In the beginning: The earliest Christians were either Jews or God-fearing gentiles who worshiped in the synagogue; therefore, early worship followed the pattern of the synagogue liturgy, which it still does in Lutheran, Orthodox, Anglican, and Roman Catholic churches today (among others). Justin Martyr describes Christian worship in the second century as following this pattern. The word liturgy comes from a Greek word meaning “work of the people.” In the Eastern Church, the term is restricted to the Communion portion of the service. In the Western Church, the term refers to the entire order of worship and is generally used in churches where the congregation performs parts of the worship service by speaking or praying in unison.
The Christian worship service comes from the synagogue service. It consists of two parts, which we can see in the events of Nehemiah 8. In Nehemiah 8:1-9, the people gather to hear the Scriptures and expository sermons, and in Nehemiah 8:10-12, they participate in a meal.
The two parts of Christian worship are as follows:
- The Synaxis (The Service of the Word)
The first part is modeled on the liturgy of the synagogue, and in ancient times as in the present, it is public. Synaxis comes from the same Greek word as synagogue; it means gathering together. This part of the service consists of prayers, scripture readings, psalms, hymns, and the sermon. Because it is centered on the Word of God, it is often called the Service of the Word.
- The Eucharist (The Service of Communion)
The second part of the service (which is occasionally omitted, especially if no clergy are present) is the Communion service; in ancfient times it was called the Eucharist, the Greek word for thanksgiving. One could view it as an extension of the kiddush, or fellowship meal, that often follows synagogue services. This part of the service consists of hymns, prayers, the Lord’s Prayer, and the sharing of the bread and wine. Originally, this part of the service was secret; only baptized Christians could attend or participate. However, overheard acclamations (“this is my body, take, eat” ) led pagans to conclude that cannibalism and other untoward things were going on and that led to violent persecutions. As a result, this part of the service is open to the public as well. In modern churches, worshipers greet each other and announcements are made during the break between the Synaxis (the Service of the Word) and the Eucharist (the Service of Communion).
Eastern Christian liturgy has not changed much over the last thousand years. The service is elaborate and the clergy and the choir perform it in the presence of the congregation. The role of the congregation is in many cases limited to standing in awe and adoration. Western liturgy has always been characterized by simplicity. Over the centuries, the west was dominated by only two or three liturgical styles, which gradually conformed themselves to Roman practice. During the Protestant Reformation the liturgy was reformed to expand the role of the congregation and to make Communion more frequent. The idea of a preplanned worship service was rejected first by third wave of the Protestant Reformation, then by the Quakers and the Puritans. Most religious groups that originated in the United States during the nineteenth century can be characterized as ‘nonliturgical’ in the sense that the congregation has no formal, corporate role in worship other than to be the audience and to join in singing.
Various parts of Christendom call Communion by various terms. Anglicans and Orthodox still prefer the original name, Eucharist, though the Orthodox also call it the Divine Liturgy or just the Liturgy. Other groups call the service Communion, which is what is achieved, or the Last Supper, which is what it commemorates. The word Mass comes from the Latin word used by the priest to dismiss the people at the end of a Eucharistic service. It refers to an entire church service that includes a Eucharist. Although the term originated in the Roman Catholic Church, it is also used by some Anglicans, some Lutherans, and many English-speaking Orthodox.