Participatory Church Meetings
by Steve Atkerson
Is worship really the purpose of a church service?
What kinds of things are to go on in such a meeting?
Who is allowed to speak? Who can teach?
How many different people can address the church?
Are the kids to be in children’s church or with their parents?
What size meeting was typical in the New Testament?
Participatory church meetings not only are the New Testament pattern, but are expressly prescribed. Related to church meetings, Paul declared that “what I am writing to you is the Lord’s command” (1Co 14:37). Obviously, what we do when we assemble is very important.
The first song begins promptly at 10:30 Sunday morning. Prior to that, folks are hugging and greeting each other, bringing food or children inside the house, getting a cup of coffee from the kitchen, or standing around talking. That first song is the cue for everyone to assemble in the living room so that the more formal time of the meeting can begin. There are usually about ten families and two singles present. Counting children, there are around fifty people. Some are usually late in arriving. There are typically enough chairs for the adults, and the children sit on the floor near their parents. Young children color or play quietly with toys during the entire meeting. People are dressed casually and comfortably.
The musicians (banjo, djembe, two guitars and a mandolin) do not try to be worship leaders. Their goal is simply to facilitate and support the group’s singing. As many or as few songs are sung as are requested by those present. Spontaneous prayer is often offered between songs, sometimes leading to longer times of conversational prayer. There is no bulletin or order of service, though everything is done in a fitting and orderly way. Only one person at a time may speak. The prime directive is that anything said or done must be designed to build up, edify, encourage or strengthen the whole church.
Sometimes several brothers teach. Other weeks no one brings a word of instruction. Those burdened to instruct prepare prior to the meeting, but rarely is anyone officially scheduled to teach. Interspersed between the songs and teachings, testimonies are shared of God’s provision, of lessons learned, of prayers answered, of encouraging events, etc. Sometimes there are periods of silence. Frequently a visiting Christian worker will report on his ministry and of God’s work in other places.
It is not a show or performance. There is neither moderator nor emcee. Unless there is a problem to resolve, a visitor would not even know who the leaders were. There is not an official ending time for the meeting. Often it lasts one and a half to two hours. Either everyone who desires to sing or speak has done so, or the kids are at the end of their endurance, or corporate hunger motivates a conclusion. Generally, the meeting closes with prayer. Afterwards, folks stay and fellowship as long as they desire. The meeting usually transitions into the Lord’s Supper, a full meal that everyone enjoys.
The church meeting described above is not fictional. Such meetings take place every Lord’s Day, all over the world. They even occur in such unlikely places as England, America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand! They are modeled after the church meetings described in the New Testament. Modern believers are so accustomed to attending church in special sanctuaries with stained glass, steeples, pipe organs, pews, pulpits, choirs, bulletins, and worship leaders that it is assumed Scripture dictates such trappings. The reality is that New Testament church meetings were vastly different from what typically is practiced today.
Scriptural Arguments for Participatory Meetings
Participatory church meetings are indeed scriptural. For example, Paul asked the Corinthians, “What then shall we say, brothers? When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church” (1Co 14:26).
Had Scripture used the words “only one” instead of “everyone,” which would be more descriptive of most modern church services? It is clear from the text that those original church meetings were much different from what often goes on today. There was interaction, spontaneity and participation. In a sense there really wasn’t an audience because all the brothers were potential cast members (depending on the gifting and leading of the Spirit).
The generally spontaneous and participatory nature of early church meetings is also evident in the regulations concerning those who spoke in tongues: “If anyone speaks in a tongue, two — or at the most three, should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret. If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and God” (1Co 14: 27-28).
Were these speakers in unknown tongues scheduled in advance to speak? Not likely, given the supernatural nature of the gift. That the meetings were participatory is evident from the fact that up to three people could speak in tongues and that there was the need for an interpreter to be present.
Further indication of the participatory nature of their gatherings is seen in the guidelines given for prophets in 1 Corinthians 14:29-32. We are informed that “Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said” (14:29). The spontaneous nature of their participation also comes out in 14:30-31a, “If a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop. For you can all prophesy in turn.” Clearly, some of the prophets came to church not planning to say anything, but then received a revelation while sitting there and listening.
One of the most controversial paragraphs in the New Testament occurs in 1 Corinthians 14:33b-35, regarding the silence of women in the meeting. No matter how one interprets this passage, there would have been no need for Paul to have written it unless first century church meetings were participatory. There would be little reason for Paul to write this to modern churches, since in general no one is allowed to speak except the pastoral staff. It is implied in 14:35 that people were asking questions of the speakers during the church meeting: “If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home.” Even if Paul only meant that women were not to be the ones doing the questioning, it still remained that the men were free to so. The point to be gleaned is that a church meeting is not supposed to be a one man show. There are to be edifying contributions and encouraging input by those who gather.
Almost every New Testament letter is an “occasional document,” so-called because it was written in response to some local problem. Evidently some in Corinth wanted to conduct their meetings differently than this passage requires. Some aspect of the church meetings in Corinth was probably amiss. This much is obvious from the nature of the two questions asked of them: “Did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached?” (1Co 14:36).
