There's no better place to begin a history of congregational song than the early church. Of course, the New Testament doesn't offer much information on the topic. What did worship sound like in the first century? How long did it last? Who were the composers? No one knows. Still, two things are certain:
- God has excellent reasons for withholding such specifics.
- There is much we can learn from what He has shown us.
Here are four things about worship in the early church we can glean from what God reavealed in Scripture.
1. The singing of the early church was scriptural.
The hymn that Jesus and the disciples sang before going out to the Mount of Olives was most likely from the Hallel section of the Psalter (Psalms 115-118), typically sung after the Passover meal. Paul encouraged believers in Corinth, Colosse, and Ephesus to sing psalms. The lyrical songs on the lips of Simeon, Anna, Mary, and others had clear Old Testament themes running through them. A new age had dawned in the coming of the Messiah, but a strong link to the eternal truths of the Jewish Scriptures remained.
2. The songs of the early church were also focused on Jesus Christ.
In his excellent book, Worship in the Early Church, Ralph Martin says, "The Christ-centered nature of Christian worship is one of the most clearly attested facts of the New Testament literature." Almost all the New Testament hymns refer directly or indirectly to who Christ was or what He did. We have the songs of Mary, Zachariah, and others at the birth of Christ. The book of Revelation includes songs extolling the Lamb who was slain. Paul's letters contain several unidentified quotations that focus on the Lord Jesus and are regarded by many as early Christian hymns (Philippians 2:6; Romans 11:36; Colossians 1:15; 1 Timothy 1:16). These songs, produced and inspired by the Holy Spirit, paved the way for theological and doctrinal stands the church would take centuries later.
3. The singing of the early Christians was an overflow of the Spirit at work in their hearts.
Another characteristic of New Testament corporate song is the manifest presence of the Holy Spirit. Ephesians 5:17 clearly implies that the singing of the early Christians was an overflow of the Spirit at work in their hearts. Corporate worship was never a lifeless, routine, or ritualistic event for the New Testament church. That may be one reason Paul says that we are those who "worship by the Spirit of God" (Philippians 3:3). It may also explain why the unbeliever who came into the Corinthian gathering declared, "Surely God is among you!" (1 Corinthians 1:25) Certainly, that which set apart the gatherings of the early Christians was the presence of Him who promised, "where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them" (Matthew 18:20).
4. Worship in the early church was congregational.
Finally, congregational song in the New Testament was … congregational. We repeatedly find singing take place among people who had relationships, a shared joy, and a corporate purpose. "The thought that the Church at worship is an accidental convergence in one place of a number of isolated individuals who practice, in hermetically sealed compartments, their own private devotional exercises, is foreign to the New Testament picture" (Ralph Martin). In the age of headphones, it's important to remember that worship songs are intended to be sung with others who "like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ" (1 Peter 1:5).
Bob Kauflin travelled with the Christian group GLAD for eight years as a songwriter and arranger before becoming a pastor with Sovereign Grace Ministries in 1985. He is now the Director of Worship Development for Sovereign Grace, overseeing its music projects and teaching on congregational worship. He blogs at worshipmatters.com and hosts the biennial WorshipGod Conference. He and his wife, Julie, have six children and an ever-growing number of grandchildren.
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