Recent decades have brought about new and unusual challenges for Christian worship. These challenges often pertain to the manner in which worship should be properly carried out—Should we sing hymns or pop choruses? Should we have pews or theater seating (or, in homage to Wesley, flat wooden benches to keep people in just enough discomfort to prevent them nodding off)? Should our worship leaders wear suits or vintage t-shirts? Should we utilize gender-inclusive language in our prayers or stick with masculine-oriented language for God? How might we incorporate the worship practices of ancient Christianity into contemporary settings? Below I have singled out five distinctives that characterized the worship of the early Church, and have adapted them for consideration by contemporary Christian congregations.  This list is by no means exhaustive, nor is it intended to suggest that the sole focus of the Church today should be to exactly imitate a chimeric vision of a monolithic early Church. Instead, this list illustrates what I have assessed to be just a few of the core theological components of primitive Christian worship that warrant reconsideration by the postmodern (or post-postmodern) worshiping Church.

1. Christian worship should be appropriately doxological.

The ancient Israelite worship of YHWH routinely involved solemn recognition of God’s magnitude, from the liturgical practices and utterances of the people to the very architecture of the temple itself. The addition of “heads” (i.e. extendable, movable doors) to the gates of the temple made it possible for the entrance to be widened to symbolically make room for YHWH, hence the liturgical command, “Lift up your heads, O gates…so that the King of Glory might come in!” in Psalm 24:7. The temple became for the Judeans a microcosm of the universe that transcended physical space to accommodate the eternal presence and glory of God.[1] Today this display of reverence might seem imbued with a dusty pietism that borders on symbolic overkill. But such grandeur is noticeably lacking from popular church tunes and placating sermons that promote a “Jesus-is-my-boyfriend” attitude of worship.

The ancient Christian church, in keeping with their Jewish roots, regularly incorporated acclamatory or doxological formulae into their worship that recognized the majesty and immensity of God. But the focus of that worship came to be shared between YHWH and Jesus, and the answer to the question “Who is the King of Glory?” was ultimately thought by the early Christians to be Christ (see number 4 below), who was vindicated and elevated in his resurrection from the dead. Because of this profound mystery, the worship of the early Church was carried out with utmost respect—even fear—of the God who worked such wonders. In our rush to turn Jesus into our buddy, the contemporary Church occasionally abandons awe-filled glorification of the Deity to chase after more comfortable modes of worship. Instead, every aspect of our Christian gathering—whether hymns, prayers, or creeds—should share the same desire to glorify the Great Mystery as that held by the ancient Church.

This is not to suggest that all church worship should be full of high-church, “smells and bells”-type liturgy. Diversity is an important quality for Christian worship to have in a pluralistic world. But proper reverence can be given in a contemporary worship setting, as well. Today the Church would do well to remember the doxological philosophy of worship found in the liturgical Eucharistic response: “It is right to give our thanks and praise.”

2. Christian worship should leave room for wonder.

The rise of skepticism that accompanied the Enlightenment and Modern period has wreaked havoc upon the ability of many Christians (especially in the progressive tradition) to continue to believe in miraculous healings, demonic exorcisms, speaking in tongues, or other bizarre experiences that were, according to the New Testament and other patristic writings, common occurrences within the early Church. The groundbreaking work of Rudolf Bultmann and other modern liberal theologians has been to accommodate this skepticism by observing the mythic nature of the New Testament writings and by attempting to separate these mythical qualities from the theological kerygma that they bear witness to. While the reality of miraculous phenomena is still heavily debated today among scientists, philosophers, and biblical scholars alike, it is worth acknowledging that the world of primitive Christianity was most certainly perceived as a place where the supernatural frequently broke into the natural world. In our worship today, rather than succumbing to cynical mistrust of all things supernatural, we should instead remain receptive to the possibility of wonder. For instance, I have significant doubts regarding the phenomenon of glossolalia. But I also have a friend who identifies as a Charismatic and who frequently speaks in tongues. Through my relationship with her, I have been forced to acknowledge that while her experience of God is not my experience of God, it is nonetheless a perceived genuine religious experience that I have no authority to deny.

This is not to advocate for a “God of the gaps” theology in which the Deity becomes increasingly marginalized to those areas of faith left untouched by scientific inquiry. It is, rather, an invitation to remain critical yet open to what is possible, and perhaps even what is considered impossible. It is an invitation to be “shrewd as serpents yet innocent as doves” (Matt. 10:16) in our worship. This also entails maintaining an openness to the work of the Spirit, who is alive and present and breathes life into congregational gatherings. We might add, therefore, that Christian worship should also be pneumatologically oriented, as well.

3. Christian worship should be sufficiently sacramental.

This assertion does not necessitate one particular ideology regarding the sacraments over another, but seeks instead to reclaim and reevaluate the two key sacramental customs of the early Church. Absolutely central to the worship of the earliest Christians was the regular practice of the Lord’s Supper, which later acquired the Greek appellation eucharistias (“thanksgiving”). It is common for mainline Protestant and Evangelical churches today to discourage the celebration of the Eucharist with any regularity, citing the fear of turning the sacred meal into hollow, meaningless tradition as a reason for participating in communion only once a month, once a quarter, or even once a year. This argument is neither compelling nor rational since spiritual profundity is not something that can simply be revoked with continued practice. In some sense, the opposite might be found to be true; when the Eucharist is celebrated only periodically, congregants are likely to lose the deep sense of mystery that not only ties the community of faith to Christ, but that also links the current Church with the ancient Church. Regularly celebrating the Eucharist is a form of spiritual discipline. The earliest Christians saw no danger in observing the Lord’s Supper every time they gathered for worship on the Lord’s Day. Quite the contrary, they broke bread together regularly, and took great joy participating in the holy meal. With this in mind, Christian worshipers today should be encouraged to grant the same significance to the regular observance of the Eucharist that it was given by our ancient brothers and sisters.

