Ever wonder what early Christian worship looked like how we got from there to here? In reading for my church history class I came across some descriptions of early church practices, which I’ve summarized from Justo Gonzales’ The Story of Christianity.
Focused on the Celebration of Communion
While today the main focus of Christian gatherings tends to be the preaching of God’s Word, the early church tended to focus on Communion. Sunday gatherings were a time of celebration, because God’s family was gathering together to commemorate the way that he had freed us through his Son. Church gatherings were often long affairs split into two main parts. The first part involved scripture, prayer and singing. Because very few people actually owned copies of the scriptures, there was sometimes hours worth of scripture reading and commentary in gatherings. The second part and culmination of the experience was the celebration of the Christian’s redemption-Communion, which was very lengthy practice by today’s standard.
Surprisingly enough early church meetings were not as evangelistic as they are today. Instead they were semi-private, family affairs. Communion, which was the focus of church gatherings was limited specifically to baptized Christians. Though non-Christians were allowed to come to meetings, they were asked to leave while Christians celebrated the Lord’s Supper. Rather than having the mindset of getting non-believers into the doors of the church’s meeting places, evangelism was worked out in everyday life in the “kitchens, shops and markets” not necessarily through inviting people to church functions. It is worth keeping in mind that Christians were persecuted which may have some influence on the practice though it is questionable as to how much.
The early church didn’t think of church as a building, but a people- those who were part of God’s family through Christ. Churches certainly met in buildings, but the buildings were mostly people’s homes. In fact, it was not uncommon for churches to meet at the tombs of the faithful- specifically martyrs. The establishment of church buildings as we now think of them didn’t become common until the 4th century because of Constantine’s influence. This is also true of the use of incense, fancy dress, choirs, processionals and signs of respect. These were formerly used in Roman Emperor worship and were introduced to the church through the “Christianization” of the Roman Emperor ( or should I say the Romanization of Christianity?).
These are merely descriptions of what the early church looked like in its gatherings. Many of the values, priorities and culture of the church were very different from our emphasis as 21st Century Western Christians. As mentioned before, the influence of Rome dramatically changed the church. While we should desire to follow Christ and to follow his apostles in the purest way, we must not romanticize our understanding of even the early church before Romanization. The early church, even in the time of the apostles was riddled with problems. For that matter the apostles were riddled with problems (think of Peter, the leader of the church, denying Christ before his crucifixion), though God chose to speak through them to reveal His Word. That to say, it isn’t profitable for us to long for what never was- a perfect church. Rather we should learn from the past in order to long for the future, which is what will be when God consummates his Kingdom on earth through the return of his Son Jesus the Messiah. Only then will the church be complete.