Is the day and time we worship inclusive or exclusive?
By Tim Sitterley, US Regional Director, West
When Linda and I were planning our wedding forty-some years ago, I made the brilliant suggestion that we hold the ceremony at the base of the waterfall where we had one of our first dates. Sure, it was a strenuous four-hour hike in the mountains, but I had it all worked out. The entire wedding party would hike in together. There would be a beautiful ceremony (where we would have to yell to be heard over the sound of the falls). The champagne would chill in the stream for the reception to follow. And the crowd would throw rice and cheer us on as Linda and I headed up the trail for a back-pack honeymoon. Linda pointed out the multitude of reasons why that was a really dumb idea…mostly centered around the fact that many of the people we wanted to invite would never be able to make the hike. We had a perfectly normal wedding on the college campus where we attended.
Destination weddings are all the rave these days. But few events are as exclusionary as a wedding in Cancun where only a select few are able to afford the trip. Friends and family are left behind, apparently expected to purchase a gift and look at photos of the actual event. One wedding I’m familiar with took place on a beach. Was it beautiful? Yes. Could a prominent family member in a wheelchair attend? No. Destination weddings and the word “inclusional” will never exist in the same sentence.
When we talk about the Hope Avenue in a healthy church, the word “inclusional” gets used quite a bit. Some will even add the tagline “You’re Included” on their website and signage. We want people to feel a part of our weekly worship experience from the moment they walk through our doors. We greet them at the door. We give them a bulletin so they can know what to expect. We encourage our members to engage visitors, and to make sure they are invited to stay for whatever social activities follow the service. We even follow up (or should) with a card or email thanking them for joining us and tell them we hope to see them again. Inclusion.
We’ve been encouraged to examine the community immediately surrounding our meeting location. Debating when we meet seems to be a pastime in many churches, although the so-called sacred hour of worship (11:00 am) is not so sacred anymore. Worship services with start times from 7:00 am to 8:30 am are becoming more common in many churches. This trend seems to be related to the growth of empty-nest boomers. And we’ll do our best to find a meeting location suitable for the needs of our members.
But what about the DAY we choose to gather? Is the excuse “If the day doesn’t matter, then the day doesn’t matter” accurate? And trust me, as a pastor I uttered those words many times to justify remaining in the cushy Methodist Church my congregation met in every Saturday. After all, if we were not catering to any remaining Sabbatarians, did it really matter what day we worshiped on? And the answer to that question is a resounding YES! The day matters.
I’m not going to enter into a theological debate on Saturday vs. Sunday. We have some awesome articles on our website dealing with Sabbatarianism. And to be honest, this is really a baseless argument because the New Testament does not command or designate a specific “day of worship.” In Romans 14:5 Paul wrote, “One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.” In Colossians 2:16-17 he said, “Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.” If Tuesday afternoon is the only option available to you, so be it. From that aspect the day doesn’t matter.
From a purely logistical standpoint, however, the day does matter to a lot of people for a lot of reasons. The reasons why Saturday is not a good option are similar to the reasons why destination weddings are not all that desirable. Both are far more exclusional than inclusional. Let’s examine a few of those reasons.
First, Saturday worship is primarily the domain of Sabbatarian denominations. There are exceptions, but it is rare for a Christian congregation to hold their primary worship gathering on a Saturday. So when someone is looking at your congregation’s website (which is where most new people start their search) and they see a Saturday gathering time, in most cases they will write your church off before a greeter ever gets the chance to welcome them at the door. And conversely, if someone is Sabbatarian in their beliefs, they will be drawn to your service…only to find out you meet on Saturday only because searching for a new location is “too much work.”
Second, Saturday is part of the work week for many working adults. Yes, some have to work on Sunday, but they are the exception, not the rule. And if they do have Saturday off, they are conditioned by culture to see Saturday as their primary day to accomplish personal tasks, or to play. You are not going to change ingrained behavior, no matter how awesome your worship service is.
Third, student activities and sports are also heavily scheduled on Saturday. The idea that Chariots of Fire runner Eric Liddell made it all the way to the 1924 Olympic Games before being asked to compete on a Sunday seems almost quaint. Today, the littlest T-ball player is routinely expected to show up on Saturday, and the demands only escalate as children get older. Chiding families to choose between church and sports will not work; they will almost always choose sports—and in many cases, they already have. Kid’s sports are encroaching into Sunday more and more, as the church becomes less relevant, but sports and school activities on Saturday are a given. So don’t expect to attract families with children to a Saturday worship service.
And finally, there is an almost two-thousand-year tradition of Sunday worship in any part of the world influenced by Christianity. Tell someone you worship on Saturday, and you begin the conversation with confusion. You might as well tell them you start each day with a large multi-course dinner and end the day with cold cereal and coffee. As Ricky Ricardo would often say to Lucy, “you’ve got some esplainin’ to do.”
And in a world of declining church attendance, do we really want to start our missional outreach with confusion, false perception and schedule conflict? The number one complaint aimed at destination weddings is they focus only on the wants and desires of the couple, and they exclude extended friends and family from participating. Tell someone you meet on Saturday because it’s convenient for your existing members, and it meets their wants and desires, and your reasoning will be received with the same response.
As a pastor who took a congregation through the transition from Saturday to Sunday, I’m fully aware of the challenges. In most cities it’s not an easy task to find a suitable facility on Sunday morning. And getting a congregation to see beyond those seven deadly words to church growth (“This is how we’ve always done it.”) takes team buy-in and education. But I’ve also witnessed firsthand, as have many of our pastors, the change this transition has on the congregation. I’ve listened to members talk about how much easier it is to invite people now that they don’t have to follow that invitation up with an explanation and apology. And I’ve seen people walk through the door who never would have visited a Saturday worship service.
GCI’s healthy church initiatives have pointed out that much of what we do each week matters in ways we may never have considered in the past. Where we meet matters. How we interact with first-time visitors matters. The various aspects of our weekly worship experience matter. And YES, the day we choose to meet on may matter far more than we care to admit. But I’ll be the first to admit that 7:00 am might be pushing it a bit.