The word “service” is such a basic word. We pay for services, like having our plumbing worked on or getting a massage. We evaluate the quality of the service when we eat out at a restaurant. In instances like those just mentioned, it is pretty easy to understand that the meaning centers around something being done by one person(s) for another person(s).
There are 15 definitions of “service” in my dictionary (Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition). Most of them are along the continuum of doing something to or for someone, but with varying degrees of freedom involved. A slave or soldier can be required to perform a service. The government can “serve” you papers, indicating it is forcing an action on your part. A service can be paid for, as mentioned above. For the sports enthusiasts, a ball can be “served” (here, take that!) to the competition. On the other end of the spectrum, an advantage can be given to someone, and called a service, but the recipient does not have to do anything to qualify or pay for it.
Entry number 5 seems to be the one that applies to church service. This somewhat oddball definition of “service” is: “ceremony”, which is “a formal act or set of acts established by custom or authority…” This seems to be historically accurate for the “church service.” The modern institutionalized “church” habits have been shown to be patterned after a combination of Roman governmental protocol, Greek entertainments, and the marketing ideas of frontier “camp meetings.”
This is not to say that any fellowship among Christians is limited to exact replicas of what we can read about the early church. However, it would seem to suggest that there is nothing inherently spiritual or even useful about the ceremony that is called a “church service.” It may be comfortable to those who are used to it or are convinced it is a measure of their “Christian commitment.” (another RVWD?), but any genuine examination of the message from God reveals there is no ceremony required to “keep up” our place in His heart. We do not need to be continually grasping for our salvation, like it might slip through our fingers if we relax our “spiritual attitude” for a moment.
The modern “church service” may, in fact, be very poor use of time for those who want to really get to know and encourage fellow Christians (which is the main injunction to fellow Christians). The “service” greatly limits interaction. Again, this doesn’t mean that there might not be some relationship with the people in the pews or rows (and rows) of chairs. But this is not happening during the “service.” If there is time left over in people’s schedules, after the service, it happens then.
We could get into some different descriptions that organizations use to market their particular “service,” but the fact is that “service” is still the generic term. All of these weekly events follow basically the same outline, though some are louder than others… If the people are discouraged from free movement because of spiritual protocol, are expected to do (say, greet, pray) what the person in front says, and/or are given the impression that their Christianity is in question if they do not take part in an “order of worship” somewhere, it is a ritualistic ceremony, or “service.”
It may be the very lack of freedom for of all the members of the body of Christ that makes people feel so dependent on some parts of the “service,” including the oration. The religious authorities running things, intentionally or not, exert a lot of control over how every one else behaves. It limits the functional growth of most of the Christians because they look to a spiritual authority, thinking they themselves could never really attain such a level of faith. This is different than recognizing the spiritual maturity of those around you. It is forced. Maybe we’ll get to discussing that in another post. For now, I suggest that if you are interested in thinking more about this you might read Pagan Christianity?: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices. And feel free to skip a “service” so that there is more time to build real relationships.