Every August our church—Bethesda Covenant Church in New York City—does something radical and countercultural, something so outside the norm of ordinary church behavior and tradition that most who hear of this practice seem to find it either brilliant or highly suspect. So what is this extraordinary thing we do? We rest. We take a communal Sabbath from the work of church life—the work of worship, programs, Sunday school, committees, planning for refreshments, or signing up greeters.
Every year, for three Sundays in August, none of the above work happens. There is also no worship, sermon, prayer, or music. We cancel our services and encourage our congregation to attend other churches, enjoying the bountiful spiritual resources New York City has to offer. We ask them to take the time and energy they would have spent doing the work of church and use it to refocus their prayer lives, contemplate their relationship with God, and engage in discernment of God’s vision for our own church. It is an invitation to experience again the delight of our spiritual lives, a delight that we honestly acknowledge can get lost in the hustle and bustle of doing church. This practice allows our small, multiethnic church to restore what Wayne Muller, author of Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives, calls the essential rhythm of work and rest.1
Recognizing What Is Good
Bethesda has not always taken what we now affectionately call our “August Sabbath Journey.” When we arrived as pastors in the summer of 2004 with the task of revitalizing a 125-year-old church whose average attendance often peaked at eleven people and whose ministry was little more than Sunday morning worship, we found that the church did a strange thing every August: they canceled church. “Why?” we naively asked, having not yet lived in the city long enough to realize that nearly everyone (with the exception of tourists) left town in the humid and often unbearable month of August. We were told that since so few people were actually in church during August, it wasn’t financially feasible to pay to rent space. Economically, there was no question that it was practical. But we had other questions. What about the theological? How would this affect our ability to grow as a congregation? What if people got out of the habit of going to church, and never came back? More importantly, where was God in this?
What Bethesda Covenant Church intended for economic convenience, God meant for good. We began to read more extensively about the spiritual discipline of Sabbath. We looked at the biblical understanding of rest and Jesus’s own practice of it, and we wondered if there was a way to make August a meaningful time in the spiritual lives of our congregation—not so much a time in which they abandoned their church home but rather let it lie fallow. We realized that, in spite of God’s command to “remember the Sabbath, and keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8) and God’s own example of resting after the work of creation, it was rarely a topic addressed and modeled by
And what originated as canceling church grew into an intentional practice of communal Sabbath that has become more theologically rich with each year. We have discovered that the key to truly keeping the Sabbath as a community is intentionality. We prepare our congregation for this journey by giving them, in advance, scriptural and literary resources on the topic of Sabbath. We ask them to visit other churches and take with them an evaluation form that helps them reflect on their experiences. They are asked to answer questions that range from describing the architecture to the ministry style to the philosophy of leadership to the use of music and silence. They are questions like: At what point in the service did you experience God? How did people respond to you as a visitor? What did you like best about the service and why?
Experiencing new forms of worship helps Bethesda parishioners understand from where their own picture of God comes. They also realize what it is like to be a visitor in church (one of the most frequent comments is how rarely anyone greets them), and it helps them to be more welcoming when visitors come to our own services. In reflecting on other churches, they are also reflecting on their own. As Muller says, “In our passionate rush to be helpful, we miss things that are sacred, subtle, and important. Doing good requires more than simply knowing what is wrong. Like God in the creation story, we need Sabbath time to step back, pause, and be quiet enough to recognize what is good.”2 In worshiping with other churches, Bethesda has time to recognize what is good—in other communities and also in our own.
“I attended Evensong at St. John the Divine on the Upper West Side. Now this was about as opposite a venue as possible from our rented auditorium at Turtle Bay Music School in Midtown,” recounted Sally, a hospital chaplain who is a member of our church. “The sanctuary had history and I could almost feel the weight of years and years of worship and gathering, music and celebration, yet the present was not void of meaning. We were gathered for a purpose and I was reminded that God’s church is bigger than any one denomination or local congregation. I looked at these strangers and realized we were, for this one hour, a community worshiping God together.”
“I have enjoyed the August Sabbath and think other members have, too,” commented Rob, a seminary student. “It seems that it has been good for our church because it feels that people appreciate the church and our community all the more, no matter what other experiences they’ve had. In the end, it always felt like we were all different members of a family coming back home.”
