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As the government urges Church of England bishops to back plans to relax Sunday trading laws, Premier Christianity's senior editor Justin Brierley wonders whether the Church should be rethinking Sundays altogether.
I recently spent a lovely relaxed morning with my family, starting with breakfast at a café, followed by a mooch around some town centre shops, and finished by a visit to the cinema to watch the new Minions film (not of much interest to our 6-week old who slept through it, but great viewing for our 10, 7 and 4 year old).
It’s hardly an unusual family activity in the Surrey town where I live. But for me, the whole trip was overlaid with a faint sense of guilt on this occasion. Why? Because it was Sunday morning.
My wife Lucy is a church minister so most Sunday mornings of the year are inevitably church-based affairs. In fact, such is the nature of being married to the ministry, we are often in church on most of the other days of the week too.
But since Lucy’s been on maternity leave (hence the 6-week-old baby) we’ve had the rare opportunity to not necessarily be in church on Sunday. So why did it feel vaguely sinful for me to be doing a standard Saturday-morning-sort-of-outing on a Sunday?
It wasn’t because I particularly think we should ‘Keep Sunday Special’. In June the longstanding resistance to Sunday trading seemed to finally melt away as the Chancellor’s budget announcement more or less confirmed that Sundays won’t be treated differently to any other day of the week by businesses. But I wasn’t that bothered. Working and shopping patterns have changed and this is one battle that I’m not convinced it’s worth Christians fighting for.
But somewhere in my subconscious is the residual sense of guilt that, by doing something as ‘normal’ as visiting the cinema and sitting in café, I was somehow contravening a biblical principle of resting on the ‘Lord’s day’ which should be set apart for worshipping him. I also had a sense that all those other people who were out shopping, drinking coffee in Starbucks, or joining us in the queue for popcorn, were… well… heathens. They weren’t in church after all, so it’s pretty unlikely they were Christians (I somehow exempted my own family from this slightly wobbly logic).
Their church is the shopping mall, their communion an overpriced bagel and coffee, their sermon is an 80 minute Pixar film
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not someone who believes that we earn heavenly credit for clocking up church attendance on Sundays (and if you are, you need to examine your theology), but I somehow felt slightly (and irrationally) more concerned for the spiritual state of the people we passed than I would on a normal weekday.
I’m not against watching Minions once in a while (their pint-sized yellow antics were quite amusing, I must admit). But if that, or any other leisure activity, completely replaced my Sunday morning opportunity to worship, pray and learn about Jesus Christ from scripture, then I would feel like the centre of my week had been ripped out.
So, I reasoned, my fellow Sunday morning shoppers must all be carrying on through life devoid of any spiritual input. Their church is the shopping mall, their communion an overpriced bagel and coffee, their sermon is an 80 minute (albeit excellently animated) Pixar film.
All of this is to admit that I was being terribly judgemental. After all, I could hardly stand on any high moral ground if I was also choosing to spend my Sunday morning on the high street and in the cinema alongside them. Plus, (as if it needed saying) God doesn’t actually live at church on Sunday. He is just as present among the people milling around in John Lewis as he is in the church down the road, they just need someone to help them realise it.
In fact, perhaps the Church fails to realise the opportunities that may be present by getting out of our building on Sunday mornings once in a while and invading the town centre. What would it look if every so often, a whole church congregation turned up in the cafés or town centre shops – not with evangelistic tracts or disapproval - but to deliberately bless the staff and punters with a gift, or an offer of prayer or something else. I think that would be an unforgettable Sunday, both for the congregation and the people they met.
The irony of course is that when the first Christians began meet for worship on Sunday mornings in observance of the day Jesus rose form the dead, they were doing something highly counter-cultural. They were Jews which meant Saturday was the Sabbath day, set aside for worship. Sunday was the first working day of the week (like Monday is for most of us). Meeting on Sunday morning was economically and socially disadvantageous. Yet they did it, because they wanted to demonstrate something unique about the God they worshipped.
For Christians, if attending church on Sunday mornings has become so culturally ‘normal’ that we no longer look distinctive then perhaps we should welcome the changing patterns of Sunday activity. In fact, it may be an opportunity to shed some of our prejudices, and show that, if we don’t want church to look like one more option in a list of leisure activities, we need to rethink Sundays.
Unbelievable? presenter Justin Brierley blogs on all things theology, apologetics and ethics.