Participatory Worship

by Steve Atkerson

The Pattern

        Worship in the early church was characterized by the opportunity for believers to contribute to corporate worship and not merely attend a service. Their meetings were participatory. An open format allowed those prompted by the Spirit to offer testimony, share an experience, give an exhortation, lead out in prayer, teach, sing, give praise, etc. Each person operated out of his spiritual gifting. There was no bulletin since the meeting was not scripted in advance. The prime directive for anything said or done was that it had to edify, strengthen, build up or encourage the other believers present.


The Purpose

        Participatory worship allows for a fuller expression of the spiritual gifts given by the Holy Spirit. It provides more naturally for the fulfillment of the various “one another” passages of Scripture. Such meetings are more meaningful to the congregation as a whole since the people “own” it in a sense, taking responsibility for what goes on. It encourages the brothers to get and stay involved since they can contribute to the proceedings in a truly meaningful way. The church also is not so dependent on the performance of a few extraordinarily gifted leaders (though they most certainly are still needed).


The Professors

        That New Testament church gatherings were participatory is generally agreed upon by researchers. For instance, Church of Scotland minister Henry Sefton wrote in A Lion Handbook - The History of Christianity that “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]      

        In The Nature of the Early Church, Ernest Scott, professor of history at the University of Melbourne, wrote that “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 they 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. Jimmy 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]

        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, professor of church history at the Free Church College in Edinburgh, 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]

       In writing about public worship in the New Testament church, London Bible College lecturer G.W. Kirby concluded that “There appears to have been considerable fluidity with time given for spontaneous participation.”[6]

        William Barclay wrote that “The really notable thing about an early Church service must have been that almost everyone came feeling that he had both the privilege and obligation of contributing something to it.”[7]


The Proof

        Had first century synagogue meetings been closed like modern Western church services, Paul would have had to find another way to reach the Jews with the Gospel. The typical first century synagogue format was, at least to some degree, open to participation from those in attendance. Paul was free to speak in the various synagogues.[8]  Since those who accepted the Gospel soon left the synagogue to start a church, it is not surprising that the meetings of these early believers were also participatory.                 

        The author of Hebrews urged his readers, “let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together” (10:24-25). Instead of forsaking the assembly, they were to be “encouraging one another” (10:25). Early believers were to think in advance how they could stir one another up when they met as a church. They encouraged one another when they gathered. Such encouragement, of course, requires interaction. When the congregation assembled, the meeting was formatted in such a way to allow ample opportunity for mutual encouragement. It was not focused only on the leaders. It was about each member doing his part as led by the Spirit.[9] How much “one anothering” really goes on in a modern worship service?

        There are other biblical indicators as well. Acts 20:7 records that at Troas, Paul talked until midnight. This was a special teaching meeting. The Greek word translated “talked” (“preached,” KJV) is dialegomai, which primarily means “discuss”.[10] Our word dialogue is transliterated from it. Thus the ESV says that Paul “talked with” them, not that he preached. In Acts 18:4 and 19:8 the same word is rendered as reasoned and reasoning. Paul doubtless did most of the speaking that night, but the way he taught was not via an uninterrupted sermon, as if broadcasting over the radio. Since even the early church’s teaching times were more oriented toward discussion than preaching, it is to be expected that regular church meetings were also participatory. It is a simple fact of history that the early church met in the homes of its wealthier members. This necessarily meant that their gatherings were relatively small (certainly not thousands of people). These smaller, more intimate settings greatly reduce the possibility that those pristine meetings consisted primarily of eloquent sermons delivered to a massed crowd of hushed listeners.        

        There is still more. 1 Corinthians 14 concerns the regulation of the use of spiritual gifts in the church meeting. Paul said of the Corinthians, “When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation.”[11] It is clear from the text that those original church meetings were far different from what often goes on today. Those with the more public spiritual gifts were allowed to use them in the gathering. Had the words “only one” been used instead of “each one” it would have been more descriptive of most modern Western church services. There was audience participation. It is common today to ask, “What church do you attend?” For most modern Christians, attending a church meeting is not far different from attending the theater. In both cases the role of the audience is largely relegated to spectator status. In contrast, New Testament believers did not merely attend services. They were active, vital participants who could significantly impact what went on in the gathering.