The word of God clearly had not originated with the Corinthians, and they most certainly were not the only people it had reached. These questions were thus designed to convince the Corinthian believers that they had neither right nor authorization to conduct their meetings in any other way than what is prescribed by the apostles. As such, whatever applied to the Corinthian church applies to us as well. The inspired correction served to regulate orderly participation at church gatherings, not prohibit it. Paul wrote, “Be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way” (14:39-40).
Holding church meetings in this generally spontaneous, participatory manner is in fact declared to be imperative. According to 1 Corinthians 14:37, “If anybody thinks he is a prophet or spiritually gifted, let him acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord’s command.” Thus, 1 Corinthians 14 is not merely descriptive of primitive church meetings. Rather, it is prescriptive of the way our Lord expects meetings of the whole church to be conducted. Not every gathering of believers need be participatory — only to the regular Lord’s Day gatherings of the whole church. Other types of meetings, which may not be participatory, are also appropriate (evangelistic crusades, worship services, seminars, etc.). Caution should be taken that larger meetings, where a select few exercise their ministry gifts, do not become substitutes for the weekly, participatory Lord’s Day gathering of the local church.
When we understand the historical context of the early church, it is not surprising that the meetings of the first-century church would have been participatory. The first believers in most areas of the Roman Empire were Jewish. They were accustomed to gathering in the typical synagogue format, which was, at least to some degree, open to participation from those in attendance. An examination of the book of Acts will reveal that the apostles could never have evangelized the way they did unless the synagogues allowed input from individuals with the congregation (13:14-15, 14:1, 17:1-2, 17:10, 18:4, 19:8). The apostles apparently were always permitted to speak in the meetings of the synagogue. Had first century synagogue meetings been anything like most twenty-first century church worship services, Paul and his companions would have had to find another way to reach the Jews with the gospel!
There are other biblical indicators as well. In Acts 20:7, we discover that Paul “kept on talking” (“preached,” KJV) to the church at Troas until midnight. The Greek word translated “talking” is dialegomai, which primarily means “consider and discuss, argue.” In fact, our English word “dialogue” is derived from it. That meeting in Troas was likely participatory. As one who had known Jesus in person, Paul surely did most of the talking, but the way he taught was not necessarily uninterrupted monolog.
There is still more. The author of Hebrews urged his readers to “not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another” (10:25). Early believers encouraged one another when they gathered. Clearly, they met together in order to do this. Such encouragement, of course, requires interaction. Additionally, believers are instructed in Hebrews 10:24 to meet in order to stimulate each other to love and good deeds. This too requires interaction. How much “one anothering” really goes on in a modern worship service?
The over-arching purpose for anything done in a church gathering was, according to Paul, for the “strengthening of the church” (14:26). The Greek word used here, oikodomé, means “building up” or “edification” (NASV). Thayer pointed out in his lexicon that it is the action of one who promotes another’s growth in Christianity. Thus, any comments made in a church meeting should be calculated to encourage, build up, strengthen or edify the other believers present. If not, it is inappropriate and should not be spoken. Any teaching brought must be both true and uplifting. Even questions must be designed to ultimately strengthen the whole assembly. All songs need to be edifying. Every testimony is required to build up the church. As Peter said, “If anyone speaks, he should do it as speaking the very words of God” (1Pe 4:11). In keeping with this, Paul encouraged prophecy over the public speaking in tongues. This is because everyone who prophesied in a church meeting spoke to others for their “strengthening, encouragement and comfort” (1Co 14:3) with the result that the church was “edified” (14:5). The Corinthians were instructed to “try to excel in gifts that build up the church” (14:12). All of this points to the participatory nature of early church gatherings (participatory in the sense that any brother could potentially address the assembly).
One final observation: today’s church gatherings are commonly referred to as worship services. This title suggests that the reason for regular Christian gatherings is to worship God. Yet the New Testament never refers to a church meeting as a worship service. As we have already seen, Scripture indicates that the early church gathered primarily for the purpose of mutual edification and strengthening.
Don’t misunderstand me. Corporate worship can certainly contribute to the strengthening of the church. Worship, however, is not the only activity that can edify. The problem lies partially in naming the meeting a worship service. First, church meetings are to be open to meaningful audience input, not a service where everything is done for them. Second, such a title suggests that worship is the only appropriate activity that is to occur. Other modes of edification are seen as less important. People are led to expect emotional feelings such as are associated with cathedral architecture, candles, hushed sanctuaries, stained glass windows, awe-inspiring music, and the presentation of a program that is in essence a performance. With such unbiblical expectations, a truly biblical 1 Corinthians 14 meeting will seem strange, uncomfortable, or even disconcerting.
So where does worship fit? Jesus told the woman at the well, “A time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem” (Jn 4:21-24). In saying this, He made it clear that the new covenant worship would have nothing to do with any particular location. It transcends 11:00 a.m. on a Sunday morning and should not be localized in any church sanctuary.
