Participatory Worship


The Pattern

Worship in the early church was characterized by opportunities 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 testify, exhort, pray, teach, sing, 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 Proof

Encourage One Another: 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.[1] How much “one anothering” really goes on in a modern worship service?


Each One Has: 1 Corinthians 14 concerns the regulation of the use of spiritual gifts in the church meeting: “When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation.”[2] 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.


Sing to One Another: 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). 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).[3] 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.


Teaching: Teaching is an integral part of participatory worship. In New Testament worship “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.[4] 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).


Two or Three Tongues: The 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). 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.


Two or Three Prophets: 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.


Asking Questions: One of the more controversial paragraphs in the New Testament concerns the silence of women in church meetings (1Co 14:33b-35). 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.[5] Speakers could be questioned. No matter how one interprets the injunction, there would have been no need for it unless first century church meetings were participatory.


Edification: 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.[6] 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.


Diversity of Gifts: 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.  Edification is accomplished.


The Proposition

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 in keeping with Paul’s guideline that “all things should be done decently and in order” (14:40).


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.

—     Steve Atkerson

Revised 04/21/14

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

[2] 1 Corinthians 14:26, italics mine.

[3] 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.”

[4] The teacher did, however, have to be male, as women were not permitted to teach men in church (1Ti 5:12).

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

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