        Even the early church’s singing had a “one another” emphasis. The Ephesian believers were to be “addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart” (Ep 5:19). Similarly, the Colossians were exhorted to be “admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Col 3:16, NAS). Since 1 Corinthians 14 is about the regulation of spiritual gifts in worship, when Paul wrote that “each one” had the opportunity to bring a hymn (14:26), he at least meant each one gifted in music. Any Spirit led musician should have the freedom to edify the church through his gift. Thought it is a blessing to have gifted musicians lead the congregation in worship, to be true to the “one another” principle, musicians must be careful not to merely perform as if on stage in concert. Those gifted in music are to facilitate the church’s singing and worship, not totally control it. It appears that believers in the early church generally had the freedom and responsibility of requesting worship songs (as assisted by those gifted in music).[12]

        Teaching should be an integral part of each weekly church meeting. Our Lord instructed the apostles to make disciples of all nations, teaching them to obey everything He had commanded (Mt 28:20). We learn from Acts 2:42 that the Jerusalem church devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching. Teaching is listed as a spiritual gift in both Romans 12:7 and 1 Corinthians 12:28. One of the requirements of an elder is that he be able to teach (1Ti 3:2). Elders who work hard at teaching are declared worthy of financial support (1Ti 5:17-18). Whereas today it is common for only elders to teach in a church meeting, in New Testament days “each one” of the brothers with the gift of teaching had the freedom to bring the lesson (1Co 14:26). The teacher did not have to be an elder. Although the elders probably did most of the teaching, there clearly was opportunity for any gifted brother in good standing with the church to teach (with the elders’ approval and coaching). 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! James’ caution that “not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (Ja 3:1) makes sense in light of the participatory meetings that characterized the early church. 

        The generally spontaneous and participatory nature of early church meetings is also evident in the regulations concerning those who spoke in tongues: “If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret. But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God” (1Co 14: 27-28). Were these speakers in unknown tongues scheduled in advance? Not likely, given the supernatural nature of the gift. That the meetings were participatory is also 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 prophecy in 1 Corinthians 14:29-32. Paul told the church to “let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said” (14:29). The spontaneous nature of their participation also comes out in 14:30-31a, “If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged.” Clearly, some prophets arrived without plans to speak, but then received a revelation while sitting there listening. 

        One of the more controversial paragraphs in the New Testament regards the silence of women in church meetings (1Co 14:33b-35). No matter how one interprets the injunction, there would have been no need for it unless first century church meetings were participatory. The implication is 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” (14:35, NIV). Even if Paul simply meant that women were not to be the ones doing the questioning, it still remained that the men were free to do so.[13] Speakers could be questioned. 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.

        The over-arching purpose for anything said or done in a gathering was that it had to be for the “building up” the church (1Co 14:26). The Greek word for building up, oikodomé, means strengthening or edifying. One lexicon described oikodomé as the action of one who promotes another’s growth in Christian wisdom, piety and holiness.[14] Any comments made in such a church meeting had to be calculated to encourage, build up, strengthen or edify the other believers present. If not, it was inappropriate and was to be left unspoken. Any teaching had to be both true and uplifting. Even questions were to be designed to ultimately strengthen the whole assembly. All songs needed to be edifying. Every testimony had to be crafted to build up the church. As Peter said, “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God's varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God” (1Pe 4:10-11). In keeping with this, Paul encouraged prophecy over tongues because everyone who prophesied spoke to others for their “upbuilding and encouragement and consolation” (1Co 14:3) with the result that the church was “edified” (1Co 14:5). The Corinthians were told, “since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church” (14:12). This all points to the participatory nature of early church gatherings as each person ministered according to his spiritual gifts. Participatory worship is indeed scriptural.          