There are primarily two Greek words in the New Testament for worship. The first is proskuneo and refers to an attitude of adoring awe toward God. It is humility toward the Father. It is reverence, appreciation, fear and wonder.
This attitude of inner devotion is very practically worked out in the second New Testament word for worship (latreia), which refers to a life-style of obedience and service. Worship is thus both an attitude and an action. As Francis Scott Key penned in a hymn: “And since words can never measure, let my life show forth Thy praise.” Thus, while our participation in the weekly church meeting is undeniably an act of worship, so is going to work honestly, the discipline of our children, loving our families, etc. Our daily lives are to be a continual act of worship.
The Sunday gathering is for the benefit of the people present. It is not God who needs strengthening because He is not weak. The Lord doesn’t need to be encouraged since He is neither tired nor discouraged. Jesus is not lacking in anything, but His people certainly are. Thus the primary purpose of a church meeting is to equip God’s people to go out to worship and serve Him another week (Heb 10:24-25). It is to motivate the elect to deeper worship and obedience.
Logical Arguments for Participatory Meetings
It is a simple fact of history that the early church met in the homes of its members. No special church buildings were constructed during the New Testament era, nor during the following two hundred years. This necessarily meant that their gatherings were smaller rather than larger. Such smaller settings would have essentially eliminated the possibility that those pristine meetings might consist of an eloquent sermon delivered to a massed crowd of hushed listeners.
After Christianity was made the official religion of the Roman Empire, pagan temples were turned, by government decree, into church buildings. Believers were herded out of their home meetings and into large basilicas. Such huge gatherings naturally were more of a show or service. Interactive teaching became nonexistent, and instruction was monologue oration. Questions from the audience were not allowed. Spontaneity was lost. Individual participation was squelched. The “one another” aspect of an assembly became impossible. Informality gave way to formality. Church leaders began to wear special costumes. Worship aids were introduced: incense, icons, hand gestures, etc. It continues even today, to a lesser or greater degree. In short, the New Testament way was jettisoned for a way of man’s own devising.
Which type of church meeting best meets the needs of God’s people? Certainly much good comes from the weekly proclamation of God’s Word by those church leaders who have come to be known as preachers or pastor-teachers. The worshipful and inspirational singing of the great hymns of the faith is also beneficial. Yet scripturally, there is supposed to be more to a church meeting than merely attending a service.
Allowing any of the brothers who so desire to participate verbally in the meeting lends for a greater working of the Spirit as the various ministry gifts begin to function. Not allowing them to function causes atrophy and even apathy. According to what Paul wrote, God may burden several brothers, independent of each other, to bring a teaching. Learning is increased as appropriate questions are asked of a speaker. Additional applications and illustrations can be offered to a word of instruction by the body at large. New believers learn how to think biblically with the mind of Christ as more mature believers are observed reasoning together. Maturity rates skyrocket. The brothers begin to own the meeting, take responsibility for what goes on and become active participants rather than passive spectators.
Scholarly Testimony for Participatory Meetings
That New Testament church gatherings were completely open and participatory, with no one leading from the front, is agreed upon by researchers. For instance, Dr. Henry Sefton, in A Lion Handbook - The History of Christianity, stated, “Worship in the house-church had been of an intimate kind in which all present had taken an active part . . . (this) changed from being ‘a corporate action of the whole church’ into ‘a service said by the clergy to which the laity listened.’”1
Ernest Scott, in The Nature of the Early Church, writes, “The exercise of the spiritual gifts was thus the characteristic element in the primitive worship. Those gifts might vary in their nature and degree according to the capacity of each individual, but thy were bestowed on all and room was allowed in the service for the participation of all who were present . . . Every member was expected to contribute something of his own to the common worship.”2
In the Mid America Baptist Theological Journal, Dr. J. Milikin stated that in early Christian congregations “there was apparently a free expression of the Spirit. In the public assembly one person might have a psalm, another a teaching, another a revelation, another a tongue, another an interpretation.”3
Dr. John Drane, in Introducing the New Testament, wrote, “In the earliest days . . . their worship was spontaneous. This seems to have been regarded as the ideal, for when Paul describes how a church meeting should proceed he depicts a Spirit-led participation by many, if not all . . . There was the fact that anyone had the freedom to participate in such worship. In the ideal situation, when everyone was inspired by the Holy Spirit, this was the perfect expression of Christian freedom.”4
A. M. Renwick, writing in The Story of the Church, said, “The very essence of church organization and Christian life and worship . . . was simplicity . . . Their worship was free and spontaneous under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and had not yet become inflexible through the use of manuals of devotion.”5
One aspect of New Testament meetings that is still practiced today is the singing. The Ephesian church was instructed to “speak to one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord” (Ep 5:19). Similarly, the Colossians were exhorted to “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God” (Col 3:16). Perhaps not so familiar to modern believers, however, is the “one another” (Ep 5:19, Col 3:16) emphasis of the singing. According to 1 Corinthians 14:26, everyone of the brothers had the opportunity to bring a hymn. No mention is made anywhere in the New Testament of a minister of music or worship leader controlling the singing. It is certainly a blessing to have gifted musicians who can assist the congregation in worship and singing. However, to be true to the New Testament prescription, musicians must be careful not to perform like those on stage in a show. The brothers of the church must be given the freedom and responsibility of requesting which songs are sung, and when.
