I heard recently of a large church in the midlands region of the UK which has a problem.
Church leaders reckon the total congregation is about 1,000-strong. For England, that's big. The problem they have is that, on any given Sunday, about 300 do not turn up to worship. The reasons, I understand, are broadly what you might expect: people are away visiting relatives, or away on a weekend break, or simply 'doing other things'. And as any church minister will tell you, this is an issue across Britain. Even those who regard themselves as 'regular' worshippers may only be at a service once or twice a month. It is true in some other countries, too. All in all, it's a far cry from the New Testament picture of believers who 'every day continued to meet together' (Acts 2:46).
The results are pretty easy to see. For example, face-to-face fellowship between Christians is more fragmented. Preachers trying to work through a Bible book or theme on successive Sundays find that their hearers are only there, say, for the first, third and sixth of a seven-part series. To use the biblical picture of the Body of Christ, it's like some of the organs in a physical body going missing for 50 per cent of the time. Both churches and Christians are feebler as a result.
So how has this situation in relation to Sunday worship come about? In the UK, the liberalisation of the Sunday trading laws in the 1980s meant Mammon could seduce us seven days a week, rather than six. Sport quickly followed on. Suddenly, church had 'competition'. Add in to this 24-hour TV and the internet, and the results are all too predictable. But some would argue there's been a theological change too. For some evangelicals today, the whole issue seems rather legalistic. For them, talk of Sunday observance sounds a bit too much like the New Testament pharisees and their rules. After all, shouldn't we refrain from judging people about 'Sabbaths' (Colossians 2:16)? And isn't 'rest' for Christians more about salvation than any particular day (Hebrews 4)? Well, yes – but that's not the whole picture. Whatever our precise views, here are some questions to challenge us, and our churches, about the issue of regular Sunday worship:
1. How much do we think God is worth? 'Worship' is derived from the Old English word 'woerthship'. Thus worshipping God is, at the very least, proclaiming his worth. Writer Delesslyn Kennebrew says: 'We worship God because he is God. Period.' This is the God who has flung stars into space, yet come to us in Christ, and died for us. And this is a God who wants to speak to us and to grant us rest and refreshment, as we worship him. Is God 'worth' it? The answer is obvious.
2. How serious are we about our faith? The Lutheran Christian theologian (1735-93) Balthasar Münter writes that church attendance is the 'foundation for the Christian life' as 'the Christian Bible and the sacraments provide the framework for the faith'. It also helps prevent backsliding, he says, and provides 'the company of other believers'. It is indeed possible to 'worship God by myself in the countryside' (as some say). And it is also true that at its fullest, 'worship is the offering of all of our lives' (as others state). But there will always be a need for the key ingredients to which Münter points. How can we possibly grow as Christians without such things? Again, isn't the answer clear?
3. How obedient to God are we going to be? Regular church attendance 'is not just a good suggestion; it is God's will for believers,' writes Michael Houdmann. Hebrews 10:25 says we should 'not give up meeting together'. Of course, there are good reasons which may affect regular attendance: illness, infirmity, caring for relatives, holidays, an unbelieving spouse, unshiftable work rotas etc. But these things do not explain much absenteeism. While it's true we are believers in 'grace' (God's unmerited forgiveness) not 'law' (earning his approval by what we do), Jesus tells us if we love him we will keep his commands. Would you miss a meeting with your boss if you 'didn't feel like it this week', or let children skip school so they could 'make up their own minds later' about maths? Presumably not. So why would we be less obedient to the commands of God to meet with other Christians?
Christians of all traditions down the ages have emphasised Sunday worship. Puritan Richard Baxter wrote: 'It has been the constant practice of all Christ's churches in the whole world, ever since the days of the Apostles to this day, to assemble for public worship on the Lord's Day.' The first bishop of Liverpool JC Ryle said it was 'extraordinary to mark the harmony' among varying Christians on the issue: 'They have differed widely on other subjects... but as soon as you come to the question, "how the Lord's Day ought to be observed," the unity among them is truly surprising.'
Pope John Paul II in 'Dies Domini' (1998) wrote: 'I would strongly urge everyone to rediscover Sunday: Do not be afraid to give your time to Christ! Yes, let us open our time to Christ...' I love that phrase, 'open our time to Christ'. Will you do that – this Sunday, and every single week you possibly can? May you find true and deep Sabbath rest in every sense as you do! And may a busy world look on, and notice – and wonder, too, where such rest may be found.
David Baker is a former daily newspaper journalist now working as an Anglican minister in Sussex, England. Find him on Twitter @Baker_David_A