Most of what we do in the church has deep roots, in many cases going all the way back to the earliest days of the church. The word for church body (building) comes from a Latin word meaning ship (nave). From early days (375 A.D.) the church was likened to a ship with the pastor/bishop as the captain, the deacons as the sailors and the laity the passengers. Often, the bishop's throne would be placed in the middle. At times, the laity would stand in the aisles while the elders and the presiding bishop were center stage. In the Middle Ages, churches were often used for secular gatherings where there was drinking, dancing and the performing of plays.
The Pulpit which is front and center in many Protestant churches has a Biblical reference in Neh 8:4 from which Ezra the scribe addressed the people. But there is little evidence that the sermon was given from a pulpit in the early days of the church. Later on, the bishop usually gave his sermon while seated on his throne (cathedra). Pulpits seem to come into use in the church in England around the thirteenth century. They were usually found on the side of the church. After the Reformation which centered on preaching the word of God, pulpits became more prevalent. In the 18th century, three -decker pulpits were popular. On one level was the church clerk, then the lector and up top was the preacher. Pulpits are pretty much front and center in a lot of churches today although more and more modern churches are forsaking the pulpit for lecterns or just a stool on which the preacher sits. Funny, how when we think we are on the cutting edge we are often just going back to the way it used to be!
Of course, most of the congregations in the early days stood. It seems the only person(s) seated were the leaders. Sometimes church buildings had stone ledges around the sides where the weakest members could find a seat. Eastern churches still mostly stand for the service today. In the Western Churches, seating was introduced around the end of the thirteenth century. The first seats were backless benches. In the 15th and 16th century, wood carvers took great pride in crafting pews which were situated in the center of the sanctuary allowing ample room for movement. Later on, after the Reformation, box-pews (high pews) filled the sanctuary and cut people off from one another. By the 19th century these high pews were gone and replaced by smaller bench pews. Pews are still common today but newer churches are using chairs and auditorium type seating. In poorer churches, people use backless benches or stand. What matters is that people are there to worship and what they are sitting on or even whether they are sitting - has changed a lot over the years.
It seems clear that what people were there for - at least in the beginning is what we call Communion or the Lord's Supper but was originally called the Eucharist which means Thanksgiving and entailed the distribution and participation in the body and blood of Jesus. In the early days of the church, people received the bread in their hands but did not touch the chalice which was lifted up to their lips. People always approached the altar to be served. Later on, many small changes occurred so that people could hold the chalice or sometimes dip the bread into a chalice (intinction -which was condemned by the western church in the thirteenth century for some reason). In England the Puritans changed the means of distribution by bringing the elements to the people. Most congregations have stood for communion while some kneel and some sit. The communion table seems to have shown up in churches after the Reformation, the Reformers being uncomfortable with the Roman Catholic altar. A Table seems to better present the idea of the fellowship of the body of Christ at communion, as well. At first, the worship service seems to have been built around the Eucharist. It was celebrated every Sunday. Before the distribution of the elements there was prayer, a scripture reading, sermon and the kiss of peace as a sign of fellowship. An offering for the needy was taken afterward. Originally it seems the church offering was an offering of the bread and the wine and gifts which were distributed to the poor. Many churches had lists of the poor and widows that they were responsible for. Potlucks ( called agape meals) were usually held on Sunday evenings. They were kind of a combination of a potluck and a Sunday night service with scripture and sermon and communion. An offering was normally taken for the poor. You can see how the Lord's Table was the central act of worship not the sermon (and the sermon was never at the end of worship - that is a carryover from the revival days in America so an altar call could be given right after an evangelistic sermon.). You can also see how the church's offerings were used primarily for the care of the poor in our midst.
Music is an important part of worship, too. Choirs were an important part of OT worship. The tradition of the Temple Choir was maintained until the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 A.D. Christian choirs were quite popular after the era of the persecution of the church was over. Both Judaism and Christianity insisted on a certain level of training and skill for those who served in the choir. The Council of Laodicea (360 A.D.) even forbade singing in church except for the trained choir members! That prohibition did not last long but by 600 clear principles were in place to govern singing in the church. The congregation was given simple melodies while the choir was expected to sing more elaborate ones, and provide soloists. Luther took a bold step at the time of the Reformation to encourage more singing from the people and used secular tunes to do so. Calvin introduced metrical psalm singing. Both Reformers, however, saw the value of a trained choir and kept them intact. Calvin who was fearful of the potential for the emotional abuse of music had the organ in Geneva removed from the church. After the Reformation, the role of choirs changed. They were no longer seen as performers for the congregation but the leaders of congregational singing. Worship teams have taken the place of choirs in many churches today and they need to be reminded that their role in worship is leading the congregational singing not performing.
Standing, kneeling, sitting and raising our arms are all postures that are seen in churches today. We tend to identify certain postures with certain church traditions, ie, kneeling in Lutheran/Episcopalian/Roman Catholic churches and raising one's arms in Charismatic churches. But all of those postures were present in the early days of the church. Bowing the head was common during certain acts of worship. Kneeling was a common posture for prayer. So was standing with arms outstretched. For well over a thousand years in the church the congregation stood (only the clergy sat) except when they knelt for certain times of prayer. The widespread custom of sitting in church never really took hold until after the Reformation. Today, things are reversed: clergy stand and the congregation sits.
The Lord's Prayer and the Doxology have pretty much been in continual use in church services since the earliest days of Christian worship. They were often used in the context of the Lord's Supper.
Candles originally were purely functional. They were needed to provide light for worshippers at night time vigil services. By the 4th century candles and lamps were regularly used in worship. Using candlesticks on the altar was not a common practice for over 1000 yrs. There was much discussion in the late middle ages up to the 18th century about the proper use of candles in the church.
Amen! is commonly heard in African American churches but not so much elsewhere. It was a common response in the early churches. Amen comes from a Hebrew word meaning certainly or assuredly. It was often said by Jesus but at the beginning of his words rather than at the end signifying that these words were true and trustworthy. It was taken up in the early church as a response of the people indicating agreement and trust in the worship words that were spoken.
So what do I take from this brief sample from the history of Christian worship. It is good to know that all these years down the road we are still worshipping in the same stream with the saints who have gone before us. No matter what the brand name on the church, there are certain fundamentals that have proven the test of time in all times and all places. When we talk about being faithful to the ancient (first) practices of the Church, what are we talking about? Should we stand or kneel? They did both. Should we raise our hands or bow our heads? They did both.
What does stand out is the Eucharist ( Lord's Supper or Communion). Where our worship needs renewing is replacing the pastor/sermon with the Lord's Table as the central act of our worship. The first acts of worship, ie, prayer, singing, scripture and sermon lead up to the Lord's Table and the other acts of worship such as the Lord's Prayer, Doxology, Intercessory Prayers and Offering follow as our responses. Our Deacon's Fund Offering is an important response as well so we can care for those in our midst who need financial help. If we are serious about worship renewal it seems like this is the place to start.