Is Sunday a chance for rest?

article-2538728-02BEDE080000044D-654_634x507Is Sunday a day of rest for you? If you are in church leadership, I suspect the answer will be a resounding ‘No’! Quite right too—most full-time church leaders will plan for another ‘Sabbath’ on a day other than Sunday. (If you don’t, you should). But is Sunday a day of rest for members of your congregation? Do they experience meeting together on a Sunday, singing praise and hearing preaching as ‘rest’ and refreshment?

Jesus taught that ‘The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath’ (Mark 2.27), and this shows how nonsensical were some of the stricter regulations on Sabbath observance in a previous generation. No playing, no gardening, no swimming—these sound much more like Pharisaical restrictions than something intended as a blessing for humanity. But I wonder whether we have misinterpreted Jesus’ teaching to mean that Sabbath does not really matter. In fact, he was highlighting that our commitment to costly disciplines which honour God will also bring us blessing, rather than doing us harm. In the areas where strict observance has stopped, some are keenly aware of what has been lost:

I used to think wasn’t God wonderful to have given us the Sabbath. I can sit without feeling guilty that I’m not washing or ironing or cleaning.

As a child I resented that, because it made me feel guilty and furtive. I felt I was being watched and disapproved of – and that didn’t seem fair. But now, as an adult, I suspect the neighbours wouldn’t really have minded much if they had seen me – and I understand my mother was showing respect. What’s more, as a city-dweller, I hate that Sunday is beginning to feel as busy as any other day of the week. A day of rest every week is a good thing for everybody.

In response to the busyness of modern life, there is a new movement within UK Judaism to reclaim the boundaries of Sabbath.

Could you switch off your phone, and turn off your computer, and the television, for 25 hours? All Jews are being encouraged to take part in observing the Sabbath day of rest more strictly as part of Shabbat UK. It’s not just a digital detox, but the “ultimate challenge” for the Jewish community in the UK and elsewhere around the world.

“I’m normally attached to my telephone,” Joanne says. “But what I love about Shabbat is just not having that attachment. People actually talk to each other – and families need to sit around a table and communicate and connect. Shabbat is built for us to have that connecting time, and disconnecting from what the rest of our week is about. And making sure we use it properly. It is a gift: You can spend that weekend thinking about what have I done that’s been good and productive this week, and what will I do next week to be better?”

We often think of Sabbath as a demand, something counter-cultural which sets us apart from society. But in fact I wonder if it is better understood as something attractive, offering a pattern of living which many people recognise they need. I remember a conversation with the husband of a church member, who was on the fringes and exploring faith, but not yet committed. He was an accountant working in a demanding job, but one of the things that he enjoyed about coming to church (apart from the fact that it was not like his experience of school chapel!) was that it gave a sense of rhythm to his week, a pause from the otherwise endless schedule.

It appears that this longing for rest is particularly important for ‘millenials‘, those now entering young adulthood. Alongside relevance and clarity, young people want the church to be somewhere they experience rest.

“Our culture is highly fragmented and frenetic, and there are few places to take a breather and gain much-needed perspective,” Kinnaman says. “Ironically, most churches offer what they think people want: more to do, more to see. Yet that’s exactly the opposite of what many young adults crave when it comes to sacred space.”

With so much emphasis on being the hands and feet of Jesus and putting love into action—all of which is well-intended activity designed to help people grow as followers of Christ—church buildings still need to be a place where people can experience Jesus’ invitation: “Come unto me, all ye who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

There is a real generational challenge here for many churchgoers. Many older members assume that, coming to faith and joining the church means taking on a job within the local institution, and that maturity in discipleship means taking on lots of jobs and doing them consistently. I am not at all convinced that this is a good reading of Paul’s call to ‘every-member ministry’ in 1 Cor 12, and is more like ‘every-member busyness.’ And it is hard to recognise how culturally conditioned this expectation is. James Lawrence explores this in his very helpful Grove Leadership booklet Engaging Gen Y: Leading Well Across the Generations. Half-way through the booklet, he includes a table which sums up different motivations and expectations of the different generations who might be present in a congregation:

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The key thing to note here is that the summary descriptions all represent different virtues; despite what we might feel, none is necessarily superior to the others. In fact, the priority of Gen Y to be connected might actually be the rediscovery of a virtue which we have lost, and which Sabbath allows us to find again.

This offers a big challenge to churches of all sizes. There are so many jobs that need doing, and technology—which allows us to do exciting things like have sound systems and video projection—simply adds to the list. When we experienced significant growth in our church in Poole, and as a result were able to appoint paid staff members, there was a noticeable sense of loss, grief even, that the jobs which people did were now often done for them. The opportunity to connect with others whilst being involved in a shared task was missed. On there other hand, it meant that many were able to come to church and receive, and perhaps have a greater sense of ‘rest’—though the danger here is turning public worship into a ‘product’ which people come to ‘consume.’

I wonder what it would mean to take seriously the idea of Sunday as ‘Sabbath rest’. How can we go about creating a genuine sense of space for encounter with God, rather than a sense of busyness? Answer on a postcard…or in the comments!

(First published October 2014)

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2 thoughts on “Is Sunday a chance for rest?”

  1. I guess I am a borderline millennial, and I do think there is something true to be said about our generation’s desire for rest and quiet when entering a sacred space (although as a counterpoint I’m thinking about all those mega-McChurches that are somehow still thriving in the US). I prefer (crave?) a Sunday that is moderately paced and relatively undemanding, and it can be difficult to find.

    As a church-worker, I have been guilty of overworking on Sundays and failing to refocus on God and on worship; but I have also been guilty of treating Sundays like any other day. I guess I am still working on finding the balance.

  2. Thanks for these thoughts: seeing Sabbath as a gift that helps heal me from my compulsion to prove myself and control everything does transform the way I see it.

    I’ve just moved to minister in an area where loads of people are on shift work, with days, nights and patterns that are anything but weekly… Many work 3 Sundays a month.

    Do you have any thoughts on what Sabbath would look like for them, or how to shape church to serve them well?


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