In what sense are our assemblies a service?
Something has really been bothering me lately. Some of those who know me would retort that it doesn’t take much to bother me. Be that as it may, the pain has gotten bad enough that I need to try to clear my head by writing about this particular topic. What, you ask, am I blathering about? It’s that phrase, ‘church service.’
On the one hand, the phrase ‘church service’ is so common and wide-spread that I feel almost foolish trying to define it. We all know what is meant. When we use the term, we are referring to the time(s) the church gets together in order to worship God, partake of the Communion and listen to the Word explained. We use the phrase, in particular, for the meetings which take place on Sunday.
On the other hand, the more I think about it, I’m not at all sure what we mean by ‘church service.’ It’s not the ‘church’ part of the phrase that has me bothered. We all know (or ought to know) that the church is not a building, but the people whom God has called out of the world to Himself. But what I don’t understand is in what sense our meetings are associated with ‘service.’
Service to God?
Feel free to correct me but, as far as I know, the Bible never calls a meeting of the church a service. So, what do we mean when we call our assemblies a ‘service’? Are we really serving God when we assemble and, if so, in what sense? I have a horrible suspicion that, subconsciously, many of us have the idea that our meetings are some sort of meritorious work which will earn us God’s favor. If that’s the concept behind calling our meetings a service, then some serious re-thinking is in order. Didn’t Jesus have something to say about the people who thought that they could get into God’s good graces by their deeds of righteousness? Remember the parable of the two men who went to the Temple to pray? (Luke 18:9-14) The guy who thought he had it made because of his fasting and praying was not the one whom God accepted.
Even more dangerous than trying to win God’s favor is the notion that we are doing God some sort of favor by showing up and going through the motions on Sunday. Unless I’ve missed something pretty basic, God has desires but no needs. Even if He had needs, we certainly couldn’t supply them. “I have no need of a bull from your stall or of goats from your pens, for every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills. I know every bird in the mountains, and the creatures of the field are mine. If I were hungry I would not tell you, for the world is mine, and all that is in it.” (Psalm 50:9-12 NIV)
It is when we lose sight of the transcendence of God; it is when we forget how high and mighty and holy He is that we begin to elevate ourselves and forget that it is only through Christ that we have any standing at all. We might even do the right things, but they won’t glorify God. And if we are not glorifying God through the religious activities we are involved in, it won’t be long before we start to skimp on those too. Soon we’ll just be going through meaningless motions. It was precisely for this attitude, and the actions which it led to, that God rebuked the Israelites in the Old Testament. ““A son honors his father, and a servant his master. If I am a father, where is the honor due me? If I am a master, where is the respect due me?” says the LORD Almighty. “It is you, O priests, who show contempt for my name. But you ask, ‘How have we shown contempt for your name?’ You place defiled food on my altar. But you ask, ‘How have we defiled you?’ By saying that the LORD’s table is contemptible. When you bring blind animals for sacrifice, is that not wrong? When you sacrifice crippled or diseased animals, is that not wrong? Try offering them to your governor! Would he be pleased with you? Would he accept you?” says the LORD Almighty. “Now implore God to be gracious to us. With such offerings from your hands, will he accept you?”-says the LORD Almighty. “Oh, that one of you would shut the temple doors, so that you would not light useless fires on my altar! I am not pleased with you,” says the LORD Almighty, “and I will accept no offering from your hands.”” (Malachi 1:6-10 NIV)
Instead of rituals, God wants our hearts and our wills. If He’s got those, then the appropriate actions will follow. “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.” (Hosea 6:6 NIV)
Perhaps things will be less confusing if, instead of calling our meetings ‘church services,’ we refer to them as ‘worship services.’ What’s the connection between worship and service? The two are mentioned together in numerous places, but seem to be separate things. I think it is fair to say that if we serve God we will also worship, but is worship a ‘service’? It may be. Hebrews 8:2-3 indicates that offering “gifts and sacrifices” is a part of service. And, Hebrews 13:15 calls praise to God a sacrifice. So, I suppose, it is legitimate to call our meetings ‘worship services’ – provided, of course, that we really are worshiping from the heart and not merely going through the motions.
Service to the saints?
Can we in any sense call our meetings ‘services’ because in them we are serving God’s people? Some translations have Paul saying in Romans 1:9 that he serves God by preaching the gospel. But the word ‘preaching’ is not actually in the text. It is supplied by the translators. Since Paul is writing to Christians and he goes on in verse 15 to say that he wants to preach the gospel to them, I suppose that we can say that speaking to the church is a service. But it seems a stretch to call the meeting itself a service.
Similarly, some translations indicate that Elders serve by overseeing the flock (1 Peter 5:2). But again, the word ‘serve’ is an interpretation by the translators. Other translations say that Elders exercise oversight. And, in any case, there is no direct linkage between the service of oversight and the church meetings. Again, it seems a stretch to call the meeting of the church a service. At best, it’s a time when leaders serve.
Service to one another?
Well, is it appropriate to call our meetings ‘services’ because during them we serve one another? After all, we are told to, “...serve one another in love.” (Galatians 5:13 NIV) We’re told to “carry each other’s burdens...” (Galatians 6:2 NIV) We’re told to “...encourage one another and build each other up...” (1 Thessalonians 5:11 NIV)
But this raises another question. If the reason we call our meetings ‘services’ is because the purpose for meeting is to serve one another, do we actually provide the opportunity for people to do so? Not like we should! Consider the typical scenario: We come in and sit down. We listen to someone pray, we sing some songs, partake of the Communion, listen to a sermon, listen to announcements, listen to another prayer, grab a cup of coffee and, then, go home. Whom have we served, besides ourselves? Whose burden have we helped shoulder? Whom have we encouraged? Whom have we built up? Have we even had the opportunity to serve one another?
As I think about all this it seems to me that the connection between worship and service is the best reason to call our meetings ‘services.’ But I would like that to change! Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our meetings really were a time when everyone could, and did, minister to each other?
In order for that to happen, we’ve got to make some changes in the way we do things. We’ve got to create an atmosphere and church culture which not only encourages, but makes mutual ministry possible. I submit that the typical assembly, instead of enabling service, tends to hinder it. I don’t pretend to have the answers. I don’t pretend to know what to throw out and what to put in its place so that each part of the church body does minister and serve one another. Perhaps part of the solution is to quit relying so much on the sermon and open up our assemblies to sharing and participation. We’ve seen some wonderful things happen when we’ve tried it. I don’t have the answers, but it’s sure something I’m going to keep thinking about and try to implement!