Remember: the early church had but one congregation per city, and that congregation typically met in multiple houses under a single eldership.
Many Christians, both Jews and Gentiles, also attended synagogue, because the synagogue would have had a complete set of scrolls of the Tanakh (Old Testament) to allow for scripture study. And the church would have periodically met as a whole church, as opportunities arose — such as by meeting at the synagogue, in a public space, or perhaps just outdoors by a river.
They gathered primarily to pray, to receive instruction, and to eat together — a meal called the love feast or the agapē — which included the bread and cup of the Lord’s Supper.
They sometimes gathered as often as daily but never less often than weekly. Indeed, daily fellowship seems to have been the rule, at least in some locales —
(Acts 2:46-47 ESV) 46 And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.
(Acts 5:42 ESV) 42 And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching that the Christ is Jesus.
(Acts 17:11 ESV) 11 Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.
(Heb. 3:12-13 ESV) 12 Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. 13 But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.
It’s important to realize that copies of the scriptures — the OT while the NT was being composed — were expensive and so originally available only at the local synagogue. Over time, Christian congregations pooled money to buy scrolls of the Torah, Isaiah, etc., eventually assembling a complete OT. To read the scriptures, Christians had to visit either the synagogue or whoever in the church had custody of the scrolls, likely the home of the evangelist or one of the elders. After all, they met in homes because they had no church building, and they had often been expelled from the local synagogue.
Therefore, the members would gather whenever they had free time to read and study the scriptures together. Bible study was a community activity — and this meant gathering more often than weekly in some communities, at times and on days that were convenient in that particular location. I imagine that many Christians studied to memorize much of the scriptures — as was also the Jewish practice.
The availability of physical or electronic copies of the scriptures for every church member is a great blessing of the modern times, but somewhere along the way, we lost the joys and benefits of studying together. In fact, by studying in community under the oversight of the elders, the church would have routinely worked toward a consensus understanding, not because the elders’ imposed an interpretation from on high but because Bible study was done together and in humility before God’s word and God’s church.
Now, to take the Lord’s Supper was no mere ritual. It involved either receiving or granting hospitality because it was part of a meal served in a home. It was likely a covered-dish meal, and so in many ways very much like our modern small group meetings.
Upon arriving, a guest would have been welcomed with a kiss — the Holy Kiss — as this was the customary greeting in the Roman Empire (as is still true in many nations). The guest’s feet would have been washed — as most of the Empire had a dry, dusty climate, where people wore sandals and often walked behind animals or stepped across ditches dug to drain human and animal sewage out of the city. Washing feet was nasty, humbling work. Later on, some churches practiced foot washing as a ritual, but in the early days, it was customary for receiving guests in one’s home. The Christian difference is that the washing wasn’t done only by slaves but was a mutual service.
People would not have arrived all at once, as watches had not yet been invented, and there were no city clocks other than sun dials. People kept time by the sun and the stars, and the culture was much less focused on getting somewhere on time and starting on time. In fact, as we see in Acts 20, a visiting preacher might preach for hours (why is this not a “binding example”?). So you get there when you can get there, and leave when it’s over. Why be in a hurry to leave friends?
The meal was a literal supper — as the Greek word translated “supper” refers to the largest meal of the day, normally an evening meal. And communion was usually taken in the evening for that reason.
Like any meal, the table would have been filled with conversation. We picture a quietly reverent ritual, but it was a meal among friends — filled with conversation, encouragement, and a growing closeness. The bread was likely baked on site in a brick oven. Wine was served but cut with water. And some part of the mealtime would have been set aside for the shared cup and bread that is the Eucharist. Special prayers would have been offered as the bread and wine were passed around and Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection would have been revisited and, in a sense, re-experienced.
Wine was served in a shared cup, a practice borrowed from the Passover and Jesus’ institution of the Lord’s Supper. Separate cups weren’t used until the late 19th Century — and didn’t become common practice until Louis Pasteur’s germ theory and the influenza and tuberculosis epidemics of the early 20th Century. Pasteurized grape juice was invented by Mr. Welch in the mid-19th Century in response to the Prohibition Movement to provide churches with alcohol-free sacramental “wine.” Hence, the wine was alcoholic, but the church made a point of not becoming drunk — contrary to the practice at many Greek banquets.
Children would have been all over the place. There were no attended nurseries, but the kids might have been allowed to play outside with adults taking turns watching them. The children would not have had their own rooms, because space was too expensive. The kids likely slept with their parents. In a small town, the farm animals would have been brought indoors in the winter. Really.
There was no privacy in the First Century — nor did the people even have a concept of privacy. Windows had no glass, and houses were small. Most gatherings were likely outdoors in a courtyard — and far from secret. The catacombs came centuries later, as did other hidden worship areas. The church wasn’t legal during apostolic times, but persecution early on was occasional and sporadic (although, at times, severe and deadly). It’s possible that an engaging speaker or fervent song service would draw a crowd of unbelievers from those happening to walk by. But with only 30 or so present, no one could slip in unnoticed.
Roman society was highly stratified. There were slaves, freedmen, and aristocrats. There were many other layers within these layers, and people dressed to show the world where they fit in society. There were citizens and non-citizens. During the apostolic age, most residents were not citizens and so had fewer civil rights than the rest. But in church, these distinctions did not matter. A master might wash the feet of a slave. A slave might exercise church discipline against his owner. All ate at the same table — a notion unheard of in the Roman world.
The egalitarian nature of the meal and time spent together was likely the most counter-cultural, astonishing thing about the assembly. Eating with friends was, of course, very common. Eating with friends of a different social class as though they were equals? Unheard of. Unthinkable. Seditious.