The worship of the early church was not commanded or proscribed (except perhaps for the Lord’s Supper). In the hard line churches of Christ we were told and we believed that the early church worship service was carefully laid out by the apostles who received the blueprint from Jesus. But this is not what the New Testament letters reveal.
Praying, preaching, giving and singing were all responses to the good news that arose spontaneously out of the relationship the believer had with God. Luke said that the early believers were so excited that they met daily in the Temple and from house to house to sing, teach, pray and to break bread together. They weren’t commanded to do these things. They couldn’t stop doing them.
In the hard line churches of Christ we were critical of denominations that had a liturgical service: reading prayers out of a book, repeating a ritual each Sunday. How dead that was to us. Yet we had the same practice: our prayers were repeated phrases (someone counted about 120 phrases the hard line churches of Christ used in various orders), our Lord’s Supper routines were never spontaneous (if they were we would have been rebuked severely).
This ritualization and codification of the spontaneous joy of the early Christians is the farthest thing from Luke’s mind in recording the early Christians’ worship. To use Luke and Paul’s words of encouragement and joy as a pattern that cannot be deviated from for all worship for all time is a misuse and a wresting of the scriptures, not rightly dividing the word of truth.
This happens in all denominations, according to Moberg (1984). Church movements start out as revivals in staid stodgy churches. The excited, joyful people can’t stop talking and encouraging everyone. They write new songs, they pray long prayers, they come up with a whole list of scriptures that have new meaning for them. Until they are kicked out and they form their own group. Within one generation the new group is a sect, the old joyful exuberance has been codified into a rigid concrete law of how God is to be worshiped, the new songs that were written are printed into a hardbound hymnal and sung each Sunday, exactly as they were sung by their parents. The sect is popular among the disenfranchised poor and uneducated of the society, and it grows. The rigid rules help the children and grandchildren of the original members conduct self-disciplined lives and they progress up the social ladder as the years pass. They begin to insist their preachers get better educations, and they want their churches to help them fit into the middle class. They build universities, and beautiful church buildings. The movement quits growing and begins a slow decline, at which point it is ripe for another revival.
We are not restricted by a blueprint or pattern of worship. We have to encounter God through the story of Jesus and then express that encounter via our own culture.
But what we have left, even in more liberal evangelicalism, is a fearful conservatism that squashes creative expression of our relationship with God. What would happen if your church put on a play where Joseph and Mary were depicted as two present day homeless teens who have a terrible argument as they rent a garage and then Mary starts screaming as she goes into labor. I tell you what would happen: the church would never ask those actors to help out in the worship service again. The board would meet and make sure a new policy eliminated the risk of any such behavior in church again.
If we want to be challenged, we don’t go to church, we watch a challenging movie, or read a book, or have a discussion with someone who is politically astute. (The bravest thing evangelical churches do is go on trips to serve in poor countries.) So what are we as present day evangelical believers? We are timid souls who tiptoe after the culture at large that leads the way in ethical exploration.