        Many people have read 1 Corinthians 14 and judged their meetings to be participatory simply because the congregation participates through responsive readings, genuflecting, partaking of the wafer and wine of the Lord’s Supper, singing pre-selected hymns or giving offerings. The problem in such cases is there is no real liberty. Everything is planned out rather than spontaneous, the structure is generally the same every week and the entire order of worship is laid out in the bulletin. Is any one of the brothers free to pick a hymn or bring a teaching or ask a question? Is there any spontaneity? 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.”[15]

        After Christianity was made the official religion of the Roman Empire by Theodosius (around A.D. 381), huge pagan temples were turned by government decree into church buildings.  Church gatherings were moved out of the relative intimacy of people’s homes and into large, impersonal basilicas. Such huge gatherings naturally morphed into more of a show or service. Socratic teaching gave way to eloquently orated monologues. Questions from the audience were prohibited. Spontaneity was lost. Individual participation was squelched. The “one another” aspect of an assembly became impractical. Informality fossilized into formality. Church leaders began wearing special clerical costumes. Worship aids were introduced: incense, icons, candles, hand gestures, etc. In short, the New Testament way was jettisoned for a way of man’s own devising. This continues even today.

        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 godly pastor-teachers. The worshipful and inspirational singing of the great songs of the faith is clearly beneficial. Yet scripturally, there is supposed to be more to a church meeting than merely attending a service conducted from the front and totally scripted in advance.

        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 are freed to function. Not allowing participation can cause atrophy and even apathy. Based on what Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 14, God may burden several brothers, independent of each other, to bring a short word of encouragement or testimony. Learning is increased as appropriate questions are asked of a teacher. Additional applications and illustrations can be offered by the body at large to augment a word of instruction. New believers learn how to think with the mind of Christ as more mature believers are observed reasoning together. Maturity skyrockets. The brothers begin to own the meeting, taking responsibility for what goes on and become active participants rather than passive spectators.  


The Proposition

        What conclusion can be drawn about how God desires the weekly, Lord’s Day church meeting to be conducted? Holding church meetings in this generally spontaneous, participatory manner is an imperative. In the context of the regulation of church meetings, Paul wrote, “the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord” (1Co 14:37). Thus it would appear that 1 Corinthians 14 is not merely descriptive of primitive church meetings; it is prescriptive. 

        Almost every New Testament letter was written in response to some local problem.  Evidently some in Corinth wanted to conduct their meetings differently than this passage requires. This is obvious from the nature of the two questions asked of them: “Or was it from you that the word of God came? Or are you the only ones it has reached?” (1Co 14:36). The word of God clearly did not originate with the Corinthians and they most certainly were not the only people it had reached. These questions were designed to convince the Corinthian believers that they had neither the right nor authorization to conduct their meetings in any other way than that 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. Only one person at a time is to address the assembly. Everything is to be done in a fitting and orderly way. 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. Paul concluded, “all things should be done decently and in order” (14:40). 


The Practical

        Pastors new to the idea of participatory worship are wisely cautious. With good reason they fear that chaos could result. Keeping order is one of the duties of elders. Church leaders are also responsible for training the saints so that they are equipped to contribute meaningfully to a participatory 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 work through the elders to see to it that the meetings will be successful in the long run. While there is order in a cemetery, there is no life. It is much better to have life and risk a little disorder.

        Elders are to be about the Lord’s agenda of helping churches come into compliance with everything the Lord commanded. Edifying participatory church meetings do not just happen.  New Testament styled participatory worship is to be Spirit led. The Spirit uses elders to help make it edifying. They are behind-the-scene coaches, encouraging and training so that everyone operates from out of his spiritual gift and everything said and done is edifying.

        Below are some typical scenarios to be expected. We detail these in the hope that those just beginning to experiment with participatory meetings can avoid some of the more common pitfalls. 

        Pew Potatoes: Most Christians, after years of passively attending services, are conditioned to sit silently as if watching television. It takes encouragement and patience to overcome this. Meaningful participation will seem awkward to people at first. Continual prompting and encouraging by the leadership may be necessary until people break the sound barrier. Leaders can prompt participation 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 you have been burdened to exhort us about?” One duty of elders is to work behind the scenes, during the week, encouraging the quiet to share more and enlisting the help of the overly talkative in refraining to give opportunity for the timid to speak up.

