The only extensive description of a church gathering is found in 1Corinthians. We see the description of the love feast and the nature of the ministry they engaged in.
When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? …So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another– if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home–so that when you come together it will not be for judgment. About the other things I will give directions when I come.
(1Co 11:20-22a, 33-34 ESV)
What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up. If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret. But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God. Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged, and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets. For God is not a God of confusion but of peace.
(1Co 14:26-33 ESV)
There is a tremendous amount that can be unpacked from both of these passages. The challenge is not understanding them, the challenge in today’s church is to take them seriously. I wouldn’t argue that we have to copy the approach we see here because God ordained one type of meeting for all peoples in all cultures. I personally don’t think God has ordained one church model. We should however make some effort to understand why Paul would direct the church to do things this way. If we understand the why behind the how, then we can translate the same underlying values and principles in to our context.
We see a passing reference to these feasts in Jude 1:12 and 2Peter 2:13. As the years went by it just came to be known as the agape which is Greek for divine sacrificial love. Imagine calling your gatherings “the divine love”, but calling it this does tell you a little bit about their priorities. The practice of the “agape” continued for centuries.
Two hundred years after Christ Tertullian wrote:
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.… After manual ablution … 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.
Myers, A. C. (1987). The Eerdmans Bible dictionary (26). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
Not all simple churches celebrate a meal together but I’ve always found it helpful. It demonstrates the equality and unity we have in Christ. Regardless of what people bring everyone eats the same thing. Some of the less well off get a chance to eat one really big, really good meal. It provides an opportunity for talented cooks and bakers to serve their fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. It gives people new to the group a fairly safe place to engage in casual conversation and learn about the people around the table.
In my experience people are more guarded when they attend religious functions. There is always the underlying pressure to conform.
We can point to 14:24 and say that it is contextual, that the traditions Paul instituted here were commonly assumed but contextually or culturally bound. However that makes all the more difficult to draw a straight line from Paul’s words to Timothy to the practice of preaching today. There is no evidence that Paul engaged in homiletics, in fact he admitted that his “speaking” was terrible. He argued, he talked, he discussed, he debated but nowhere did he say he preached a sermon the way we preach sermons.
The other thing this example gives us is a picture of what was universally practised in the church. Noticeably absent from this picture is the contemporary sermon. There was most certainly room for one person to teach or exhort the group for an extended period of time but the opportunity for response and even challenge existed in the gathering.