In the centuries leading up to the Protestant Reformation, the church's primary activity when it came together was the Eucharist.
The Reformers made a significant change to the gathering. Instead of the Eucharist holding primary importance, preaching was elevated to the main activity.
(When I write "primary activity" or "main activity," I'm talking about what the people generally see as the most important aspect of the church gathering.)
In the Protestant realm, preaching is still viewed by most people as the most important part of the weekly gathering. If you ask people what they think of it, they'll often say something like, "The preacher is bringing us a word from God this morning." Mark Dever, who has written a great deal on the church, says that expositional preaching is the first mark of a healthy church.
As I am continuing to discover on a daily basis, the bible can be an inconvenient book when it comes to our traditions. So, let's ask a daring question: When we look in the bible, what is the primary activity during the gathering of the church?
This can be a somewhat difficult question to answer because, as we have seen, the bible gives us small "snap-shots" of early church gatherings, but doesn't fill us in completely. Despite this, we can gain an solid understanding of what happened in early church gatherings.
We need to look at a few key passages:
"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." I Corinthians 14:26
"And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near." Hebrews 10:24-25
These two important passages show us three very important things for this discussion. First, a variety of things happened when the early church gathered. Second, all things were to be done for the edification of the body. Third, everyone has the joy and responsibility of stirring up others (and being stirred) to love and good works.
We know that preaching/teaching was important. For example, Paul tells Timothy, "Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching." I Timothy 4:13
However, other activities seem important, too.
In Ephesians 5:18-21, Paul writes, "And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ." This could certainly apply to the gathering.
It seems that spiritual gifts, which are given in a variety of forms, should be used for the building up of the church during gatherings. We know that there are a wide variety of these. For example, I Corinthians 12:4-11 says, "Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills."
The above passages tell us something that might surprise us - especially in light of modern church gatherings: When the N.T. church gathered, they did not have a primary activity.
It certainly wasn't preaching. It wasn't singing. It wasn't giving of testimonies. It wasn't reading scripture. It wasn't the Lord's Supper. It wasn't any one thing.
This is not what we see today, where preaching has been elevated to primary status in almost all conservative churches. It is ironic that those who would claim to be most biblical are, in fact, giving prominence to preaching when that prominence is not biblical.
So, what is most important? If no one activity is the key activity, is there anything that should be the focus? The answer is yes. Paul tells us very clearly in I Cor. 14:26 that all things should be done for edification. He writes this in the context of the church gathering. So no matter what happens when the church gathers, all must be for the building up of the body.
This indicates that content of gatherings is not nearly as important as the attitude and motivation of those present. If the goal is edification and church people strive for this, then any of a wide variety of things could happen - maybe preaching, maybe teaching, maybe scripture reading, maybe testimony, maybe prophecy, maybe speaking in tongues, maybe the sharing of the Lord's Supper, etc. However, if edification and the sirring up to love and good works is not the goal, then it doesn't matter what we do because it won't be biblical.
As we gather, let our focus be the building up of the body in Christ. Instead of looking to "the preacher," let's look to encourage our brothers and sisters in Christ.