The Worship… Service?

8 comments Written on August 15th, 2014     
Filed under: Formation, Language, Leadership, Missional, Theology
1954-mercury-1950s-chevron-gas-advertising-postcard_t2by Matt Nightingale

This fall, the church I serve will kick off a series called #WeAreRedwood. We’ll be exploring our identity as God’s church… We’ll consider what it means to be disciples, community, witnesses and worshippers. To be the church rather than simply going to church. To remember that church is so much bigger than a buiding in Santa Rosa, California, or an hour on Sunday morning.

In preparation for this series, I’ve been thinking about two books by Dan Kimball that really impacted my thinking about ten years ago: The Emerging Church: Vintage Christianity for New Generations (Zondervan/Youth Specialties, 2003), and Emerging Worship: Creating Worship Gatherings for New Generations (Zondervan/Youth Specialties, 2004). These books were published a decade ago, so they are somewhat dated, but I continue to think about some of the ways they helped me reframe my thinking.

Kimball makes quite an issue of the term “worship service.” He believes that the term has become so misused by the modern church that it should be scrapped altogether.

I want to quote at length from that latter book and see what you think.

We usually call the weekend time when a church family gets together a “worship service.” Ironically, this term used to mean a time when the saints of God all meet to offer their service to God through worship and their service to others in the church. Over time, however, the title has slowly reversed. The weekend worship “service” has become the time of the week when we go to a church building much like a car goes to an automobile service station.

Most people view the weekend worship service as a place where we go to get service done to us by “getting our tanks filled up” at the service station. It’s a place where someone will give a sermon and serve us with our weekly sustenance. In automobile terms, you could say it is our weekly fill-up. We come to our service station to have a song leader serve us by leading us in singing songs. All so we can feel good when we emotionally connect through mass singing and feel secure that we did “worship.”

We go to the weekend worship service and drop off our kids – that way they too can get served by having their weekly fill-ups. We are especially glad that our weekend service station now serves coffee in the church lobby – it’s as convenient as our automobile service station’s little mini-mart.

I admit that I’m being somewhat sarcastic with the service station analogy. But I’m not joking when I say we need to recognize that going to a worship service is not about us, the worshipers. It is not about God’s service to us. It is purely an offering of service and worship to God – offering our lives, offering our prayers, offering our praise, offering our confessions, offering our finances, offering our service to others in the church body.

The description of a church gathering in 1 Corinthians 14: 26-27 says: “What then shall we say, brothers? When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church.”

This was not “come together to sit and receive” like at a gas station. This was everyone gathering to offer service to God and others in worship. The gathering was not primarily about meeting the needs of the individual, but centered on the worship of God and the strengthening of the whole church.

Kimball goes on to explain how in the New Testament, the English word “service” (as translated in the New International Version) is used to speak of an act of giving, not receiving. However, the “worship service,” has slowly and subtly come to focus more on our getting served than on our serving.

Because of the subtle misuse of the phrase “worship service,” I don’t use it anymore. I try to always say “worship gathering” instead. Theologically, this communicates what we are doing much better. Once again we can be the church gathering to worship God and bring our service to him and others, not individuals who come to a service to receive something.

What do you think of the term “worship service”? Do you think its current usage somehow gives our people the wrong idea? Does “worship gathering” capture it better? What does your church do to remind people that we are the church gathered on Sundays and dispersed/sent out throughout the week?

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8 comments “The Worship… Service?”

When I send out communication or talk about Sunday mornings, I usually say “Sunday worship”.  I too appreciate the tone that “service” doesn’t cut it… Neither does just saying “church”.

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I tend to call what happens on Sunday morning our “Gathering”, but without having explicitly thought out the implications of using the term instead of “service”.

I agree, much of my ministry feels like a push against a kind of complacency and passivity in worship, encouraging the congregation to understand worship as mission, rather than merely a time to “fill up”.