        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 next meeting helps greatly. If no one brought food to a family reunion, there would not be much of a feast. Similarly, if no one comes to participatory worship prepared to contribute, there will not be much of a meeting. Spontaneous participation does not preclude preparation. Every brother should consider in advance how the Lord might have him to edify the church on the coming Lord’s Day (Heb 10:25).

       A far worse cause for lack of participation is lack of anything to share. Many Christians are not walking with the Lord, are not living Spirit-filled lives. Such spiritually dull believers will have nothing to share on Sunday. They may be as straight as a gun barrel theologically, but they are just as empty. Edifying participatory worship only happens when the church members are abiding in Jesus. Too often liturgy becomes a necessary cover for congregational carnality.

        Unedifying Remarks:  Sometimes after folks do start sharing, they get a little too casual. They begin to speak about things that 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 else. Church meetings are also not to be therapy sessions for the wounded, with everything focused on one needy person’s needs. Though such people do need counseling, it is generally to be done at a time other than the corporate assembly. It is the elders’ responsibility to help people understand what is and is not edifying and to coach people in private about making only edifying comments. Like a pencil, every message should have a point. Brothers should be encouraged to tell what time it is, not how to build a clock. The words spoken must have a punch, an exhortation. The elders must coach each person to remember Proverbs 25:11, “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.” Sometimes merely requiring speakers to rise and stand behind a lectern or music stand at the front will effectively squelch unedifying remarks. There is to be a certain degree of decorum.

        False Teachings: The lure of a participatory meeting may draw in those with aberrant theology looking for a place to promote their eccentric doctrine. Following the biblical pattern of participatory meetings must not become an occasion for false teachings to flourish. This is precisely when elders are needed. Timothy, an apostolic worker stationed temporarily at Ephesus, was to “charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine” (1Ti 1:3). Scripture also tells us that one qualification for an elder is that he must “be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Tit 1:9). Similarly, Titus was told to “exhort and rebuke with all authority. Let no one disregard you” (Tit 2:15). The aged apostle John warned about a known deceiver: “do not receive him into your house” (2Jn 1:10).[16] The prevention and correction of error is one reason elders are needed. 

        A very effective way to filter out those promoting doctrinal error is for the church to have an official statement of faith. At the very least the statement could reflect the basic orthodoxy of the elders. It should be made known that any teachings in the church should be consistent with the belief statement. This will often put enough of a constraint on a heretic looking for converts that he will not even bother coming in the first place. It may also be wise to only allow brothers to speak who are intimately involved with the church.    

        Pooled Ignorance: A Christian radio broadcaster, during an interview on participatory worship, astutely asked, “How do you keep the guy who knows the least from saying the most?” Rather than considering in advance how to encourage the church, some brothers will come to the meeting totally unprepared. Without the Spirit’s leading they will make impromptu rambling speeches that would be better left unsaid. It is the elders’ job to know the congregation so well that they know who is likely to do excessive inappropriate sharing. They must work with him to be informed, concise and judicious in how often he speaks.

        Counter Cultural Resistance: It is quite counter cultural to have participatory worship instead of a performance styled worship service led from the front. Many people will find participatory worship very uncomfortable. One Baptist church that experimented with participatory worship experienced a dramatic decline in attendance.  People said that they did not want to hear amateurs’ opinions; they wanted to hear polished presentations by professional pastors. It takes time, teaching, training and equipping by the leadership to ready God’s people for participatory worship. If participatory worship is truly Christ’s desire, then it does not matter how strange it seems in our culture.  Like the pearl of great price, the benefit is worth the cost.

