What Was a Church Service Like in the Second Century?
I’m really enjoying N.R. Needham’s 2,000 Years of Christ’s Power, Vol. 1: Age of the Early Church Fathers, part of a very accessible but well-informed multi-volume survey of church history. On pp. 66-75 he outlines a fairly typical church service in the second century (A.D. 101-200), based on descriptions and instructions found in the early Church fathers. I thought it might be helpful to outline it below.
The service of worship on Sunday lasted about 3 hours in total, with the typical posture being standing throughout. There were no musical instruments, and the Lord’s Supper was observed every week.
The first part, “The Service of the Word,” was open to three groups: (1) baptized believers; (2) those receiving instruction in the Christian faith; and (3) (probably) those who were merely curious about Christianity.
The second part of the service, “Prayers and the Eucharist,” was only open to believers who had been baptized. The rest had to leave. Needham writes that the early church understood congregational prayer as “participating by the Holy Spirit in the glorified Christ’s own heavenly ministry of prayer”—something unbelievers could not share in since they did not have the Spirit.
Part 1: Service of the Word
1. Opening greeting by bishop and response by the congregation. Often, the bishop would say “The Lord be with you” and the congregation would respond, “And with your spirit.”
2. Old Testament Scripture reading. Usually read or chanted by a deacon.
3. Psalm or hymn (I). Chanted or sung.
4. New Testament Scripture reading (I). This first NT reading was from any NT book outside the gospels.
5. Psalm or hymn (II).
6. New Testament Scripture reading (II). From one of the four gospels.
7. Sermon. Delivered by the bishop, while seated.
8. Dismissal of all but baptized believers.
Part 2: The Eucharist
1. Congregational prayers. The prayer leader—the bishop in the West; senior deacon in the East—would announce the first topic. The congregation prayed silently for a while. Then the leader summed up the petitions with his own spoken prayer. Then he would do the same pattern again with a new topic. This was a lengthy part of the service. Early Christian art suggests that a typical posture from praying was standing, looking heavenward, with arms outstretched and palms up.
2. The Lord’s Supper. Here’s the order: (1) the bishop offered a greeting; (2) the congregation responded; (3) there was a “kiss of peace” (men to men, women to women); (4) church members brought their own small loaf of bread and flask of wine from home; the deacons took these and spread them out on the Lord’s table, emptying the flasks of wine into one large silver cup. (5) The bishop and the congregation engaged in a liturgical “dialogue” with the congregation; (6) the bishop led the congregation in prayer; (7) the bishop and the deacons broke the bread and distributed the cup to the congregation. (8) Something would be said to each member as he or she received the elements (e.g., “The bread of heaven in Christ Jesus,” with the response of “Amen.”) Unconsumed bread and wine would be taken home by church members to use for celebrating communion at home during the weekdays.
3. Benediction. E.g., “Depart in peace,” spoken by the deacon.