The modern Church could also revisit the ancient practice of baptism in its early context. Today’s mainline and Evangelical churches rarely seem to explore through their worship the mysterious and ancient image of baptism representing the believer being “plunged into Jesus’ death…[and] being buried with Christ in order to be raised with him in newness of life” (Rom. 6:1-11; Col. 2:12). The theological implications of this image are profound (see 1 Cor. 15)—that God emptied Godself into human flesh to experience “humanness,” and as a consequence faced the violence of humanity and died a shameful death as a means of identifying with the rejected and dispossessed. Emergence from the waters of baptism is a prolepsis of the fulfillment of the promise of resurrection, where death itself has been defeated by the God who saw fit to die. In a modern Church which has by and large relegated the sacred ritual of baptism to a formulaic “convert-and-dunk” tradition which merely serves as a rite of passage or a hurdle to jump through to attain salvation, such a deeply moving and three-dimensional ancient view of the ritual needs to be reaffirmed.

4. Christian worship should take seriously our commitment to monotheism.

In At the Origins of Christian Worship, Larry Hurtado has attempted to reconstruct the christology of the Church in its infancy as it struggled to maintain its commitment to monotheism. Equally important to the early Church as the affirmation “Jesus is Lord” was the recognition that “God is One” (Mark 12:29, Rom. 3:29-30, 1 Cor. 8:6).[2] By attempting such a reconstruction, however, Hurtado uncovers the root of what we might call the “Trinitarian problem”—that is, the puzzle that arose when a rigidly monotheistic first century Jewish sect began to elevate Jesus of Nazareth alongside God in their worship. Hurtado explains the challenge this puzzle creates for modern worshipers:

If…Christians are sincere about their monotheistic commitment and yet also feel obliged to continue the historic Christian devotional pattern of according the sort of reverence to Christ that they otherwise reserve for God, then some kind of profound inclusion of Christ with(in) God such as was articulated in Nicene christology (though not necessarily the same articulation) seems required, or at the very least reasonable.[3]

Christians today rarely seem to reflect on the difficulty of monotheistic Christ-worship. Trite truisms and cliché maxims have replaced serious theological deliberation. “Jesus was fully God and fully human,” is oft-repeated, seldom understood. Some churches, as Hurtado points out in the last chapter of his book, generate even more confusion among parishioners with an insufficient understanding of the person of Christ and his relation to God the Father.[4] Contemporary Christians should spend more time seriously engaging the Trinitarian problem and recognizing in our worship the same commitment to the oneness of God expressed by the first Jewish Christians.

5. Christian worship should be radically inclusive and deeply communal.

Hans Conzelmann noted in his exploration of the history of primitive Christianity that the earliest Christian congregations saw themselves as embodying God’s eschatological community whose purpose it was to continue the work that began with the teachings, death, and resurrection of Christ.[5] The story of the proliferation of Christianity across the ancient Mediterranean world involves at its heart an ethos of inclusion that proceeds in ever widening circles, often disregarding or reorienting Jewish law to allow those who were previously excluded to now be a part of the family of God. The little messianic cult from Judea began with a rabbi who welcomed women as his disciples, and his movement ultimately expanded to include many more who were marginalized by their contexts—the disabled, eunuchs, Samaritans, and even, thanks to the work of the Apostle Paul, Gentiles. When the Judeans believed that only the ritually pure were justified before God, Jesus spent time with prostitutes and tax collectors. When the early Church believed that only Jews could be Christians, Peter encountered the Roman centurion Cornelius and had his perspective deeply altered by a vision on a rooftop (Acts 10:9-28). Contemporary Christianity must also take seriously our calling to prophetic, radical inclusivity.

Additionally, in our gathering for worship we should recall the emphasis upon fellowship maintained by the early Church. According to the Acts of the Apostles, the first Christians met in one another’s homes, shared their possessions, and “broke bread” together as they celebrated the Lord’s Supper (2:44–46). For Paul and other epistle writers, the koinonia of the earliest communities was proleptic of the coming Reign of God (e.g. 1 Cor. 1:9, 1 John 4:7-21). The contemporary Church has seen diminished importance placed upon the communal aspect of the faith in recent centuries. The emergence of theological liberalism in the Modern era personalized the faith experience in a way that now often pursues the language of “I” and “me,” more frequently than “we” and “us”. But the very foundation of Christianity rests on the compassionate fellowship of the faith community. As Dorothy Day once put it so well, “We know [God] in the breaking of bread, and we know each other in the breaking of bread, and we are not alone anymore.”


            Among the practices and characteristics of the worship of the early Church, I have found the five marks mentioned above to be the areas in which the contemporary Church could use the most improvement. A healthy, biblically literate and contextually sensitive theology of worship that is modeled on ancient Christianity must take more seriously the glorification of God; we must not close ourselves off from awe and wonder, but embrace hope and possibility; we must reconsider the sacramental roots of the Church’s foundational rituals of the Eucharist and baptism; we must reevaluate and reaffirm our commitment to the worship of the one God in and through Christ; and we must remember that at its core, Christian worship is not oriented around the individual but rather involves radically inclusive fellowship with one another and with God.

[1] Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalms 1–59: A Continental Commentary. Trans. by Hilton C. Oswald (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 315.

[2] Hans Conzelmann, History of Primitive Christianity. Trans. by John E. Steely (Nashville: Abingdon, 1973), 43.

[3] Larry W. Hurtado, At the Origins of Christian Worship: The Context and Character of Earliest Christian Devotion (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 102.

[4] Ibid, 103.

[5] Conzelmann, 48-49.