On a related note (pun intended!), some Christians are adamantly against the use of musical instruments in church meetings. However, the Greek word for “hymn” (1Co 14:26) is translated from psalmos and which fundamentally means, “songs accompanied by a stringed instrument.” Since instruments are not forbidden, and since there is no known pattern of specifically not using them, this arguably is an issue where each church has liberty to determine its own practice.
Another feature of early church meetings that is still practiced today is the teaching of God’s Word. Our Lord instructed the apostles to make disciples of all nations, teaching them to obey everything He had commanded (Mt 28:20). Accordingly, we learn from Acts 2:42 that the Jerusalem church devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching. Further, teaching is listed as a spiritual gift in both Romans 12:7 and 1 Corinthians 12:28. Moreover, one of the requirements of an elder is that he be able to teach (1Ti 3:2). Elders who work hard at teaching are worthy of double honor (financial support, 1Ti 5:17-18). In 1 Corinthians 14, however, teaching is tossed in with the other activities in an almost cavalier way. The teacher is not given the prominence that one sees in today’s typical church meeting. Every one of the brothers in good standing with the church was to be given the opportunity to contribute a word of instruction (14:26).
All this, taken together, demands of us an appreciation for the importance of those called to teaching ministries, yet we should also allow opportunity for any brother to teach in our regular 1 Corinthians 14 gatherings. Practically, it would also suggest each teaching during the 1 Corinthians 14 style of meeting be shorter, rather than longer, in order to allow the opportunity for others who might desire to teach.
Amazingly, pastors and elders are not even mentioned in 1 Corinthians 14. This may be because pastors did not dominate these types of gatherings with their teachings. This is not to say that elders did not teach in the meetings, but it is clear from 1 Corinthians 14 that non-elders also had the opportunity to do so. Thus, the author of Hebrews made the general statement that “by this time you ought to be teachers” (5:12). That he did not have the leaders in mind is evident from his salutation (“greet all your leaders,” 13:24), revealing that he did not even expect the elders to read the letter! Still, just because the opportunity exists for someone to teach, it does not necessarily follow that they should teach. The elders must remind the church of James’ warning that “not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly” (3:1). James’ caution makes sense in light of the intimate, participatory meetings that characterized the early church.
This freedom for any brother to teach is precisely when the elders are needed most. If a brother brings an erroneous teaching or application, the elders must gently correct the error. Timothy, an apostolic worker stationed temporarily at Ephesus, was to “command certain men not to teach false doctrines any longer” (1Ti 1:3). Scripture also tells us that one qualification for an elder is that he must “hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it” (Tit 1:9). Similarly, Titus was told to “encourage and rebuke with all authority. Do not let anyone despise you” (Tit 2:15). The aged apostle John warned about a known deceiver: “do not take him into your house” (2Jn 1:10). (One can easily see how John’s instructions could have been applied to house churches with participatory meetings.)
Obviously, some brothers are far more qualified to teach than are others. An aged, godly man, gifted to teach, who loves the Lord, and who has studied the Bible and served people all his life, is going to have profound insights to share with the church. Especially in the presence of such men, the rest should be “quick to listen, slow to speak” (Jam 1:19). Special times should be devoted to allow such a man the opportunity of expounding God’s Word. However, these teaching meetings should be considered worker’s meetings or apostolic meetings or ministry meetings, not 1 Corinthians 14 church meetings. There is a time and a place for both. Rather than a lot of participation by one person, a Lord’s Day church meeting is to be characterized by a little input from a lot of people.
Charismatic and Pentecostal churches are quite familiar with revelations, tongues, and interpretations. Churches that practice such gifts should be sure the guidelines of 1 Corinthians 14:26-32 are followed closely. Uninterpreted tongues are not to be allowed. There is a limit on the number of those who do speak in tongues. Only one person at a time should speak. Prophecies must be judged, and anyone who desires to prophesy needs to realize in advance that his words will be weighed carefully. Doubtless some that passes for prophecy and tongues is bogus. Dealing with this area can be messy and frustrating since the overly-emotional and unstable often imagine they have such gifts. Perhaps that is why the Thessalonians had to be told, “do not treat prophecies with contempt. Test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil” (1Th 5:20-22). In the midst of all these supernatural utterances, there must be order: “The spirits of the prophets are subject to the control of the prophets. God is not a God of disorder but of peace” (1Co 14:33a). Elders play a key role in helping everything that goes on in the meeting to be done in a “fitting and orderly way” (1Co 14:40).
