I can serve you some tea, or I can service your bike, or I can serve on your board. I can serve my country, I can serve my God.
I can even serve a tennis ball, but not very well, and I think that’s probably a bit different anyway.
Service: I do something for you.
It’s interesting to me that ‘service’ is a word that has some prevalence in our civil society organisations.
‘Service provision’ has come to be the raison d'être for many social justice organisations, where services related to health, housing, job-searching and food are designed to meet the needs of clients, or more recently, ‘consumers’.
And isn’t it interesting that churches call their main gatherings ‘services’? Is a church service a kind of ‘service provision’, where consumers come to have their spiritual and emotional needs fulfilled? Or is it more like paying to get your car serviced: a transaction involving some kind of quid pro quo?
‘Service’ is a good thing. But when it is a one-way street, service leads to death. This is because the human spirit is designed to give and receive. If I only ever serve, I deny others the pleasure of giving, while I, in turn, deny myself the pleasure of receiving. I turn into a martyr while you become defined only by your needs, not your gifts. Both options are dehumanising.
And so what of organisations that are designed only to provide services to others? What if they are never able to receive of the gifts of others?
I see the outcome in the homelessness sector, where ‘clients’ are excluded and marginalised from shaping the ‘services’ that are supposed to be for them. The Homeless Persons Union of Victoria is an example of people refusing to be mere recipients; of people giving shape to their own voices and gifts.
And I see the outcome in our churches, many of which are becoming empty as people decide they don’t want or need the ‘service’ that is provided anymore. Others are gigantic and held in warehouses – like Ikea – which is great, if what you want is Ikea.
My vision? Civil society organisations that embrace the energy and giftedness of their members, so they are truly members, not just recipients. Serving one another, perhaps? That's the way to life.