On the Day of Pentecost, the risen Lord Jesus, through his Holy Spirit, established his church on earth in this way:
“Those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” (Acts 2:42-43)
Scholars of the Bible believe that this was the beginning of the pattern of worship on Sunday, the first day of the week, which seems to have become an established worship practice among the churches by the end of Paul’s Third Missionary Journey (about AD 57).
“On the first day of the week, when we met to break bread, Paul was holding a discussion with them; since he intended to leave the next day, he continued speaking until midnight.” (Acts 20:7)
Christians all over the world, of just about every tradition, have continued to gather on Sundays for worship ever since.
Worship services have been abused and misused right from the beginning. Long sermons were not invented by modern wind-bag preachers; Paul’s midnight stem-winder (noted above) actually resulted in an unfortunate fatality (Acts 20:8-12).
Other distortions of Sunday worship services are discussed at some length in Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth. The sacred celebration of the Lord’s Supper sometimes became an occasion for expressing selfishness, indulgence and greed.
“When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s Supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I commend you? In this matter I do not commend you!” (1 Corinthians 11:20-22)
Paul used this scolding as an opportunity to teach the true, deep meaning of the Lord’s Supper:
“For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. . . .So then, my brothers and sisters, when you come together to eat, wait for one another.” (verses 23-28, 33)
Here’s another problem the church at Corinth had — everybody wanted to be up front.
“What should be done then, my friends? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up. If anyone speaks in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn; and let one interpret. But if there is no one to interpret, let them be silent in church and speak to themselves and to God. Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. If a revelation is made to someone else sitting nearby, let the first person be silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged. And the spirits of prophets are subject to the prophets, for God is a God not of disorder but of peace. . . . So, my friends, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues; but all things should be done decently and in order.” (1 Corinthians 14:26-33, 39-40) *
It’s fascinating that virtually all the New Testament passages about the early church’s worship services are about problems. The Medieval Roman Catholic excesses didn’t corrupt the worship of the pure church; neither did the showmanship of 21st Century mega-ministers and their over-the-top audio-visual systems. Church worship services were corruptible right from the beginning, and even in the first generation of Christianity there were imperfect humans ready to corrupt them. Evidently, it’s God’s will for the church to be just as fallible as the fallible humans whose souls it feeds.
Looking for the perfect worship service? You won’t find it at ABC, but you won’t find it at the church down the street either, nor in the idealistic new start-up church that all your really creative Christian friends are talking about. You won’t even find it in the Bible.
But you will find Jesus in any worship service that has him as its focus — if your heart is open.
— Pastor George Van Alstine
* In the verses I’ve omitted (verses 34-35), Paul tells women that they’re not supposed to speak in the public worship service, but are to learn quietly at home from their husbands. These are the same men who were causing so much confusion in the church service. Go figure.