Some churches believe that charismatic gifts ended in the first century, or have no one present who is so gifted. Even so, the principle of participatory meetings remains. Brothers should still be free to spontaneously bring teachings, request or introduce songs, share testimonies, offer prayer, question speakers, etc. Yet despite their theological suspicions, it should give pause to read that Scripture clearly instructs, “do not forbid to speak in tongues” (1Co 14:39). Perhaps tongues have indeed ceased, but maybe not. Are we really so sure of our theology that we are willing to directly contradict a biblical command?
Another practical consideration for participatory meetings concerns the idea of a moderator or master of ceremonies. Notice that none is mentioned in 1 Corinthians 14. As a church matures in experiencing participatory gatherings, the need for someone to moderate the meeting will diminish. Ideally, a visitor to a properly functioning church would not even know who its leaders were unless there were a problem that requires correction.
A warning shot across the bow was fired by the inspired writer in 1 Corinthians 14:38. After stating that these orderly, participatory meetings are the “Lord’s command” (14:37), he then cautioned that anyone who disregards what was written would be ignored. Though unclear as to exactly what this meant, some type of penalty was threatened. A price would be paid for disregarding the Lord’s command for church meetings.
Problems to Expect
The authors of this book have many combined years of practical experience with participatory meetings. We have observed that there are some typical problems to be expected. We detail these below in the hope that those just beginning to experiment with participatory meetings can avoid some of the more common pitfalls.
Pew Potatoes. Most church folks, after years of attending services, are conditioned to sit silently, as if watching TV. It takes encouragement and patience to over come this. Meaningful participation will seem awkward to people at first. Continual prompting and encouraging by the leadership during the week may be necessary until people “break the sound barrier.” The leaders can prompt interaction by asking, “Is there a testimony the Lord would have you to bring? Is there a song that would edify the church? Is there some subject or passage of Scripture to teach on?”
If a string were stretched across a stream at water level, various things would become attached to it as the day passed, things that otherwise would have floated on past. Similarly, thinking all week long about what to bring to the meeting helps greatly. If no one brought food for the agape love feast, there would not be much of a feast. Similarly, if no one comes to the meeting prepared to contribute, there will not be much of a meeting! Men, do your wives spend more time preparing for church (by cooking food for the agape feast) than you do (in considering something to say in the meeting)?
Unedifying Remarks. Sometimes after folks do start talking, they get a little too casual. They begin to chat about things that really don’t edify the assembly. Just because it is an open meeting does not mean people can say anything they want to say. Leaders need to remind the church that anything said in the meeting must be designed to build up the body and to encourage everyone. Church meetings are also not to be therapy sessions for the wounded, with everything focused on one person and his needs. Though such people do need counseling, it is generally to be done at a time other than the corporate assembly.
False Teachings. The lure of an participatory meeting may be strong enough to draw in those with aberrant theology who are looking for a place to promote their unique doctrine. Following the biblical pattern of participatory meetings must not become an occasion for false teachings to flourish! The prevention and correction of error is precisely one reason elders are needed. Elders must be men who are mature and grounded in the faith. They must detect and refute error when they hear it, giving it no quarter. No teaching should be allowed in the meeting that is contrary to historic Christian orthodoxy.
Pooled Ignorance. Rather than study a subject in advance to bring a teaching, some folks will come to the meeting totally unprepared and simply plop a question out before the gathered church for an answer. This is the opposite of bringing a teaching. It is sort of an anti-teaching. Leaders should discourage people from asking such questions to the church out of ignorance. Such questions only draw attention to the person asking the question and are not designed to edify the church. It is too self oriented. It is asked to meet a personal need. Moreover, since it is unlikely that anyone will have recently studied the topic under question, pooled ignorance will likely abound as everyone offers their opinions. There simply is no substitute for the careful, systematic, in-depth study of Scripture in private and in advance of the meeting, and there is no excuse for not so doing.
Over-Scheduled Meetings. Those used to church bulletins will want to arrange such things as teaching, music and prayer in advance. Beware of quenching the Spirit! It is clear from 1 Corinthians 14 that New Testament church meetings were generally spontaneous.
Disruptive Visitors. There are many kinds of disruptive visitors. Uninformed guests can easily hijack a meeting by unedifying remarks. Self-centered people will try to take dominate the meeting. The mentally unstable will speak loudly and often, to the chagrin of the assembly. Critics may attack what the church does or believes in the meeting. Heretics will view the participatory meetings as a chance to promote their errant theology. Leaders are needed in such cases to restore order with wisdom and patience. Visitors should be prompted in advance of the divine guidelines found in 1 Corinthians 14. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure! (See the sample prospective visitor’s letter at the end). It may be appropriate to invite the critic to air his opinions later, after the meeting is over, during the fellowship of the Lord’s Supper or in private with the elders.
Population Control. Meetings that are either too big or too small create their own set of hindrances to participatory gatherings. Too few people can seem dull. Too many people present will intimidate the shy and work against open sharing.
Worship Leaders. Musicians are to facilitate the church’s singing and worship, not control it. Beware of worship leaders who would take over the meeting and make it into a show.