        Disruptive Visitors: Uninformed guests can easily vex the church with unedifying remarks. Self-centered visitors may want to dominate the meeting. The mentally unstable will seek to speak loudly and often, to the chagrin of the assembly. Critics may publically attack what the church does or believes in the meeting. Heretics will view the participatory meetings as a chance to promote errant theology. Leaders are needed in such cases to keep the peace and restore order with wisdom and patience. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Visitors should be prompted in advance of the divine guidelines found in 1 Corinthians 14. (See the sample letter of introduction for prospective visitors in the appendix). It may be wise to allow only brothers in good standing with the church to speak.

        Population Control: Meetings that are either too big (thousands of people) or too small (less than a score) create their own set of hindrances to participatory gatherings. Too few people and the meeting can seem dull; diversity of spiritual gifts will be lacking. Too many people present will intimidate the shy and work against open sharing, accountability and intimacy. The typical first century house church, usually held in a wealthy person’s home, would hold at least 65-70 people.  There were 120 in the upper room.[17]

        Punctuality: Some people in relation-based churches are notoriously bad about arriving late. If it is published that a meeting will begin at a certain time, the leaders need to be sure it starts at that time. It is a matter of courtesy and respect for the value of people’s time. Consistently being late for a meeting is often a sign of passive aggression. At the very least it is rude and inconsiderate. Church leaders, in their management role of serving the church, should see to it that the meetings begin when scheduled.

        Suppose a brother is earnestly sharing something from his heart when suddenly in bursts a family arriving late. All eyes will naturally turn to see who is entering. As they climb over people already seated and chairs are shuffled and coat removed, what impact do you suppose it will have on the message that was being shared?  It will be disrupted and the Spirit quenched. To avoid this, lock the main doors after the meeting begins. Ask those arriving late to enter a side door and wait quietly in another room, not entering the meeting area until a song is being sung or there has been a break in the speaking. 

       It has frequently happened that a person arriving late will request a song that has already been sung. Worst yet, the late brother will bring an exhortation relative to some current event, an event that the church spent fifteen minutes discussing before he arrived. The elders might ask anyone coming late to refrain from speaking since he would have no idea what transpired prior to his arrival.

        Children: The New Testament indicates that children were present with their parents in the meeting. For example, Paul intended some of his letters to be read aloud to the entire church (Col 4:16); children had to have been present in the meeting or they would not have heard Paul’s instruction to them (Ep 6:1-3). See also Matthew 19:13-15, Luke 2:41-50, Acts 21:5. It is generally best for children to remain with their parents in worship, rather than being segregated in a children’s church.

        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. 

        Charismatic Gifts: 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. Non interpreted tongues are not to be allowed. There is supposed to be a limit of three on the number of those who speak in tongues. Only one person at a time should speak. Prophecies are also to be limited to three speakers. Prophecies must be judged. Anyone who prophesies must realize that his words will be weighed carefully. Doubtless some utterances that pass for prophecy or tongues is bogus. Dealing with this 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).  The elders are the quality control men.

        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 participation remains. Brothers should still be free to bring teachings, request or introduce songs, share testimonies, offer prayer, question speakers, etc.  Such participation does not preclude preparation. Every brother should consider in advance ask how the Lord might have him to edify the church on the Lord’s Day.


Discussion Questions

1. Suppose 1 Corinthians 14:26 was actually a criticism of what the Corinthian church was doing (chaos); was the inspired solution a prohibition of participatory meetings or a regulation of them? Explain.

2. 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?

3. What are some appropriate contributions to a church meeting, based on Acts 2:42, Acts 14:26-28 and 1 Timothy 4:13?

4. Why is it so important that everything said and done in the church meeting be edifying? See 1 Corinthians 14:1-25.

5. What does 1 Corinthians 14:37 indicate about whether the guidelines of 1 Corinthians 14 are merely descriptive or actually prescriptive?

6. Taken as a whole, what are the various indicators throughout 1 Corinthians 14 that combine to show the participatory nature of early church meetings?

7. What are some of the guiding principles for participatory church meetings, based on 1 Corinthians 14 and Hebrews 10:24-25?

8. What setting would better facilitate a participatory church meeting, a smaller congregation or a huge congregation meeting in a cavernous worship center?  Why?

