Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the LORD your God has commanded you.
Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your ox, your donkey or any of your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns, so that your male and female servants may rest, as you do.
Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the LORD your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.
-Deuteronomy 5:12-15 (NIV)
Time is a powerful thing.
Tell your boss that you feel you can get your job done in 20 hours a week.
Tell your kids that you’ll only see them on birthdays and other special days.
Tell your parents that you really think calling once every two months is enough.
Time is perhaps the most reliable marker we have for what’s really important to us. Oh, maybe not over the course of a week, or even a month. The urgent asserts itself into even the most carefully-planned calendars. But the bottom line is that, over the course of weeks or months, we clear our schedules to protect the things that matter most to us.
When I was a kid, there were a few things that were standing appointments on all our calendars. One was dinner together as a family. The others were church on Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night.
I didn’t mind Sunday mornings that much. Really, I didn’t. Sunday nights weren’t too bad, though it meant I couldn’t see the end of the late games during football season. Wednesdays were tough, especially in the summers. I’d be out riding my bike, playing, running the neighborhood, and suddenly mom would call for dinner, and I knew after that I’d have to clean up and head for church.
But I don’t remember ever arguing much about it. I don’t mean to suggest that church was meaningful to me every week. I don’t mean to say that I didn’t act some days like I’d never been near a church. But that block of time always reminded me that being with God’s people was important enough - at least to my parents - that they blocked out time each week to be there. That standing appointment at church was a reminder that what we do with our time says a lot about what matters to us.
Israel had the Sabbath to remind them that time was perhaps the best way to demonstrate their identity as God’s people. Say what you want about how healthy it is to take a day off, or justice for their slaves, or whatever; Israel took one day out of every seven off mainly because their God told them to. Whatever needed to be done, however far behind everyone was, once every seven days the economic and work life of Israel ground to a halt.
Inconvenient? You bet. Destructive to the nation’s Gross National Product? Almost certainly. Alienating to the foreign merchants camped outside the city’s gates, waiting for the Sabbath to be over so they could trade with Israel? No doubt.
And yet, Israel still did it. (At least sometimes.)
I’m passingly familiar with the differences between the Old Covenant and the New. But doesn’t that old Sabbath law still say something to busy people like us about our use of time, and what our willingness to meet with the church - or not - might say about what matters to us most?
I’ve heard the old line that going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than sleeping in a garage makes you a car. I’m somewhat familiar, thanks, with all the church’s failings. I’m aware that we can pray and worship and meditate on the Word and serve others any time we want, all by ourselves, if we choose. And yet the Bible still warns us against failing to meet together with the church. I don’t think that means we have to be there every time someone unlocks a door, but I’ve never seen anyone’s faith grow and thrive when they’re consistently choosing to be outside a mutually encouraging relationship with other believers.
It sometimes seems that church has become just another option in our overcrowded schedules. It sometimes seems that church is something we do if there’s nothing else on the calendar for Sunday morning. (Forget Sunday and Wednesday evenings - those are becoming ancient history as fast as, well, my childhood...) If the stars align, if the kids’ games get rained out, if we’re not up too late Saturday night, if mom and dad don’t schedule a barbecue, then, yeah, maybe we’ll make it two weeks from Sunday. Hope to see you then.
I don’t mean to minimize real problems. (I don’t want my son to think of church as the thing you do instead of all the fun things you want to do, either!) When I was a kid, little league games weren’t usually played on Sundays. My parents didn’t have to decide between fighting rush-hour traffic to get to Wednesday night Bible study or letting us stay home to do our homework. I get that work makes heavy time demands of some of us. I get wanting to spend family time together.
And yet, I can’t help but think that church isn’t supposed to be especially convenient, any more than the Sabbath was for Israel. Any more than any other relationship that demands time and energy is.
What does it say when we tell a friend that we’ll meet them at the Lake after church?
And what does it say when we act as though there’s no conflict at all?
In a time when teenagers and young adults seem to be staying away from the church in droves, I have to wonder if we’re reaping the fruit of a couple of decades of saying and modeling that being present and involved in a local church is a nice hobby for when we can find the time.
So let’s carve out some old-school church time, and protect it. Most likely, you’ll have to make some sacrifices somewhere. Your kids might not like some of them, but that’s why you’re the parent. Make worship and Bible classes priorities, not fill-in activities. Invite someone from church out for lunch or dinner every month or so. Find out what opportunities your church provides for service, and get involved.
I think God will honor your desire to honor him and encourage his people with your time.