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Participatory Worship—Unleashing the Laity


Jesus equipped the early church with a worship strategy designed to promote love and good deeds, edify, encourage, strengthen, and instruct. His plan called for ordinary believers to be able to regularly and significantly contribute to corporate worship. There was an open format for sharing, with orderly spontaneity. In contrast, today’s worship services have become more of a spectator sport. In the New Testament churches, those prompted by the Spirit were free to offer testimonies, to share spiritual experiences, to give exhortations, to lead out in prayer, to testify, to sing, and to praise. Generally, each person who spoke did so in accordance with his spiritual gifting. The prime directive was that everything be designed to edify (strengthen, build up, encourage) the congregation.

(This is an abridged version of the presentation.)



Theologian John Drane 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…. 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.”[1] Concerning public worship in the New Testament church, London Bible College lecturer G.W. Kirby concluded: “There appears to have been considerable fluidity with time given for spontaneous participation.”[2] Scottish commentator William Barclay stated: “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.”[3]  

(More scholarly consensus can be obtained from the full article).


Principle of Participation

Encouraging One Another: The author of Hebrews urged his readers (ordinary Christians) to “consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together … but encouraging one another” (Heb 10:24–25). Before coming to church, every believer was responsible for giving thought to how he might inspire others. It is clear then that early church meetings were designed to provide ample opportunity for mutual encouragement. The focus was not exclusively on pastors; it was on “one another.” There was a principle of participation. All members of Christ’s body bore the responsibility to encourage the others through testimony, song, praise, prayer, exhortation, teaching, and the sharing of personal spiritual lessons learned.

Paul Talked with Them: Acts 20:7 records that Paul spoke all night when he visited the church at Troas. The Greek verb that describes his actions is derived from dialegomai (the English word “dialogue” is a transliteration). The English Standard Version states that Paul “talked with” them. Paul undoubtedly did most of the speaking that night; however, it was not an uninterruptable sermon as if broadcast on the radio. Thus, the time that the early church set aside for teaching, even when led by an apostle, was to some degree discussion-oriented, another indicator that early church meetings were characterized by a principle of participation.[4]

Each One Has: Guidelines for the use of spiritual gifts when “the whole church comes together” are presented in 1 Corinthians 14:23. These guidelines reveal a principle of participation: “What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation” (14:26). New Testament believers did not merely attend services. “Each one” was free to use his spiritual gifts to build up the gathered church. They were active, vital participants who could significantly contribute to what went on in the gathering.[5]

Edification: The overarching purpose for all that is said or done in such a gathering is edification: “Let all things be done for building up” (1Co 14:26). Any comment made in participatory worship had to be prompted by the Spirit and lovingly designed to encourage, to build up, to strengthen, or to edify. The Corinthians were told, “Since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church” (1Co 14:12).This highlights the principle of participation in early church gatherings. As Romans 12:6 says: “having gifts … given to us, let us use them” (emphasis added).

Teaching: In-depth, practicable biblical exposition was an integral part of each weekly church meeting. Pastors rightly do most of the teaching on the Lord’s Day. However, the New Testament says that “each one” of the brothers who had the gift of teaching also had the freedom to bring the weekly “lesson” (1Co 14:26). In accordance with the principle of participation, there was clearly an opportunity for supernaturally gifted mature brothers had opportunities to teach (with pastoral approval and coaching).[6]       (This is a shortened version of the plenary paper).



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.”[7]



After providing guidelines for participatory worship, Paul wrote, “The things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord” (1Co 14:37). A command is not a suggestion. It is more than a good idea. The instructions in 1 Corinthians are not merely interesting history. These participatory regulations are not just descriptions of primitive church meetings. In some sense, they are prescriptive. Our proposition is that you consider introducing participatory worship to your church.

(The complete article can be accessed at NTRF.org.)

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

[2] G. W. Kirby, Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, Vol. 1, ed. Merrell Tenney (Grand Rapids:  Zondervan 1982), p. 850.

 [3] William Barclay, “Letters to the Corinthians,” Daily Study Bible (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1977), 135.

[4] Allowing for questions and dialog is good.

[5] Not every person should be expected to say something at every gathering.

[6] Because 1 Timothy 2:12 prohibits women from teaching men, only brothers should bring the lesson.

[7] Gordon Fee, “The First Epistle to the Corinthians,” New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 698.