As we noted in an earlier article, early Christian liturgies were most likely based on the liturgy of the Jewish synagogues, plus the Lord’s Supper (and, at least on occasion, baptism). The synagogues were places where Jews outside of Jerusalem would meet to pray and to read and discuss the Torah (i.e. the Law), the prophets, and the writings, the three sections of the Hebrew Bible (the Christian Old Testament). We do not know much about how the synagogues conducted their services in the first century, but it is very likely that the services then were similar to those we see today.
Synagogue Worship and the Early Church
For Christians, synagogue liturgies are striking for several reasons beyond the fact that they are conducted in Hebrew. First, nearly everything aside from the sermon is sung. Scripture readings are chanted by a cantor or members of the congregation, though most of the service consists of the congregation singing Psalms and liturgical prayers. In the first centuries AD there was no formal lectionary for Scripture readings, with the probable exception of major feasts. Thus, Jesus or Paul could be invited to read Scripture or share a message during the service. There was thus a degree of flexibility in the services, though liturgical prayers, particularly the set known as the Amidah, predominated.
Like Judaism, Christianity has always been a singing religion. Scripture tells us that singing is a mark of being filled with the Spirit, that we are to address each other in Psalms and hymns and spiritual songs (Eph. 5:180-19), that singing is the route into God’s presence (e.g. Ps. 100:2). Given the precedent from Judaism, it is likely that early Christian worship was not simply musical, but highly participatory, with the congregation singing responses and chanting prayers throughout the service. (Reading 1 Cor. 12-14 at face value, congregations that did not have a background in Judaism also seem to have been characterized by a high level of participation from the congregation in their community worship, though perhaps less singing.)
The Orthodox and the Catholics
Much of this practice is maintained in the Orthodox tradition. Orthodox churches sing 75% or more of the liturgy; in some cases, everything but the sermon is sung. Traditionally, Orthodox churches do not use musical instruments in worship, though some congregations now have organs. Rather, music is most often led by a choir. The congregation can join in as they wish; Slavic churches tend to have more participation in this than Greek churches. Although the services have evolved over time, the Orthodox maintain very close ties with their Jewish roots in their liturgical practice.
The Western churches have taken a different route. The liturgy continued to be chanted, but perhaps because it was in Latin and not the language of the people, over time participation in the liturgy became increasingly limited to the clergy, occasionally supplemented by professional choirs in wealthy parishes and in noble or royal households. The laity thus increasingly became spectators rather than participants in worship as the Roman church became more and more clericalized. Eventually, for many Catholics, the church was the clergy. The laity were there to support them and could reap the benefits of association with them through receiving the sacraments, but fundamentally everything centered on the work of the priest.
This began to change with the Protestant Reformation. Luther returned music to the congregation, and by translating the Mass into German (with appropriate theological adjustments), he made participation far more possible. Further, the core Lutheran emphasis on the priesthood of all believers lessened the distance between the clergy and the laity. Pastors were no longer seen as mediators of salvation (though the sacraments continued to be seen as a means of grace), and bishops no longer had the kind of jurisdictional authority they had in Catholicism. All of this led to a restoration of lay participation in the liturgy. A similar process would occur in Anglican churches, which also retained much of the Roman Catholic liturgy, but translated into English.
Reformed churches on the Continent tended to adopt far simpler and shorter liturgies that emphasized the sermon. The laity confessed their sins and sang Psalms and perhaps the Ten Commandments or the Song of Simeon but did not do much else. A deacon or elder would read Scripture and the pastor would pray and preach. This meant that for the majority of the service, the laity were passive observers, listening and learning and receiving the Lord’s Supper quarterly, but not taking an active role otherwise.
Among the English Puritans, this trend continued and, if anything, accelerated. The typical Puritan rejection of set prayers and the insistence that only the pastor preach and offer public prayers made lay participation other than singing Psalms virtually impossible. These trends passed on to most Dissenters from the Church of England, though some, such as the Quakers, would go to the opposite extreme and insist on free and spontaneous participation of all at their meetings.
Worship in America
In America, the various European traditions continued, with Puritanism being the most influential. However, particularly with the Second Great Awakening, Revivalism began to play an increasingly important role in shaping American approaches to worship. Puritanism still influenced the format of the services, particularly the focus on the sermon and the rejection of written prayers, but several new factors came into play. Hymns replaced Psalms as the basis for singing, and unlike earlier hymns such as those of Isaac Watts or Charles Wesley, American hymnody became more emotion-driven and less oriented around scriptural paraphrases or grand theological or doctrinal concepts. Music—whether sung by the congregation or done as “special music”—was used largely to set the mood for the sermon and to accompany the altar call.
At the same time, opportunities to participate in the services increased. Song leaders, accompanists, choirs, and soloists were frequently lay people, and of course the congregation was encouraged to sing the hymns. The altar call itself was the climax of the service in much the same way that the Eucharist might be in a high church setting, and it was an invitation for lay participation. Along with these, services frequently included personal testimonies, where people told of their lives before conversion, how they were converted, and what life has been like since. Outside of revival meetings, service leaders might solicit praise reports, prayer requests, or less formal testimonies. All of these represented new forms of lay participation not found in the historic Christian tradition but adapted to the culture of emerging American evangelicalism.
Revivalism also influenced African-American churches, though their worship culture actively encourages participation of the laity even during the sermon, with shouts of “Amen” or “Praise the Lord” punctuating the preaching as a way of affirming and encouraging the preacher. Pentecostalism adds a further dimension to this, with various spiritual gifts being practiced within the congregation.
One thing that should be clear from this survey of congregational participation in worship is the importance of singing throughout the Christian tradition. It is easily the most common way the laity participate actively in the service rather than being simply spectators. And that brings us to the most recent developments in contemporary worship. In many churches, “worship” is understood simply as music. Services begin with a praise band leading a series of contemporary worship songs, after which there is a prayer, offering, and sermon, possibly with a closing song at the end. This is as barebones a liturgy as you can find, and in many cases the congregation are entirely spectators: the worship band essentially performs a concert, sometimes even with smoke machines and a light show; people might sing along or they might not, but that too is no different from what happens at rock concerts. When the music is finished, the people listen to the prayer and sermon, once again playing a passive role. While similar sorts of things happen in all churches—remember, Greek Orthodox congregants often do not sing during the liturgy—the very structure of contemporary services almost encourages a spectator approach to the worship.
So far in this series we have looked at worship through three polarities: form and freedom, word and sacrament, and spectator and participant. How are we to decide what is the appropriate approach scripturally? As it turns out, that raises yet another polarity, which we will discuss in the next article.