9. What role should an elder play in participatory meetings?

10. What should be done if, week after week, few brothers contribute anything of significance in the participatory meeting?

11. An open format could conceivably attract heretics who would seek to advance their novel views. How should this be prepared for and handled?

12. What evidence is there that children remained in the church meeting with their parents?

13. In what ways does the church you currently attend conform to or deviate from the New Testament standard?


Note:  NTRF also offers a teacher’s resource to help lead a discussion of New Testament church life. Request The Practice of The Early Church: A Theological Workbook from


Sample Letter of Introduction

Meet the Geneva Community Church


Our vision is to glorify God through our love for Jesus and as we make disciples of all nations, multiplying new congregations that hold to early church practice.


We have made a conscious effort to seek to follow the traditions of the original apostles in our church practice ( We believe that this is the best way we can honor the Lord as His Bride. Thus, even though our fellowship is quite “traditional” in the New Testament sense, what we do is rather unconventional by contemporary standards. This letter is to help you know what to expect. Our hope is that you will feel comfortable and encouraged when meeting with us.


The Lord’s Day: Following the pattern of the New Testament, our 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).


Location: We meet in the morning, in NE Geneva. Since the early Church met mostly in private homes, the typical New Testament church was smaller rather than larger. Excavated Roman homes known to host church meetings could hold at least 65-70 people. Everything in the New Testament was written to churches where everyone knew everyone else. We believe that churches function best in a smaller setting. Thus, we think the ideal design is for each congregation (wherever it meets) to contain scores of people, not hundreds and certainly not thousands. Since the typical American home will not hold as many people as a Roman villa, we are open to creative alternatives. Another thing the Romans did not have to worry about was where to park all the cars that it takes to bring 70 people to church!  We currently meet in the community center of the Beza Park, 1517 Reformation Boulevard, Geneva.


The Importance of Relationships: Our church is relationship based. First and foremost is each member’s relationship with the Lord Jesus. Next is our relationship with each other as brothers and sisters in the same heavenly family. This emphasis on relationships 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 nonessentials we believe there is to be liberty (Ro 14 & 15). We leave it up to each father to decide about these nonessential issues and lead his own family in them. If you hold certain secondary (and disputable) issues so dearly that they had already caused you to separate from other brethren, then our church is probably not for you. A few examples of issues that we consider to be secondary, and not worth separating over, are Bible translations, nonresistance, head coverings, Christmas, politics, Sabbath observance, the future of Israel, home schooling, end time events and music styles. If you are under the discipline of another church, then we ask you to get things right with that assembly before you come to ours. (Our leaders will be glad to meet with you to discuss your situation further.)


Starting Time: The community center opens at 10:15 a.m. Our time of worship begins promptly at 10:30. Thus there is a fifteen minute window to come in, get settled, visit a little, get some coffee, etc. 


Participatory Worship: Our time together begins with a time of Spirit led, open sharing and singing (per 1 Corinthians 14:25ff). There is no bulletin. Nothing is scheduled except the starting time of the first song (10:30 a.m.) and the ending time (12:15 p.m.). However, spontaneous participation does not preclude prior personal preparation. During this time brothers operate out of their spiritual gifts to edify the church. Sometimes we sing a lot, sometimes not much at all (we sing both hymns and praise songs). On one Sunday several brothers may bring short exhortations, while on other weeks no one will share. Sometimes we pray a long time, sometimes very little. All depends on how the Holy Spirit has gifted and prompted various brothers to prepare during the previous week. 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 permitted to address the assembly, and everything is to be done in a fitting and orderly way. Anything said is liable to public cross examination and judgment. 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.


Teaching: The last part of our participatory worship is a time of in-depth teaching (from 11:30 a.m. to 12:15 p.m.).  It is usually led by one of our elders, though any brother in the church who is gifted in teaching has the opportunity to do so. The teacher is scheduled in advance. The church is decidedly in alignment with historic Christian orthodoxy and ethics. Inquiring minds will want to know that most of us hold to Calvinism, new covenant theology, biblical inerrancy, and the Danvers statement on biblical manhood and womanhood. You can find out more about New Testament church life at Our elders’ favorite statement of faith is the First London Baptist Confession of 1646. You don’t have to hold to these positions to fellowship with us, but understand that you will hear these things taught with enthusiasm on the Lord’s Day.


