Prayer, and/or the reading of scripture
Some sort of worship in song
Communion, or some other feature (altar call, etc).
However, the earliest order of worship recorded outside of Scripture is found in Justin Martyr’s Apology (circa A. D. 140), and consisted of a gathering on Sunday that typically followed this way:
This is pretty close to what we are doing today.
Viola and Barna skip over this piece of history, and then assert the Protestant Reformation did not bring about the change that was so necessary to our worship. “The protestant order of worship is largely unscriptural, impractical and unspiritual” and “it does not lead to the spiritual growth God intended.” (pp 75, 77)
The authors have a number of concerns about the “traditional order of worship.”
1. It is predictable and boring. “For many Christians, the Sunday service is shamefully boring. It is without variety or spontaneity. It is highly predictable, highly perfunctory, and highly mechanical. The order of worship is so ingrained in protestant churches that even if the liturgy is unwritten it is “just as mechanical and predictable as if it were set to print.” (48)
In the first century the church gathered in the Temple, in the synagogue and most often in homes (Acts 2:46; 5:42; 9:2, 20). Why? Because it no longer mattered where they met! They went to the Temple to gather in large groups, they met in the synagogue to hear the Scripture read, they met in homes for intimate fellowship, community and service - and to avoid persecution. As time passes, context and cultures change, and the meeting places of the church develop as well. That doesn’t mean that anything goes, but I am not convinced that the specific gathering place of the first century church is necesarilly prescriptive. At best, I would argue it is prescriptive on the level of principle, not exact practice.
The relevant concerns for me are that we continue to push the church forward in active listening to the word preached, active service to the body and community, and of course that no one believe that any event or gathering - regardless of how it happens - is seen as the key to the “victorious Christian life.”
I do believe that many churches err in creating a celebrity, or elite, culture of leadership, and that many pastors are often too “jealous” for their pulpits and refuse to allow other preachers/teachers from their own fellowship to teach. There is much to say on this topic, but it’ll have to wait for the later chapters. These are all things to work against, but really - I just don’t view Jesus as a little brother whose freedom to move hinges on my willingness to let him out of a head-lock.
In the end, this is another chapter where I, and everyone in the Reformed community, share some of the concerns raised by the book, but the authors go too far by mis-diagnosing the problem. The problem is not the order of worship. In my estimation the greater problems are what fills the order order of worship (content), and how often, and in what ways, the church creates contexts to share our lives and gifts together. I also want to caution others to be careful when looking to at first-century examples of the church’s practice. We have to work hard at discerning between that which is descriptive of the first-century church, and what is prescriptive for all churches. After all, while the church primarily met in homes, it also forbade women from speaking at these gatherings. That which is descriptive is often implicitly prescriptive in principle, but not in exact practice.