I was asked about early Christian meetings in an email, and I thought that more of you would be interested in what the meetings of the early church were like.
Here’s where to find more on the early church meetings. The passages from Justin and Tertullian are given in full at the bottom of this post.
The earliest description of an early Christian meeting (or church service) is in Justin’s First Apology, ch. 67.
Tertullian describes an Agape (a love feast) and he calls it by that name (Agape). That’s in his Apology, ch. 39. Justin’s is from c. A.D. 150, and Tertullian’s is from c. A.D. 210.
If you ever have to look anything like these up yourself, you can find these and most other pre-Nicene writings at http://www.ccel.org/fathers.
There’s more liturgical descriptions of worship and church practices in Hippolytus’ Apostolic Tradition (difficult to find and may need to be purchased) and the Apostolic Constitutions. Hippolytus wrote in the early third century, and the Apostolic Constitutions is a composite document, some of which is from the late third century, and the rest later.
That’s about it, which I suppose should stand out to us. The early churches did not emphasize the weekly meeting, though they surely considered it important. Their writings emphasize daily life, their commitment and care for one another, their honesty, their bravery in the face of adversity, etc. When they speak of theology, they emphasize that there is one God, that Jesus is the eternal Son of God, and that he is a Lord and Teacher worth following. The weekly meeting is not their emphasis at all. They are not looking for ways to improve it, and they don’t spend much time even discussing it. It’s primarily an opportunity to hear the Scriptures with some explanation, for none of them would have owned Bibles, and to eat the fellowship meal together.
Justin’s c. A.D. 150 Description of an Early Church Meeting
nd on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succours the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need. But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Saviour on the same day rose from the dead. For He was crucified on the day before that of Saturn (Saturday); and on the day after that of Saturn, which is the day of the Sun, having appeared to His apostles and disciples, He taught them these things, which we have submitted to you also for your consideration.
Tertullian’s c. A.D. 210 Description of a Love Feast
Our feast explains itself by its name. The Greeks call it agape?, i.e., affection. Whatever it costs, our outlay in the name of piety is gain, since with the good things of the feast we benefit the needy; not as it is with you, do parasites aspire to the glory of satisfying their licentious propensities, selling themselves for a belly-feast to all disgraceful treatment,—but as it is with God himself, a peculiar respect is shown to the lowly. If the object of our feast be good, in the light of that consider its further regulations. As it is an act of religious service, it permits no vileness or immodesty. The participants, before reclining, taste first of prayer to God. As much is eaten as satisfies the cravings of hunger; as much is drunk as befits the chaste. They say it is enough, as those who remember that even during the night they have to worship God; they talk as those who know that the Lord is one of their auditors. After manual ablution, and the bringing in of lights, each is asked to stand forth and sing, as he can, a hymn to God, either one from the holy Scriptures or one of his own composing,—a proof of the measure of our drinking. As the feast commenced with prayer, so with prayer it is closed. We go from it, not like troops of mischief-doers, nor bands of vagabonds, nor to break out into licentious acts, but to have as much care of our modesty and chastity as if we had been at a school of virtue rather than a banquet.