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I first began to grapple with this misunderstanding of worship “service” back in the early ’80’s after reading “The Integrity of Worship” by Paul Hoon. I was just beginning in ministry, specifically music ministry, and his insights into the meaning of “service” as something the people offer and do, rather than receive and be filled up, transformed my understanding and approach to what we did at Hilmar Covenant from then on. Thanks for this reminder, Matt; Dan Kimball does, I think, hit the nail on the head as he describes the truer meaning of “worship service.” Personally, I refer to the Sunday meeting time as simply “worship.” Your comment is quite timely too – for the first time in 2 1/2 years I’m leading worship this Sunday, and as I take people into an extended period of silence I will be reminding them that we come to worship God, not to gain knowledge or understanding for ourselves, not to enjoy an emotional experience, not to have our needs and desires assuaged, but to express our love and devotion to our Lord.

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I understand the point being made.  But I don’t see how not calling it a “Worship Service”, actually will counteract the misperception of the purpose of gathering as the Church, the people for God, for worship.  I certainly wouldn’t advocate for a change in terms across the board for the reasons given in the quote.
“Gathering” and “Worship Gathering” and other alternatives aren’t objectionable and certainly if it is in fact the case in a congregation that “Worship Service” is the source of the misunderstanding of coming to church to be served, then a change in terminology might help the process of change in attitude.  But not using the term wont do it.   After, all it is that in a consumer culture like ours it’s simply extremely difficult to not think of everything as a consumer and think of all aspects of ones life as commodities.  Simply changing the phrase or word used (and misunderstood) in my opinion wont actually make a difference for people’s perceptions, since the phrasing isn’t the source of the problem rather it is the consumerist cultural captivity of those who are so misinterpreting the phrase.  That would need to be addressed at the same time as dropping and changing the term for the gathering of the congregation. 

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I’m with Larry on this one. It is important to understand that the “service” is to God and not to people and I appreciate Dan Kimball’s pointing that out in his writings. But given the proper context, the word “service” is not wrong, and I think changing it could create more confusion than clarification.

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I’ve always preferred the title “Worship Gathering” to “service”.  I think it’s a term that identifies the concepts of us coming together out of our various individual contexts to communally worship as a Body.  It also provides a more active connotation; we are actively gathering together rather than passively sitting and receiving.  I don’t think, in my experience, that it’s been a confusion for congregants to make this change; instead I think it’s prompted more active consideration of why we come together.

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It seems to me you’re saying that the accuracy of “worship service” vs. “worship gathering” depends on the agency of the entire congregation during worship. That is, how many people are actually participating in creating the service of worship to God. So in this sense, it would certainly be a more apt term to call the more consumeristic (?) worship on Sundays “gatherings” to preserve some level of integrity in how we describe what is happening.

Ideally this *liturgy*, literally “the work of the people,” would be something the whole congregation works to create and present to God. A work of beauty, an expression of love, a retelling of God’s story in an incarnational way…THEN it would be a service, right?

This, inevitably, is the issue with the way many of our services are structured as a whole. A worship space with a stage, with amplification isn’t a bad thing, but it certainly changes the entire congregation’s perception about how much they are needed. And to me, if we want a service that is a real service with everyone participating, everyone has to feel like they are an essential piece in the work. With gatherings/services that don’t need—or don’t appear to need—the whole congregation to actually happen (though we may complain about how our seats aren’t filled), we are putting ourselves in a position where we do the work of the service without thinking about how the congregation itself participates (not simply “engages”). We don’t feel that we need the rest of the people as much as if we were a small group of people, each bringing our own word from the Lord to share, hoping that the Spirit moves.

Yes, worship on Sunday often feels like too much of a service in the gas station sense. But I also feel that if we don’t ask ourselves as the church to create something corporately for the Lord on a Sunday morning—a service—we will be less open to the God is speaking to us and transforming us. We are creatures that learn by doing together, not simply gathering together…and we don’t really do things with our friends or family unless we’re wanted or needed.

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I guess it depends on who one thinsk of when they hear the word service. Some hear the word service and think “yeah, serve me”. Others hear “how can I serve?”….

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