Punctuality. Relation-based churches are notoriously bad about starting late. If it is announced that a meeting will begin at a certain time, then the leaders need to be sure that it does start at that time. It is a matter of courtesy and respect for the value of other people’s time. Arriving on time also shows respect. Consistently being late for a meeting is often a sign of passive aggression. At the very least it is rude and inconsiderate.
The Master of Ceremonies. Some leaders will tend to want to emcee the meetings, as if they were television talk show hosts. Perhaps such prompting will be necessary in the infancy of a church, but in maturity this will not be needed. Further, there is nothing wrong with silence occasionally. Trust the Holy Spirit to guide the assembly. Ideally, a visitor in a 1 Corinthians 14 meeting should not be able to tell who the elders are in the church. Unless there is a problem, the elders should just blend in with everyone else! Admittedly, lack of participation on the part of the members can be a problem, so elders may need to lead out more in such cases to encourage input from others.
Children. The New Testament pattern seems to indicate that children were present in the meeting with their parents. For example, Paul intended some of his letters to be read aloud to the entire church (see Col 4:16). Based on Ephesians 6:1-3, children were present in the Ephesian church meetings or they would not have been present to hear Paul’s instructions to them when the letter was read. (Compare also Mt 19:13-15, Lk 2:41-50, Ac 21:5.)
However, a very young child who begins crying loudly in the meeting should be removed from the meeting by a parent until he is quieted. Older children must be taught to sit still or play silently on the floor so as not to disrupt the meeting. Some parents will be oblivious to this need and in such cases the leadership must speak to the parents in private to enlist their cooperation in controlling their children.
False expectations. People will invariably come to the 1 Corinthians 14 gatherings with preconceived notions of what the meeting should be like. Some, for instance, will want a moving worship service, or to sing only the great hymns of the faith. Others will exclusively associate praise songs with heartfelt worship, or expect dramatic healings to take place, or want a high powered Bible lecture, or some emotional presentation of the gospel. When their expectations are not met, disappointment and discontentment are the result. Church leaders need to be aware of this and take steps to help people to have biblical expectations of the meetings and to have the same goals that our Lord does.
Some overseers voice vigorous objection to this type of church meeting. With good reason they fear that chaos and anarchy could break out. Remember, however, that while there is order in a cemetery, there is no life there. It is much better to have life and risk a little disorder! Keeping order is one of the duties of an elder. Church leaders are also responsible for training the saints so that they are equipped to contribute meaningfully to such a meeting and to judge error for themselves. Further, the Holy Spirit must be trusted to work in the life of a church. If the Scriptures truly reveal God’s desire for participatory meetings, then God will also see to it that the meetings will be successful in the long run.
In commenting on the contrast between early church meetings and modern church meetings, Gordon Fee observed, “By and large the history of the church points to the fact that in worship we do not greatly trust the diversity of the body. Edification must always be the rule, and that carries with it orderliness so that all may learn and all be encouraged. But it is no great credit to the historical church that in opting for ‘order’ it also opted for a silencing of the ministry of the many.”6
Frankly, some pastors will oppose the guidelines of 1 Corinthians 14 precisely because enacting them will result in a lack of focus on the pastor. Sadly, a small percentage of pastors are on ego trips, or have their need for self affirmation fulfilled by being the star player in a service. This is a blind-spot that must be overcome.
Impedance to the commands of 1 Corinthians 14 can also occur if believers become so intoxicated with their newly found freedom that they essentially run off into anarchy or gnosticism. They become overly wary of agendas. To them, anyone with leadership skills is somehow self-willed or evil. Yet it is obvious that Paul, a godly leader, had a godly agenda for the churches to which he ministered. Balance is a key consideration. We need to be about the Lord’s agenda of helping His churches come into compliance with everything the Lord commanded!
Many people have read 1 Corinthians 14 and judged their churches to be in complete compliance merely because the congregation participates through responsive readings, genuflecting, partaking of the wafer and wine of the Lord’s Supper, singing hymns, giving tithes and offerings, etc. Part of the problem is that all of this is planned out, it is not spontaneous, the structure is the same every week, and the entire order of worship is laid out in the bulletin. There may be limited audience participation, but there is no real liberty. Is any one of the brothers free to pick a hymn? To bring a teaching? To raise his hand and ask a question? Is there spontaneity?
Conclusion: Affirmations & Denials
What conclusions can be drawn about the way God desires the weekly, Lord’s Day church meeting to be conducted? We deny that:
1. “Worship services” were held by the New Testament church.
2. Huge assemblies of Christians meeting for weekly worship is a New Testament pattern.
3. Church meetings need to be led from the front by a worship leader.
4. Bulletins are necessary or even slightly beneficial to a church meeting.
5. Only one person can teach in the meeting.
6. Teachers should be scheduled in advance.
7. Ritual and ceremony were part of New Testament church meetings.
8. Special aids to worship are important, such as incense, costumes, icons, statues, stained glass, or ornate cathedral-like buildings.
