July 23, 2012
Sunday! Sunday! Sunday!
Why it matters when we gather for worship.
I recently read a report in USA Today that more churches are shifting their worship gatherings from Sunday morning to Wednesday night. For some it’s a matter of convenience, and other churches are simply trying to reach those who can’t/won’t come on Sunday morning.
I’m not sure this can really be called “news.” Churches have been providing alternative worship times for as long as I can remember, and I’m certainly not against that. I’ve spoken with many church leaders, including at my own congregation, about alternative worship times. But what bothers me is the lack of biblical or theological understanding around this topic. Most evangelicals seem to believe Sunday morning worship is merely historical tradition, and therefore carries no great importance. They conclude that we can or should abandon Sunday if a more convenient or missionally effective time can be found.
Occasionally I may hear someone make the connection between Christ’s resurrection and Sunday morning worship. As Keith Green sang many years ago, on Sunday “Jesus rose from the grave and you, you can't even get out of bed.” You may hear about the resurrection as the reason Christians now observe the Sabbath on Sunday rather than the Old Testament’s command to rest on Saturday, but that’s usually as far as the theology of Sunday worship goes. In the end, most church leaders are so thrilled if anyone comes to church, they’re not about to fight about which day people come.
Still, we need to remember that there is a deeper reason why the church has worshiped on Sunday mornings--one that is still relevant today.
When Jesus rose from the grave, he was doing more that conquering death. He was doing more than displaying the vindication of God. He was doing more than giving us hope for our own resurrections in the age to come. Jesus’ resurrection is the first fruit of the New Creation. His raised and transformed body, as Paul lays out in 1 Corinthians 15 and Romans 8, is indicative of the transformation that awaits all the saints and the creation itself. As N.T. Wright says:
Jesus’s resurrection is to be seen as the beginning of the new world, the first day of the new week, the unveiling of the prototype of what God is now going to accomplish in the rest of the world. -Surprised by Hope, page 238.
Following the creation account in Genesis 1, Sunday is the first day of creation. So Jesus is raised on a Sunday to mark the beginning of God’s new creation. This fact was not lost on the early Christians. They did not worship on Sunday because it was convenient. They gathered on Sundays because they were people of the new creation, people of the resurrection, and people of the in-breaking Kingdom of God. Wright goes on:
Many Christians will find, for all kinds of reasons, that Sunday is a difficult day to attend church services. But we should remind ourselves that the earliest Christians lived in a world where Sunday was the first day of the working week, much like our Monday, and that they valued its symbolism so highly that they were prepared to get up extra early both to celebrate Easter once again and to anticipate the final Eighth Day of Creation, the start of the new week, the day when God will renew all things. -Surprised by Hope, page 262.
The move away from Sunday worship can have many motivations, and some of them are honorable and even Spirit-guided. But I sense some congregations opt for non-Sunday worship without considering these deeper realities. In other words, the merely utilitarian reasons on which which we abandon Sunday may be another sign of how theologically, historically, and biblically ignorant we have become. We view our gatherings as a time of self-improvement, therapeutic enrichment, social connection, or artistic expression--and it can be these things. So we make human-centered, self-centered decisions about when these functions can happen most conveniently during the week.
But we often fail to see our gatherings as a spiritual and embodied display of our participation in a new cosmic reality. We fail to see how Sunday morning is when and where the church displays the wisdom of God before the powers and authorities in the heavenly realms by aligning ourselves with Christ's resurrection and the work of God's new creation.
If you are considering abandoning Sunday morning worship for another time, I’m not saying you shouldn’t. Leaders ought to prayerfully seek God’s guidance on the matter, and do what is right for your flock and mission. Obey the Lord. But as part of the discernment process, at least study the richer reason behind the church’s historical commitment to Sunday morning worship, and teach this facet of worship to your congregation. I think many would be surprised by the real value of Sunday.