Have you ever wondered how to know when to take part in a meeting? It isn’t sweaty palms or nervousness rising to a crescendo. Nor is it some internal voice which tells you that you better get up or else. Nor is it mere determination that you are going to get up and take part. Come ready, but not resolved, to take part.
There is actually one chapter in the Bible which is devoted to participation in public meetings. It may surprise you that this chapter says nothing about the Holy Spirit (although He is definitely involved). It says nothing about themes to a meeting (although there frequently is one directed by the Spirit, and not by men); and there is no mention of time or length of participation. And finally, there is mention of gift only when it comes to teaching, not praying or suggesting a hymn.
In 1 Corinthians 14, we discover a number of principles to guide regarding participation in a public meeting, be it the Breaking of Bread, prayer, or ministry. When it comes to ministry or teaching of the Word of God, the key word, emphasized again and again, is edification or profit (see, for example, the seven mentions in the chapter). And while we don’t think of this principle so much with respect to the remembrance of the Lord, there is an aspect of it which does apply even there.
There were some serious problems in Corinth. As you read through the epistle up to chapter 14, you cannot help but notice the competitive spirit, the confusion, and the lack of consideration. In this vital chapter Paul had to give instruction concerning tongues and sisters taking part. Amidst the disorder, he was trying to introduce an order which would reflect the character of God. But amidst his instructions, certain vital principles are evident in regard to public participation. If you read the chapter carefully, you may well be able to add to my short list.
It might be helpful to survey the chapter first and notice some of activities which were carried out in the assembly at Corinth. Paul speaks of praying (v14), singing (v15), blessing or speaking well of (v16), of giving thanks (v17), and of teaching (v19). These were some of the elements of each of the gatherings of the believers. On reflection, these are the very same activities that mark out assemblies today.
The Breaking of Bread is all about remembering the Lord Jesus, His life, death, and resurrection. Hymns that have this as a theme are appropriate for the meeting. This is not the place to give out a hymn about our trials and cares; nor is it the place for a wedding hymn or your favorite hymn. Each hymn should lead the believers to think more about the Lord Jesus, His person, and His suffering and death. Our hymn book has many beautiful hymns which express these themes.
Hymns must never degenerate into “filling the time.” Seek for a hymn which is suitable for the moment in the meeting. That does not mean that if someone has just mentioned the Lamb of God that you immediately look for a hymn with that phrase in its title. It does mean that you seek to be sensitive to where the believers are in their remembrance of Christ.
Hymns add a richness to our worship. They express truths which we would long to be able to express in our thanksgivings. They express thoughts far more eloquently than we. So, choose your hymn well, and allow it to add to the praise which is ascending. We all have “favorite” hymns, but don’t become predictable in what you give out regardless of the tenor of the meeting.
In like manner, if you rise to take part in public thanksgiving and worship, your thanksgiving should be suitable to the meeting. We are remembering the Lord and giving thanks to the Father for His Son. As a result, the same themes which occupy us in our hymns should also permeate our thanksgivings. Who Christ is and what He has accomplished is the great proclamation we make to all (1Cor 11:26). This is not the place for making requests in prayer; this is not even the place to go on at great length about how thankful we are to be gathered to His Name. This is the time to present “the fruit of our lips” to Him, “giving thanks” for Him and to Him.
Participation should be Scriptural. This does not mean you must quote Scripture after Scripture in your thanksgiving. It does mean that what you say should be in keeping with what the Bible has said about Christ. In our attempts to express the extremes of His sufferings, we sometimes go well beyond what the Bible says. This is easy to do, and is a trap that we all fall into at times.
Keeping to the words of Scripture concerning His sufferings and death is the safest route to take. This may necessitate quoting or citing a verse; but it means, at the very least, to be sure that what you are saying bears the test of the Word of God.
We can never appreciate or plumb the depths of what the sufferings of the cross entailed for the Savior. So we need not try to exaggerate and go beyond what has been revealed. We are not telling the Father things He does not know about the Son. In fact, there is nothing which we can tell the Father that He has not been enjoying about His Son since eternity past. But He delights to see that we have found the same beauties in Him which He has been enjoying.
Participation should be audible. People need to hear what you are saying in order to be able to intelligently say “amen” when you have concluded. You are not speaking for yourself. As part of a priesthood who are collectively remembering the Son, you are the mouthpiece of the assembly when you rise to take part. As a result, since you are speaking for others, it is only right that they be able to hear what you are saying.
Some have a softer voice, while others have booming voices. Yet, most can consciously project their voices to be heard. This may take some effort at first; but once done intentionally, it becomes more normal each time.
