Rev. Kleyn is pastor of Trinity Protestant Reformed Church in Hudsonville, Michigan.
What has happened and what is happening to the Christian Sabbath in society and the church-world all around us? Where has the Sabbath gone?
I hardly need to tell you, if my purpose is to inform you. You can see it with your own eyes.
But we do need to talk about it. Not because you are unaware, but because you, dear Reformed reader, are being desensitized by what is going on around you.
Historically, different attempts have been made at eradicating the Sabbath. In 1792 the French Revolutionary Convention enacted a decimal calendar that called for a 10-day week. It was abandoned after Napoleon came to power. In the last century the U.S.S.R. tried twice to alter the week, decreeing its length as five days in 1929 and six days in 1932. By 1940 the U.S.S.R. had restored the seven-day week. Probably this approach failed because it was too direct, too obvious. And so the Devil, in our society, has used a different approach.
Decades ago, probably as long as a century ago, the Sabbath began to lose its place on the weekly calendar. With the rise of industrialization, not only in the USA but all over the world, great factories were built that ran most efficiently when they operated seven days a week. Mostly, before the second world war, they were closed on Sundays, but the urgency of production during the war changed this. People began to work on Sundays.
For most, however, Sunday still was a different day to the other days of the week. Large segments of the population still went to church with their families, and most businesses were closed on Sundays. Even where some did not recognize this day as the “Lord’s Day,” still it was treated differently and there was a respect for the religious convictions of the Christian who would attend church, put aside earthly employments, and spend the day dressed in Sunday attire, while keeping himself from sports and recreation.
But then came pro-sports, an increase in industrialization, an increase in national and personal wealth, a decrease in morality in other areas of life, and a loss of respect for the law of God. Stores and restaurants began to open on Sundays. People began to travel on Sundays to large sporting events. People needed to spend their hard-earned money on recreation. Theaters began to open on Sundays. Sunday labor increased. And if there had before been any residual respect in the world of unbelief for Sunday as a “holy day,” it disappeared. Civil Sabbath laws were repealed. People still went to church, but only if it was convenient, and the zealous and strict observer of the Sabbath who would not work or play, who would not turn on his radio or TV, who would not vacation over Sunday, and who went twice to church with his family, became not only the exception, but the laughing-stock of society.
And that brought us into the 80’s and 90’s.
These things put pressure on church members, pressures to work, pressures to turn on the media, pressures to visit sporting events, pressures to shop, pressures to participate in sport and recreation themselves, pressures to travel and vacation, etc. In turn, church members put pressure on church leaders, pressures to go easy on Sabbath desecration, to expand the permissible field of “necessary Sabbath labor,” to allow for short stints away from a church for the sake of vacation/refreshment, to take their own families on such trips. In turn, church leaders put pressure on church theologians to reconsider the biblical teaching on the Sabbath, to disconnect the Sabbath from Sunday and say the day you pick really doesn’t matter, to emphasize church-attendance at the expense of ‘whole-day’ Sabbath observance, to open churches and worship to contemporary trends and entertainment in order to keep the crowds, and to de-emphasize Sabbath teaching and Sabbath observance. The result? The whole biblical Sabbath theology and teaching was largely pushed aside. Instead of Sunday being a day “holy to the Lord,” it became a day “holy to man,” a day for personal pleasure and delight, not in anything other-worldly and spiritual, but in earth-bound pleasures. The fourth commandment was viewed, not as a commandment of hope and blessing, a commandment that gives us privilege in worship, and hope of the coming great rest of heaven, but as a commandment that was too strict, too binding, too restrictive, too impossible, and obviously one that belonged only to the Old Testament economy.
This is the scenario “all around us” today.
And now there’s another problem—empty churches—so an attempt has to be made to fill them again, at least in the mornings. Concessions are made to contemporary worship, to the clamor for entertainment, to the worship styles that are apparently more attractive to the young, etc. “What can we do to get people through the church door? And what can we do to get them to pledge money to the church?” These are the questions that are asked. And so they do what they can. And others chip in to help—discounts on golf if you have a church bulletin, etc.