9. Performance-like shows are legitimate substitutes for the New Testament prescription of interaction.
On the positive side, we affirm that:
1. The regular weekly church meeting is to be participatory and spontaneous.
2. Anything said or done must be designed to strengthen (edify) the whole church.
3. Only one person at a time is to address the assembly.
4. Everything is to be done in a fitting and orderly way.
5. One of an elder’s roles in such meetings is to keep it “on track” and true to the prime directive that all things be done unto edifying.
6. This type of participatory meeting is not optional, is not just interesting history, is not just quaint information. Such meetings are the “Lord’s command” (1Co 14:37).
— Steve Atkerson
1 Henry Sefton, A Lion Handbook - The History of Christianity (Oxford, UK: Lion Publishing, 1988) 151.
2 Ernest Scott, The Nature Of The Early Church (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1941), 79.
3 Jimmy Milikin, “Disorder Concerning Public Worship,” Mid America Baptist Theological Journal (Memphis, TN: Mid-America Baptist Seminary Press, 1983), 125.
4 John Drane, Introducing the New Testament (Oxford, UK: Lion Publishing, 1999), 402.
5 A. M. Renwick, The Story of the Church (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press 1958), 22-23.
6 Gordon Fee, New International Commentary on New Testament, The First Epistle To The Corinthians (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987), 698.
1. Suppose 1 Corinthians 14:26 contained the words “only one” rather than “everyone.” Which would be more descriptive of modern worship services? How so?
2. Suppose 1 Corinthians 14:26 is actually a criticism of what the Corinthian church was doing (allegedly chaotic meetings), was the inspired solution a prohibition of participatory meetings or a regulation of it? Explain.
3. What role did music and ministers of music play in the early church meetings?
4. Taken as a whole, what are the various indicators throughout 1 Corinthians 14 that combine to show the participatory nature of early church meetings?
5. What are some of the guiding principles for participatory church meetings, based on 1 Corinthians 14 and Hebrews 10:24-25?
6. Why is it so important that everything said and done in the church meeting be edifying?
7. How can the participatory nature of a church meeting be reconciled with the need for the in-depth exposition of God’s Word by gifted teachers?
8. What does 1 Corinthians 14:37 indicate about whether the guidelines of 1 Corinthians 14 are merely descriptive or actually prescriptive?
9. Many churches have no one gifted in the more obviously supernatural “charismatic” gifts. Why would the absence of such gifts not nullify the Lord’s command (1Co 14:37) that church meetings be participatory?
10. What other contributions to a church meeting can be made, based on Acts 2:42, 14:26-28 and 1 Timothy 4:13?
11. What setting would better facilitate a participatory church meeting, a smaller congregation in a living room setting, or a huge congregation meeting in a canvernous worship center? Why?
12. What role should an elder play in an participatory meeting?
13. What risk does a church without an elder take when meeting for a time of participative encouragement (1Co 14)?
14. What evidence is there that children remained in the church meeting with their parents?
15. Having a open format could conceivably attract heretics who would seek to advance their novel views. How should this be prepared for and handled?
16. What should be done if, week after week, few people contribute anything of significance in the participatory meeting?
17. Where does the New Testament reveal that the purpose of a church meeting is to conduct a worship service? Explain.
18. In what ways does the church you currently attend conform to, or deviate from, the New Testament standard?
A Letter To Prospective Visitors
We have made a conscious effort to seek to follow the traditions of the original apostles in our church practice (see www.NTRF.org). Thus, even though we are quite “traditional” in the New Testament sense, what we do is rather unconventional by contemporary standards. Our hope is that you will feel comfortable and encouraged when meeting with us.
Our church is relationship based. First and foremost is each member’s relationship with the Lord Jesus. Then comes our relationship with each other as brothers and sisters in the same heavenly family. This does not mean that we believe doctrine to be unimportant. In the essentials of the Faith we believe there is to be unity. In the non-essentials we believe there is to be liberty (Ro 14 & 15). We leave it up to each father to decide these issues and lead his own family in them. If you hold certain secondary (and disputable) issues so dearly that it causes you to separate from other brethren, then our church is probably not for you. A few examples of such issues that we consider to be secondary, and not worth separating over, are Bible translations, nonresistance, head coverings, Christmas, politics, the Sabbath, end-time events and music styles.
We meet in the morning, in NE Atlanta, near the Perimeter. For location and directions, please call:
Pete & Eta at 000-000-0000
John & Meg at 000-000-0000
1. Following the pattern of the New Testament, the church comes together regularly on the first day of each week. This is known in Scripture as the Lord’s Day, the day Jesus conquered death and rose from the grave. We do not, however, see it as any type of sabbath day. Every day is a holy day under the New Covenant (Heb 4, Col 2:16 - 17, Ga 4:8 - 11).
2. The doors of the host’s home open at 10 a.m. and the singing starts promptly one half hour later. Thus, you can see that there is a thirty minute window for folks to come in, get settled, visit, get coffee, etc. Please try to park on the same side of the street on which the home is located. This will make it less likely that our cars will choke up the neighborhood street.
