor I know says that his church, with a somewhat more liturgical style than you would associate with Baptists in the South, has become a kind of haven for couples with a mixed denominational heritage. There is enough freedom for the Baptists and Disciples but also enough familiar ceremonial for the Lutherans, Presbyterians, or whoever.

I wish it were easier to find churches that worshiped like this, but in my experience Christians don’t do a great job of combining structure and spontaneity. Those who lean towards one tend not to appreciate the other or even look down on it as somehow less spiritual or appropriate.

Then again, I’m probably just nuts anyway because I actually enjoy both free-wheeling African American (or Pentecostal)-style worship and ancient ritual and symbolism. If I could have them both in the same service, I wouldn’t be in heaven, but I’ll bet I could see it from there.

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