Some Descriptions of Worship: Old and New

Volume 18, No. 2 (FEBRUARY 2023)

Jewish Roots

While we do not have a lot of historical information about worship in the very earliest churches, we can observe that there were influences from Christianity’s Jewish roots: both from the synagogue (especially the practice of the reading and expounding of the Scriptures) and from the temple (especially the remembrance of the once-for all sacrifice of Christ in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper).

The New Testament Witness

There is a little information to be found in the New Testament. In Acts 2, Luke tells us that at the conclusion of Peter’s Pentecost sermon: “So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls” (2:41). And then in the very next verse Luke tells us what these new believers regularly did when they got together: “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (2:42); and a few verses later we read that they were also “praising God” (2:47). They “devoted” themselves to these activities:

  • the apostles’ teaching (of the Old Testament, at that time)
  • the fellowship
  • the breaking of bread (or the Lord’s Supper)
  • the prayers
  • praising God

It seems likely that Luke mentions these elements immediately after the account of the conversion of the first Christians (and emphasizes that they regularly“devoted” themselves to these) in order to suggest that these were normative activities for the church. And in fact, if we consider what elements of worship are found in virtually every Christian tradition, across denominations and down through the centuries, we see that these are indeed consistent features (though fleshed out in widely diverse ways);

  • the Word of God (now the entire Bible)
  • fellowship
  • Communion or Lord’s Supper
  • prayer
  • praise

These seem to be non-negotiable constants for worship to be truly Christian. (The list is not exhaustive, of course; true worship should also be Christ-centered and gospel-centered, for instance.) As church history went on, these elements often developed very complex structures; nevertheless, it is important to recognize these consistent elements.

Elsewhere in the New Testament, the element of singing is mentioned in Ephesians 5:18-20, Colossians 3:16 and 1 Corinthians 14:26 (though most of 1 Corinthians 14 revolves around Paul correcting abuses relating to the exercise of prophecy and tongues in the public meetings).

Early Church History

The earliest extant account of a Christian worship service dates from about A.D. 155:

On the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succours 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.[1]

Later Characterizations

Gordon Lathrop makes these observations about the commonalities of many (if not most) Christian gatherings up to this day:

An assembly of people gathers. The gathering place may be very simple—a hut, a room, a house—or quite elaborate, one of the buildings developed over time from the large public buildings of the late Roman Empire. Singing enables these people to come together, and prayer, often spoken by one who acts as a presider, sums up the sense of the song, interpreting that coming together as being before God. Then, as if this were the principal reason for the gathering, ancient texts are read by one or more readers. Frequently the readings are interspersed with further song. The presider speaks about the meaning of the readings and the meaning of the gathering, and the people respond with yet more song or with an ancient credal text, corporately recited. Another person in the assembly leads prayers for a variety of needs throughout the world. Then gifts of money (and sometimes food) that have been brought by persons in the assembly are collected.  Some of the people set a central table—perhaps a simple piece of furniture, perhaps a massive stone—with food, linens, and candles as if for a feast, adding to the growing sense in the meeting that the other principal reason for the gathering is to be this meal. The food set out, however, is simply bread—in one or another form—and a cup of wine. In dialogue with the assembly, the one who presides speaks or sings a formal thanksgiving over the food, and, most commonly aided by others, distributes the food to the assembly for all to eat and drink.  Concluding prayers and songs follow, and the assembly is dismissed.

Such a gathering, widely practiced in most of the Christian churches as the principal act of worship, has been especially associated with Sunday, though sometimes it may also occur on other days. It has been practiced, more or less in this form, for a long time, being traceable to the earliest centuries of the Christian movement. In the diverse churches the outline of the assemblies’ actions may differ slightly, being intensified with more or less ceremony, led by a single person or by many people, interspersed with more or less communal song, and partly or wholly obscured because of the overlay of rich secondary patterns of action. In all of the churches, other events may be inserted into this outline, especially that washing with water whereby the community adds people to its number. Still, something like this assembly occurs weekly throughout the churches and is treasured as the very heart of Christianity.[2]

James K. A. Smith considers the various components of Christian worship from the perspective of those who have been constituted as “a royal priesthood” (1 Peter 2:9) and who “offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe” because we are “grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken” (Hebrews 12:28):

  • Call to Worship[3]:                              Responding to the Invitation of the King
  • Greeting:                                               Enjoying the Welcome of the King
  • Song:                                                      Chanting the Language of the Kingdom
  • Confession/Assurance of Pardon:    Embracing the Hope of the Kingdom
  • Creed:                                                     Reciting the Constitution of the Kingdom
  • Prayer:                                                    Speaking the Language of the Kingdom
  • Scripture and Sermon:                        Receiving the Instructions of the King
  • Communion:                                         Supping with the King
  • Offering:                                                Embracing the Economy of the Kingdom
  • Sending:                                                 Going as Ambassadors of the King[4]


[1] Justin Martyr, “The First Apology of Justin,” in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, 185–186. It has been noted that, interestingly, Justin makes no mention of music in this passage; but he does speak of hymns elsewhere in this document.

[2] Gordon W. Lathrop, Holy Things: A Liturgical Theology, 1-2.

[3] The New Testament word for church is ekklesia, literally denoting those who have been “called out.”

[4] Freely adapted from James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview and Cultural Formation, 159-207.

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