3. Our dress code is casual and comfortable. Nobody wears a tie. Ladies wear anything from comfortable dresses to pants to capris. Children usually end up playing outside after the meeting and therefore wear play clothes and shoes. Getting dirty is not uncommon for the kids.
4. The Lord’s Supper is an integral part of our gathering. Actually, it is the main reason we come together each week. We eat it as a full meal per 1 Corinthians 11b. It is potluck with everyone bringing something to share with the rest. We believe it is to be a true meal to typify the wedding banquet of the Lamb. It’s a great time of fellowship and encouragement and very much like a wedding party rather than a funeral. In the middle of all the food you will notice the one cup and the one loaf, representing the body and blood of our Lord, designed to remind Jesus of His promise to return and partake of the meal again with His people. All believers are free to partake of the bread and the fruit of the vine as they go through the food line. There is no official ending time. Just leave after you have dined and enjoyed sufficient fellowship!
5. Before we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we have a time of sharing and singing. It is spontaneous and participatory (no bulletin!) per 1 Corinthians 14:25ff. Nothing is pre-planned except the starting time of the first song (10:30 a.m.). Sometimes we sing a lot, sometimes not much at all. On one Sunday three brothers may teach, while on other weeks no one will teach.* Sometimes we pray a long time, sometimes very little. Any of the brothers may participate verbally, but everything said must be designed to edify the whole church (14:26). Only one person at a time is allowed to address the assembly, and everything is to be done in a fitting and orderly way. All teaching and prophecies are liable to public cross examination and judgment. Further, there is no moderator nor emcee per se. In fact, unless there is a problem to correct, you would not even know who our leaders are. Ladies do not speak out publicly in the 1 Corinthians 14 phase of the meeting (14:33-35). In contrast, they speak quite a bit during the fellowship of the Lord’s Supper.
*Our in-depth teaching ministry is on Wednesday nights at 7:30.
6. The children stay with us in the meeting, though if a really young child gets noisy one of his parents will take him out until he calms down. If you have young children you may wish to bring along something to keep them happy, such as a drawing pad and crayons or quiet toys. The kids usually sit on the floor next to their parents. We believe it is the parent’s job, not the church’s, to teach their children about Jesus. Thus, we purposely have no Sunday school nor children’s church.
7. Inquiring minds will want to know that most of us hold to the doctrines of grace (Augustinian soteriology), new covenant theology , biblical inerrancy, and the Danver’s statement on biblical manhood and womanhood. You can find out more about New Testament church life at www.ntrf.org. We also are decidedly in alignment with historic Christian theology and morality. Our elder’s favorite statement of faith is the First London (Baptist) Confession of 1644.
8. In short, we believe that the patterns for church life evident in the New Testament are not merely descriptive, but are actually prescriptive (2Th 2:15, 1Co 11:2). Thus, we believe that churches should be smaller rather than lager, in elder-led congregational consensus, in participatory church meetings, and that the Lord’s Supper and the Agape Feast are synonymous weekly events. You may find it helpful to read through 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 and 1 Corinthians 14:26-40 before coming.
9. For us, true church life occurs every day, as we see each other during the week, all week long. To facilitate this, we place a high priority on living as close together as is practical. So, the Lord’s Day activities described above are just the icing on the cake. To evaluate us based solely on what you observe in a Sunday meeting would be an incomplete analysis.
10. In a perfect situation, church is to be about community, not
commuting. To fellowship with the saints only on Sundays is to do
yourself a disservice. If you don’t live on our side of town, we would
like to help you eventually start (or find) a church in your own
neighborhood, once you get the vision for New Testament church life. In the mean time, come advance the Kingdom with us.
In sum, our church is committed to meeting and living out as simple as possible a reading and understanding of what the New Testament church gave us for a pattern. We know we don’t have it all figured out yet. We are a work in progress! We tend to take issues one at a time and attempt to come to a biblically based consensus before moving on. Everybody counts and ideally nobody gets run over or discounted. This means we sometimes move pretty slow, but with a high degree of peace and unity. For that we have been blessed and are grateful.
Participatory Meeting Audio
Participatory Meeting Video
Participatory Meeting Teacher's Notes
Married since 1983, Steve Atkerson and his wife Sandra have three children, one in high school, one in college and one married. A graduate of Georgia Tech, Steve worked for several years in electronics before enrolling in seminary. While there he served on the part-time staff of a 14,000 member Baptist church. After receiving an M. Div. from Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary, he ministered on the pastoral staff of a Southern Baptist Church in Atlanta with a membership of around 1000 folks. Then in 1990, after seven years in the traditional pastorate, he resigned to begin working with churches that desire to follow apostolic traditions in their church practice. He thus has transitioned all the way from mega churches to micro churches! He travels and teaches about the practice of the early church as the Lord opens doors of opportunity. Steve is an elder at a local house church, is president of NTRF, edited Toward A House Church Theology, authored both The Practice of the Early Church: A Theological Workbook and The Equipping Manual, and is editor of and a contributing author to both Ekklesia: To The Roots of Biblical House Church Life and House Church: Simple, Strategic, Scriptural.