Exhausted from a long, demanding day, Joseph feels his body begin to release stress and his mind struggle to let go of its seemingly endless list of responsibilities. It’s almost Sunday, he tells himself. Maybe I’ll finally get a chance to rest.
The sad irony is that this is a relatable situation for many pastors, ministry leaders, and members of congregations who meet on Saturday with good intentions of celebrating Sabbath. Unfortunately, the day on which a congregation worships is often the most physically and emotionally taxing day of the week for many pastors and church leaders. It can become a day so devoted to church that even our guests go home exhausted.
Thousands of tiny details go into “doing church” each week in the way that our culture has come to expect. The pastor becomes a manager of these details, ministering and attending to needs often unseen and unsung.
Yet for Sabbath-embracing congregations, this testimony invites an important query: Do our Sabbaths necessitate that their chief celebrants push their rest to another day of the week? If so, are we truly celebrating a Christian Sabbath?
The Christian Sabbath has its roots in the Jewish Sabbath and in the Edenic Sabbath before that. From the beginning, Sabbath has been structured so that everyone within God’s covenant community could receive the gift of rest. The Jews, however, did have one notable exception. Priests continued to perform their work on the Sabbath with God’s blessing (Matthew 12:5).
The Christian tendency is to equate the priesthood with the pastorate, thus exempting pastors from the blessings of Sabbath. This, however, directly contradicts the reality that in Christ, we all constitute a “royal priesthood” (1 Peter 2:5, 9).
It also fails to note that the New Testament model of church leadership was not one of pastoral hierarchy but of team leadership, the pastor being one among many who equip the church for works of service, with neither the equipping nor the works of service primarily taking place on Sabbath (Ephesians 4:11, 12). Paul himself always ministered as part of a team and appointed teams of leaders in each of the churches they planted (Acts 14:23).
Therefore, if Sabbath is indeed a blessing for Christians to enjoy, it stands to reason that our churches should be administered in such a way that 1) spreads out the responsibilities of church leadership and 2) allows church leaders to lead their congregation in a simple celebration of the rest we have in Christ.
The church is called to embody in community what it looks like to live under the rule of King Jesus. The mystery of Sabbath is that communal rest reveals truths about God and His relationship with humanity that can best be experienced and understood at a physical level through the very inaction of rest.
Sabbath is a gift Christ offers to His church body as a tangible reality that we don’t have to — and can’t — earn God’s favor (Hebrews 4). It is not about actions we take but about letting God act on us. To celebrate Sabbath as Christ intended is to receive this sacrament, this grace, of the present and future rest we have in Christ.
Failing to recognize the eternal significance of Sabbath, the strongest sect of Pharisees took such an extreme view of Sabbath that it was wielded as a tool against the very members of their community who most needed a tangible expression of God’s care. All too often, however, we take Christ’s correction to the Jews that “It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath” and contort it to mean “Do as much good as possible on the Sabbath.” In doing so, we can transform Sabbath into an exhausting day driven by intentionally cramming in as many good works as we can. In the process, we both crowd out needs that Sabbath was designed to meet, and downplay how we are to live out the gospel in our communities the other six days of the week.
In contrast, Sabbath as interpreted through the lens of the gospel will be a day devoted to physically experiencing Christ’s restorative presence, allowing us space to administer God’s mercy to needs that arise in the natural course of the day.
Sabbath is a natural time to gather as a community to worship; Jesus himself taught in synagogues on the seventh day. However, recognize the temptation to equate Sabbath exclusively with corporate worship services and ministry activities, to believe that the very act of “going to church” means that we’ve participated in this sacrament of Sabbath rest. We should thoughtfully examine this tendency and make space for additional forms of rest. For example, how might Sabbath change if your congregation met at the start of Sabbath (Friday evening), instead of on Saturday morning?
Our Sabbath gatherings do not have to carry the weight we have given them. We should be unburdened knowing that the patterns of modern evangelical church gatherings are rooted more in nineteenth century American Revivalism than in worship gatherings of the New Testament. A greater emphasis on reflecting God’s image in the context of our daily lives will also take pressure off of leveraging Sabbath for ministry.
After embracing a more simplified and intentional Sabbath, we should reduce pastoral responsibilities by studying and implementing what the Bible teaches about leadership teams. When more people are involved, the natural inclination will be to try to accomplish more on Sabbath. Remember that leadership teams should instead lighten the load.
Let’s commit to embracing Sabbath as a day when our entire church community can say, “It’s Sabbath. Finally — a chance to rest.”