I used to be ambivalent about the church "service", preferring a less "religious" word, such as "meeting" or "gathering". But now I think "service" is spot on.

However, the meaning of "service" can be completely misunderstood.

"Service" is related to the word "serve" (I had to look that up). Christians are those who have "turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God" (1 Thessalonians 1:9, ESV). So far so good.

Now, to serve someone is normally a matter of giving things to that person. So it's no particular surprise that we take that idea into our church "services". These are (apparently) the times when we "serve" God by giving things to him. (That's what God wants from us, right?)

So we serve God by giving him our hearts:

Come, now is the time to worship.
Come, now is the time to give your heart.

And we serve God by giving him our best:

We are here to praise you, lift our hearts and sing.
We are here to give you the best that we can bring.

And we serve God by giving him our time.

And we serve God by giving him our money.

And then we go home.

And that's why it's called a church "service", right?

No. Not at all.

A clue comes from the Book of Common Prayer, which contains "The Order for the Administration of the Lord's Supper or Holy Communion". What is "administered", or served, during the Communion service? The bread and wine. So if it is the case that someone is serving someone else in the Communion service, who, ultimately, is doing the serving, and who is being served? Hold that thought...

A second clue comes from the book of Acts, where the apostles said, "But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word" (6:4, ESV). Rather than serving hungry people with food, they were going to serve hungry people with the word of God. Again we can ask, when the church gathers together for the ministry of the word, who, ultimately, is serving whom?

The shocking answer is that, when the church gathers for worship, it is not a time when we serve God by giving things to him, but a time when God serves us!

Jesus himself said that he "came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Matthew 20:28; Mark 10:45, ESV). Jesus didn't come to take from us—even "the best that we can bring"—but to give to us. He did that because God isn't the self-centred greedy God, but the generous, self-giving Trinity: Father, Son and Spirit, bound together in self-giving, overflowing love.

In fact, what God wants from us most of all as we come to a church service is for us to bring our emptiness, brokenness and helplessness and to offer those up to him, as empty vessels longing to be filled with his fullness and love. And then it is God's joy and delight to serve us, through the word and sacrament, for our encouragement and joy. That's a church service, the divine service: God serving us.

(I wonder how our "times of worship" would be different if we really took that on board?)

But when we've received those gifts of love in the church service, we will want to give back to God, out of thankful hearts. What can we give to God to express our gratitude?

"With what shall I come before the LORD,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
He has told you, O man, what is good;
and what does the LORD require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:6–8, ESV)

A church service is not the time when we bring our good works to offer to God. That's what happens in the rest of the week, when in response to his mercy and empowered by his Spirit we offer our bodies to God as living sacrifices. And the way we serve God through the week is by reflecting God's love by humbly serving others. As Luther apparently said, "God does not need your good works, but your neighbour does."