There are older believers who have hearing difficulties. If severe enough, the assembly has to make accommodation for them. Speak so that the majority of believers can hear, follow, and profit from your thoughts.
A good vocabulary is a vital thing to possess. While we do not speak to the Lord in prayer, or to the people of God while teaching, as though they were in grade school and could only understand a very low-level vocabulary, it is important to make sure that you are being understood, and that your vocabulary is not distracting the believers.
An older believer might lose your train of thought as he struggles to understand what soteriology and antinomianism mean, and never really get back on track with your message. At times, it may be good, both in doctrine and words, to have believers “reach” a little. This must be done carefully and thoughtfully. The essence of communication is not merely stating truth, but doing so in such a way that the people of God benefit from your contribution. You will note how often Paul employs the word “understanding“ in the chapter (vv14-16, 19), stressing its importance to all.
Paul speaks of the value of five words which can be understood rather than 10,000 which are not able to be comprehended by the listeners (v19). There is no profit in a technical vocabulary which leaves the believers confused.
While the stress on edification and profit is mostly directed to those who teach (prophecy) in the public gatherings, there is an element of profit in the contributions at the Breaking of Bread and prayer meetings. Is the hymn I am about to give out going to exalt the Lord Jesus Christ? Will it lead the believers to meditate on Him? Is the hymn for the prayer meeting conducive to remind us of the value of prayer?
Is my contribution in worship and thanksgiving at the Breaking of Bread making a positive contribution to the worship? Don’t become paralyzed by searching for a theme and trying to twist your thoughts to fit what others may be saying. Offer your own appreciation, and the Spirit of God can do the blending of all together.
The manner in which I participate is also important according to verses 23-25, 33, and 40. We are linked with a God of order. We represent and reveal Him, not only by what we say, but by how we say it, and by how we act. The confusion and competitive spirit at Corinth belied the very character of God.
My language, approach, and attitude should all be marked by reverence. The writer of Hebrews reminds us that, even though we have been brought to Mt. Zion and grace, we still serve a God Who must be served with “reverence and godly fear” (Heb 12:28). He is no less holy at Zion than at Sinai; no less awe inspiring in this day of grace.
The godly order and profitable contributions made by the members in the assembly have the ability to educate the “unlearned,” and may reveal to him that this is where God has taken up His habitation in this dispensation (vv23-25).
Reverence is primarily an attitude. It is an attitude which expresses itself in language, approach, and appearance. We go beyond Scripture to lay down rules and to define reverence according to our own desires, but each believer should be marked by reverence before the Lord.
Do I need to have a hymn to give out, a portion of Scripture to read and expound, and also to take part audibly in thanksgiving when the assembly has a number of others who are able to take part profitably? Verse 26 suggests that consideration for others and their exercise should also be a factor in my participation. That does not mean that you have to wait on all of the older men to take part first. It just means being considerate, and not having to do everything yourself. Come prepared to participate and contribute; but do not come determined to do so.
Time and Thought
All that has been said so far about the “how” of participation presupposes some preparation for participation. While much, if not all, that has been written so far would be for our brethren, preparation for the Breaking of Bread is applicable to our sisters, as well. Each believer should come with a fresh appreciation for the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. This will mean taking time each day collecting material for worship. Jot down your meditations; add to them each day. Allow it to grow in your mind and to be the truths you speak to the Father about in your private devotions.
Freshness is vital; novelty is not. There is nothing new we can discover about Christ that the Father does not already know. There is a danger that, in trying to be novel, you will misapply Scripture or go beyond Scripture. Be yourself. If you enjoy the types and the offerings, that is wonderful. You don’t have to go into a point-by-point comparison; simply tell the Father what you have enjoyed of the Son. References to the types, offerings, etc., can be helpful, but a lengthy message almost becomes a ministry meeting.
Don’t be afraid to be brief. Tragically, older men can take ten minutes or more and appear to cover all the ground you might wish to cover. Don’t be overwhelmed by the learned loquacity of older men. A fresh, one-or-two-minute contribution from a warm heart will lift the believers and enable them to enjoy the Lord. Concerning the peace offering in the Old Testament, God instructed that “his own hands shall bring the offerings of the Lord made by fire” (Lev 7:30). Bring what you have enjoyed and gathered, not what someone else has written or said. That does not mean that written devotional ministry cannot stimulate your own thoughts. But try to bring something which has “cost” you as it is a “sacrifice” you are offering to God.
“By Him, therefore, let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to His name” (Heb 13:15).