The Sabbath and the Small Church

Here’s some more great stuff from Preaching and Worship in the Small Church by Willimon and Wilson (Nashville: Abigdon, 1980).  This time the authors write about the primary activity of the small church: Sunday worship.

The authors lament the fact that a hundred other things have taken the place of Sunday worship in American churches.  Sunday school, Wednesday night prayer services, youth groups, ladies’ groups, mens’ groups, singles’ groups, college groups, endless committee meetings, social-action programs, and so forth threaten the “centrality of Sunday” (p. 39).  “Sunday worship became the victim of the ‘full-program church’ mentality.”  Long ago, a defining part of the definition of being a Christian was: “he goes to church on Sunday.”  Now that person is “quickly informed that that was only a small part of the Christian life.  ‘What you do outside the church is more important than what you do inside the church,’ was how the slogan went.”  All the other programs and events and meetings and groups “conspired to convince people that worship was only one small part of the full program.”

“Such thinking had an undeniable appeal to the pragmatic, utilitarian, work-oriented society, such as we have in the United States.  Time spent in worship tends to be thought of as idle time – unused time.  We are a nation of doers and achievers.  How can ‘acts’ of worship compete in importance alongside activities such as Christian education, counseling, youth programs, board meetings, Bible study groups, and charitable work?  The ‘active’ church with its doors always open, meetings in progress every night of the week, newsletters recruiting participants for a host of activities, insuring that every person is kept busy throughout the week (provided that person truly wishes to be an ‘active’ church member) has become the paradigm for any church that aspires to greatness” (p. 40).  “Even the worship services of those [busy] churches frequently have a breathless, hurried, distracted quality” (p. 42).

The authors continue the discussion by explaining the fact that doesn’t seem obvious: small churches don’t (can’t!) usually have those programs, events, committees, and so forth, but that is good news.  Because they lack these programs, the authors argue, “small churches celebrate Sunday in a fashion that puts many of their larger sister churches to shame” (p. 41).   “Congregational worship is a reliable barometer of the life of the small church.  Here the church family will celebrate its victories, lament its defeats, act out its deepest needs.  The small church will often express an intense sense of ownership of its Sunday worship practices.”  Often, Willimon and Wilson note, many small church parishioners will violently react to radical change in Sunday service.   They say well that this should be viewed as a positive thing: it shows that the saints there value the Divine service above other church “stuff.”

This is a great word for those of us who are members of smaller churches (quite a few of us I’m guessing!).  It is tempting to emulate the mega-church down the street and literally “get busy” as a church.  The problem with this is, as the above notes reflect well, that the busyness swallows the Divine service on Sunday.  The church gets spread out so thinly that it is like a beehive with the saints all buzzing past each other.  The only time they actually stop doing something is during the pastor’s prayer and brief sermon on Sunday morning, around 30 minutes total.  The rest of the service is filled with activity, swirled in with the activity during the week.  The 30 minutes of “rest” or quietness becomes a footnote in the life of the saint: every second of the rest of the week has a full calendar screaming out to get to work!

I’ve noticed the benefit of worship in a small church.  Sunday is different.  We stop.  We think.  We laugh.  We cry.  We rest.  We sit still and be quiet, learning how to receive from God as passive listeners to his word.  We are fed by Jesus.  We teach our kids to quit fussing around (which we ironically do all week!), we practice the cycle of God’s time.  This goes against the grain of our nature and culture, but as Willimon and Wilson say, this is a great way for a small church to recover their own unique sense of mission and restore their positive self-image.  When we in small churches “boldly claim the fundamental significance of Sunday for [our] congregational life” we will be a great light of rest to the darkness of the busy world around us.  And above that, we’ll be reminded that we’re pilgrims who depend on God’s word to live each week of our lives.

shane lems

sunnyside wa

4 Replies to “The Sabbath and the Small Church”

  1. “Congregational worship is a reliable barometer of the life of the small church.”

    This is a great quote; relevant not only for the small church though. Even though our church is fairly large by Reformed church standards, people do lament at times that certain classes, programs, and extra activities aren’t well attended. Each Lord’s day, however, the church is full of our group of covenant people, gathering for a taste of the age to come as we experience the rich drama of word and sacrament. At the end of the day, *this* is where the *real* action is. It doesn’t matter if our weeknight activities are hit and miss, our Lord’s day worship is not.

    Nice stuff man!


  2. The larger danger that Willimon and Wilson do not address however is the fact that reformed churches who, forgetting their commitment to the regulative principle and the view of the church as a two-ministry institution, implement the mega-church methods and techniques ascribe to such programs, classes, small groups, etc a certain sense of advanced piety. That is, having attended such a church myself and conversed with Christians who do, these churches seem to believe that should you not participate in small groups, bible studies, etc you are thereby regarded a second tier Christian. The logic seems to go: the more programs you are involved in the more pious you are. This methodology is completely antithetical to the teaching of the apostles and reformed theology. Our piety is measured by whether we attend to the means of grace: the preaching of the word and the administration of the sacraments, not on whether we participate in mid-week bible studies, as commendable as they may be, or whether our children belong to the Christian scouts.


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