Children: Since we are a family integrated church, the children stay with us in the meeting. If a child gets noisy one of his parents will take him out until he calms down (we have a room dedicated for this purpose). 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. Kids often sit on the floor next to their parents. We believe it is the job of the parents, not the church, to teach their children about Jesus. Thus, we purposely have no Sunday school nor children’s church. 


Dress: Our dress code is casual and comfortable. Nobody wears a tie. Ladies wear anything from comfortable dresses to pants to capris.  Modesty is always in fashion!  Children usually end up playing outside after the meeting and therefore wear play clothes and shoes. Getting dirty is not uncommon for the kids.


The Lord’s Supper (A Holy Meal): The celebration of the Lord’s Supper is an integral part of our gathering. Actually, it is the main reason we come together each week. As did the early church, we eat it as a true meal per 1 Corinthians 11b. It is potluck with everyone bringing gracious portions to share. It is an actual meal to typify the coming Wedding Banquet of the Lamb. It is a great time of fellowship and encouragement and very much like a wedding banquet rather than a funeral. However, it is not simply lunch.  It is a sacred, covenant banquet. 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. It begins around 12:30 p.m. There is no official ending time. Leave after you have dined and enjoyed sufficient fellowship!


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.


Questions?  Call:

Steve & Sandra        770-493-1234

Denton & Tamara    678-343-1234

Ed & Linda              770-401-1234


See you on the Lord’s Day?


Revised 04/04/14

[1] Henry Sefton,  A Lion Handbook  - The History of Christianity (Oxford, UK:  Lion Publishing, 1988) p. 151.

[2] Ernest Scott, The Nature Of The Early Church (New York, NY:  Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1941), p. 79.

[3] Jimmy Milikin, “Disorder Concerning Public Worship,” Mid America Baptist Theological Journal (Memphis, TN: Mid-America Baptist Seminary Press, 1983), p. 125.

[4] John Drane, Introducing the New Testament (Oxford, UK:  Lion Publishing, 1999), p. 402.

[5] A. M. Renwick, The Story of the Church (Downers Grove, IL:  Inter-Varsity Press 1958), p. 22.

[6] G.W. Kirby, Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, IL:  Zondervan 1982), p. 850.

[7] William Barclay, The Letters to the Corinthians (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1977), p. 135.  

[8] Acts 13:14-15, 14:1, 17:1-2, 17:10, 18:4, 19:8.

[9] The Spirit’s prompting is an essential element in participatory worship.  Otherwise, it would merely be a religious version of the amateur hour. Every believer has been given a spiritual gift to be used to build up the church and is to operate out of this gifting. It is the leadership’s duty to equip the church to understand this.

[10] Baurer, Arndt, Gingrich, Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1979), p. 185.

[11] 1 Corinthians 14:26, italics mine. 

[12] Hyderabad church planter Stephen David wisely commented that too often what triggers people to worship God is the music itself, not the majesty of God: “Music should never become a focus in worship, but only God and His majesty.”

[13] Several articles on correctly interpreting 1 Corinthians 14:33b-35 are posted at

[14] Joseph Thayer, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI:  Baker Book House, 1977), p. 440

[15] Gordon Fee, NICNT, The First Epistle To The Corinthians (Grand Rapids:  Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987), p. 698.

[16] One can easily see how John’s instructions were especially relevant in churches with participatory meetings.

[17] Acts 1:15.


Participatory Meeting Audio 

Participatory Meeting Video 

Participatory Meeting Teacher's Notes

Steve Atkerson

Married since 1983, Steve Atkerson and his wife Sandra have three children, two in college and one married, and two grandchilren. 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. 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 much smaller 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 and House Church: Simple, Strategic, Scriptural.




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