Perhaps what we have today is best illustrated by the annual “Super-bowl Sunday” in the USA. Super-bowl brings it all together, the unbelieving world’s selfish use of the Sabbath and the church’s excuse for following suit. In an article from theJournal Gazette of Fort Wayne, IN (Fortwayne.com, February 1, 2007) we see this connection.
Football’s faithful will file into house parties, bars and, of course, Dolphin Stadium on Super Bowl Sunday to observe their holiest of holy days. But they’ll also turn out in force at churches across the country, which are tapping the popularity of sports in hopes of saving souls.
Organizers of church-sponsored Super Bowl gatherings see the events as a departure from the formality of organized religion—the type of events that could make someone who doesn’t typically attend services feel more at home. ”
It’s a way of reaching out into our community in a very informal, low-key way where we show people we’re regular Joes like they are without the pressure of church,” said Pastor Luis Acosta of Pines Baptist Church, a Southern Baptist congregation north of Miami in Pembroke Pines.
Pines Baptist has been holding Super Bowl events for a few years and expects about 300 people, mostly men, at its flag football game and watch party this year. The church drew about 250 people to a block party Jan. 13 which featured NFL-themed games, former Dolphins players signing autographs and giveaways including a plasma television.
Acosta said the church doesn’t take a heavy-handed approach to nonbelievers who join in such events. There won’t be so much as a prayer at the Super Bowl Sunday event. If a guest enjoys himself, a member might invite him to a church social group meeting, then maybe a Bible study, then perhaps an actual service.
So there has been change.
Excuses are made, not anymore by the secular press, but among theologians and by churches. The Christian Sabbath made it big in the headlines just over a year ago when it fell on December 25, Christmas Day, 2005. On that Sunday, around the country, it was “Sorry, Church Cancelled for Christmas.” The excuse was “It’s about being family friendly and life-style friendly for people who are just very, very busy.” At least, that’s what Willow Creek spokeswoman Cally Parkinson said in an interview with theHerald-Leader. In reality, these churches and these people see no special value in Sunday, and have no respect anymore for the Word or Law of God.
This is plain enough from what they say. When, several years ago, the Grand Rapids Pressinterviewed a Calvin Seminary professor, Henry DeMoor, on the subject of working on the Sabbath, this was his response (December 9, 2002):
. . . Henry DeMoor said the church has long recognized Sunday as a day of worship free from “servile works” except those involving charity and necessity.
“But in view of current society, it’s hard for me to embrace that principle,” he said. “If every Christian insisted we’re not going to work on Sunday, I suspect there wouldn’t be enough people to do the work.
“Ethically, a better position might be to tell church elders they work one Sunday a month. If they say they are conscious of the Fourth Commandment and honor it as much as they can, I’m sure elders would be satisfied,” DeMoor said.
So, this is where we’re at. Where has the Sabbath gone? Well, to busyness, and work, and entertainment, and family, and self, and so on. Or, perhaps, the devil has stolen it, and with it is attempting to steal, to lure, whomever he can into this immoral, godless, vacuum of the modern Sunday.
But, how about you, Reformed reader? It is May 2007. That means that, at least here in my adopted northern hemisphere, summer is just around the corner. The beaches, the sporting venues, the Nascar channel, the online scorecards, the vacation spots, the shopping malls, the gas stations, the restaurants, the workplace will all be luring you, on the Sabbath, to enjoy. As with Eve, and the forbidden fruit, there’s an attraction, a temptation. Are you being desensitized? Are you changing, if not in position, in practice and in attitude?
In all the change, even perhaps in your attitudes, one thing hasn’t changed and won’t change, and that is God’s Word.
Remember the Sabbath Day, to keep it holy!
I’m sure you can read about that elsewhere in this edition of theStandard Bearer.