This past weekend in Chicago and the surrounding area we were blessed with almost 2 feet of snow. A number of churches suspended worship gatherings on Sunday due to the dangerous roads. Sometimes God's providence makes it difficult, and even impossible to gather for worship. But every year, on a few special Sundays, many churches choose to close their doors for other reasons. The Sunday nearest Christmas is one such Sunday. The rationale for closing the church doors on such Sundays is to allow families to have more time together, or to give overworked staff a rest from their labors. I understand and appreciate the sentiment behind these reasons, but ultimately I think it not only sends the wrong message, but works against what God has called us to do as the church.
What's So Special About Sunday?
The first day of the week, Sunday, has become central to the life of the church since Jesus' resurrection. Not only was Jesus raised on the first day of the week, but his post-resurrection appearances were also on that day. The Christian church began gathering regularly on this day and even called it "The Lord's Day." This was the day the church gathered regularly for word and sacrament. This was the day the church took up its offering. This was the day the church set apart from all others. The Jewish Sabbath (observed on Saturday) lost its significance and the Lord's Day become the day associated with the people of God.
When we choose to suspend Sunday services for the sake of holiday busyness or fatigue I can't help but sense we running into one of two problems. On the one hand we may be choosing a lesser rest over a greater rest. Holiday busyness shouldn't lead us away from gathering with the church to seek the Lord together, for that is where our true rest in Jesus is highlighted. This is where we are invited to say no to sin and the world by laying ourselves down on the bed of grace. As a husband, father of four, and host of large extended family get-togethers, I get the pressures of the holidays. As a pastor I know the work that goes into Sunday gatherings. But the gathering itself is one of the tangible ways we rest in our Savior. By suspending services due to holiday needs I believe we are saying, in one way, that we don't really need word, sacrament, and sacred community.
On the other hand when we feel the need to suspend services in order to give our teams a break I wonder if we are either asking too much of our volunteers, or depending too much on big, and perhaps unnecessary, production. I admit that I do not pastor a large church, so all that goes into big production gatherings is somewhat lost on me. But perhaps there are better alternatives.
What do we really need to have when the church gathers? The word of God preached, the Lord's Supper shared, gospel songs sung together, and prayers offered in faith. God has given us a form of worship that is simple and doesn't require much overhead. Why not suspend the production, but keep the gathering? Wouldn't it be better to remind our people that what really matters is God among his people gathered. We may favor additional, cultural aspects of our gathering, but we don't need them. We can strip down the worship to one instrument, or even go acapella. We can turn off the videos. We can cancel additional classes. Whatever we do, I would rather save our Sundays than suspend them. And I don’t mean save them as if they were dying, but save them from being relegated to something other than essential to the life and health of the local church and the Christian. The most beautiful display of the Kingdom of God is when the church gathers for corporate worship. There we gather as one people, confessing one Lord, sharing in one Spirit, singing with one voice, while resting together in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Edmund Clowney summed all this up so well when he wrote:
Above all, we must prize the blessing of corporate worship. The church of the Lord, gathered for worship, marks the pinnacle of our fellowship with the Lord and with one another. The church is the people of God, the new humanity, the beginning of the new creation, a colony of heaven… In corporate worship we experience the meaning of union with Christ.
Iain D. Campbell On the First Day of the Week
Jonathan Edwards "The Perpetuity and Change of the Sabbath"