How is it then, brethren? when ye come together, every one of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edifying. (1 Cor. 14:26)

(I wrote a few posts a while back on ‘Re-defining Church’ which gives some of the foundational premises of the thoughts I mean to share here, but instead of rehashing any of that, I will try to be as concise as I can but feel free to search those posts on my site if they interest you.)

Have you ever studied 1 Corinthians 14? If so, you should have noticed a few things; the topic of the chalter (really of chapters 12-14) is the operation of spiritual gifts.

One other thing you may not have noticed as particularly is that this these chapters (particularly 14) also give clear directions for appropriately ordered church meetings:

Even so, he, forasmuch as ye are zealous of spiritual gifts, seek that ye may excel TO THE EDIFYING OF THE CHURCH. (14:12)

Yet IN THE CHURCH I had rather speak five words with my understanding… than twn thousand words in an unknown tongue. (14:19)

If therefore the whole church be come together into one place, and all speak with tongues, and there come in those that are unkearned, or unbelievers, will they not say that ye are mad? (14:23)

But if there be no interpreter, let him keep silence IN THE CHURCH; and let him speak to himself, and to God. (14:28)

A number of ways these teachings have been misunderstood, and misinterpretted, but my point here is to get at one of the central roots of this teaching. 1 Corinthians 14 describes the appropriate orderly conduct of the usage os spiritual gifts SPECIFICALLY IN THE SETTING OF A CHURCH MEETING.

Why don’t our church services look like this decription laid out by Paul?

How is it then, brethren? when ye come together, every one of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edifying. (1 Cor. 14:26)

Yet, when we come together – generally – we take our seats (often in the same ones we sit in from week to week), and the liturgy begins. In most mainline evangelical churches the service goes like this: there is a song service, some announcements, and then the speaker. A few Pentecostal churches allow for the song-service period to be open for some general prophecy or words of encouragement, but by-and-large there is little deviation from this format, and very little participation in the liturgy by the congregants.

Particularly as our churches grow larger, and larger these dynamics take an even more prominant role. It seems culturally that we have largely lost sight of the fact that this is not how the first century church operated. If we look at the book of Acts, and the instruction that Paul gives of conducting church services, we see a largely different model formed than the version which we have developed.

Of course there are reasons for this:

The earliest churches to have existed initially met either in (generally) one of two formats: 1) Synagogues ((those with true Hebrew roots), Christians would go to Synagogue and teach the Gospel through the Old Testament (see also post: Thoughts on interpretting scripture) ussually until they were kicked out, though occassionally whole Synagogues ware converted and became a Messianic Synagogue or ‘church’). Unlike modern churches, however, the Synagogues described in the New Testament expected congregation participation – which is the very reason that Christians (and before that, Christ, Himself (Luke 4:15 & 16)) were able to preach in them.

2) More commonly among gentiles, churches were established in private homes.

Personally, I believe that the most similar situation to the early church in modern times (that I have any degree of knowledge about) is the underground house-church movement in places like China. These are similarly formatted in a number of ways, one being that they are focused in-home churches, rather than large ‘community-center’ type meeting places.

One of the things that has come into vogue, it seems (or had before the virus outbreak) within certain neo-pentecostal churches was to prophesy a great coming revival which would specifically be in enormous arenas, and huge gathering places. That Arenas all over the place would be filled with massive Gospel revivals. If there is any validity to his word, I say: “So be it! May God bring such a great revival among His people!” And such may occur at some point in the future, however, this system is based largely on the American revivalist ideal forged by great evangelists of recent centuries, and not as much on the system of the early church. (There were, of course, great revivals in large community centers, market places, Synagogues, and the temple in Jerusalem in the early church, howbeit, these were (as in contemporary times) evangelistic services, not standard church services.)

While evangelistic services are wonderful, yet what we are given in the form of biblical instruction on conducting church services, what is required is a smaller, more intimate church setting – such as a house church. in an evangelistic meeting, only the Gospel should be presented, therefore it makes sense to have one or two evangelists speak, andfor participation to be limited to responding to the Gospel.

Yet regular church meetings that are too large cannot allow for group participation, and this is a GREAT detriment to the Church at large – particularly because it is now not only the way conduct church occassionally, but in almost all instances. How can I say that is a detriment? Study 1 Corinthians 12, God has set every member in the body as it hath pleased him, and if they were all an eye, where were the hearing? And if they were all an ear, where were the smelling?

And there are diversities of operations, but it is the same God which worketh ALL IN ALL. [That is, God works ALL kinds of gifts in ALL members of the church.]

But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to EVERY MAN TO PROFIT WITHAL. (1 Cor. 12:6 & 7)

The entire message about Christ’s body (the church) in 1 Cor. 12 is that every member is necessary, and must participate. Yet culturally we have impeded ourselves from this format, and come to he place where no one ministers in the church except the designated clergy to perform whatever liturgy (‘liturgy’ basically just means the order of the church service) has been established.

In fact, in order to preserve the church meeeting liturgy format, it is often taught that believers shoukd use their spiritual gifts ‘in the marketplace,’ but Paul isn’t talking about the market place, he talking about properly conducting church meetings.

I have participated with very small churches which by means of their size have the perfect opportunity to change their format, yet which try to maintain the larger church liturgical format instead. In some instances I think this is because they want the church to grow, in other instances it is simply because they cannot even fathom of doing church differently that the model they have seen and exlerienced.

But again, what did Paul say?

How is it then, brethren? when ye come together, every one of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edifying.

Now, I won’t burden you here with my opinion about governmental mandates on gatherings, or get into the weeds in that direction… but I will point out also that the early church was not sanctioned by the government, but persecuted by it (which is another reason that house-churches worked so well for them). Assembling together is an essential part of practicing our faith and – again – the place in scripture which speaks most definitively about spiritual gifts is about their use not outside, but inside of the church.

I also won’t go into detail about my thoughts on why so many have left the church in recent times, but I do frankly believe that the large church format we’ve taken is a central reason. Why? Because Christians need to be edified and uplifted, and ministered to by one-another, not just by appointed clergy. And perhaps more important, Christians need to MINISTER TO one-another, and he large church format – while it can certainly house a good deal of people – is not a good platform for that to happen.

An verse often quoted as a scriptural ‘command’ for Christians to go to church is Hebrews 10:14, but let’s look at what the verse actually says:

Not forsaking the assembling of yourselves together as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more as you see the day approaching.

The point of our assembling is that that Christians MINISTER TO EACHOTHER. Quick anecdote: Folks used to try to encourage the great T.L. Osborn that he should visit Israel. His response? “I’m not interested in going to Israel, they won’t let me preach there.” As an evangelist he saw the only reason to go anywhere as preaching the Gospel; ifyou have been called to kinister, and they won’t let you minister somewhere, then going would be stepping out of your calling.

Even if each Christian is able to recieve all the ministry they need from the liturgy of a church service (which, I don’t think they can), there is still a MAJOR unfulfilled need in each believer: to contribute; to operate as whatever part of the body that they are in a communal setting. We need to minister as well as be ministered to.

I’ve read some about the early circut riding Methodist preachers on the American frontier. One of the things hat strikes me from their accounts is that their expectation for families involved in the churches on their circut was that they were doing regular home devotions, and that the larger gathering of families was merely an extension of their own home-church experience. Certainly, we have come a long way from that perspective, however, I think that we have an immense opportunity to re-assess our perspective of church – and particularly to reform its format.

Not to be restricted, but in coming together in smaller gatherings, we can actually edify one another, have deeper fellowship, and perform more lime the early church.