“Each year I had a different experience,” said Tara, who works as a librarian. “I’m a curious person with a history, art, and librarian background. I notice the way buildings are built, arranged, and added onto. The decorations tell a story, too. And I watch people—how they interact. I was open to new experiences, but it made me appreciate my home church more and more. I missed my church when I was away. But I’ll keep experiencing other churches, looking for something to add to what we have, because that is how you grow.”
Walking the Path to Renewal
The ability to reflect deeply and well is a skill that develops with time and practice; Sabbath can be this for us. Muller calls Sabbath an “incubator for wisdom” that allows us to be better able to “discern the essential truth of what lies ahead.”3 When Bethesda first began our Sabbath, we found the practice of reflecting on where God was present in other churches raised personal questions as well: What am I doing to partner with God? How is our church participating in Christian ministry outside of ourselves? Why do I tend to meet God in certain ways and not others? How do I personally discern God’s voice?
In response to these underlying questions, we developed a reflection tool that helped our congregation integrate the interplay between their personal relationship with God and the larger church. Now, members of Bethesda also participate in a yearly “examen” of their walk with God—an adaptation of St. Ignatius’s “Examen of Consciousness.”4 During the August Sabbath, they are asked to review their past year and note the moments in which they felt particularly close to or distant from God. When did they feel joy, gratitude, love, pain, or grief? What have been the growing edges of their faith? Where did they need forgiveness, from God or someone else? These difficult and vulnerable questions raise our awareness of Christ’s presence. They are questions we do not often have the time or energy to ask because we are too caught up in our everyday lives. The congregation is strongly encouraged to discuss their reflections with pastors, who are available for spiritual direction and conversation. The time becomes an opportunity to engage a pastor in a different way than usual—not as worship leader, preacher, or person one sees only in crisis. It frees the pastors to simply be spiritual guides, relinquishing the work of administrator, teacher, sexton, and other responsibilities that commandeer a pastor’s time and identity.
What makes it an especially meaningful practice, however, is that the congregation is also asked to share their experiences and insights publicly. At the end of our three weeks of Sabbath, we gather as a community on the fourth Sunday to worship and share stories. Instead of a sermon, we hear testimonies. Members share insights they gained from the prayer of examen. They talk about how they have seen God at work, about answers to prayer, and about places they have worshiped. Some sign up in advance to do this, while others decide spontaneously to stand at the pulpit. Not everyone participates every year, and some have never shared their stories. It is always, however, a proclamation of the Gospel—the good news made public in a particular way in someone’s life.
Busyness Is Not Success
In his notable book The Sabbath, Abraham Joshua Heschel, reminds us that “he who wants to enter the holiness of the day must first lay down the profanity of clattering commerce, of being yoked to toil.”5
Our churches often mirror our cultural contexts. We, too, can fall into this temptation of thinking that busyness equals success. Sunday worship is as busy as the rest of our weeks. In some ways, this is unavoidable; it takes work to plan worship, teach Sunday school, or make our churches hospitable to newcomers. It is work, but make no mistake, it is good work, work that is not separated from its results nor divided from its pleasures, as Wendell Berry typically defines it.6 Work itself is no sin. God commanded Adam to till the garden (Genesis 2:15), something we can only assume involved some kind of work. Genesis names God’s act of creation as “the work he had done” (2:2). The problem is not toil itself but being yoked to it—defined solely by it.
Many churches have become yoked to toil. Pastors lament (or is it brag?) to their colleagues about how busy and overscheduled they are. We define success by programs on top of programs for every possible age, category, and lifestyle. Yet in spite of the necessity of this good work, church can start to feel more like a ministry factory than a place of fruitful toil. Good Christians can get burnt out even when they are doing important ministries. Sabbath helps us to remember the truth about who we are as Christ’s church. Muller comments that one of the most “astonishing attributes of Sabbath time is its unflinching uselessness. Nothing will get done… nothing of significance will be accomplished, no goal realized.”7 This is as hard for churches as it is for individuals, who often have a driving and unhealthy need to feel useful.
Over the past four years, Bethesda’s Sabbath has become not only a means to experience new forms of worship and personal renewal but also a means to discern God’s vision for our church. We ask the congregation, and particularly the leaders, to do an “examen” of our church. We ask them to do an honest assessment of our ministries, their own participation in the life of the church, and their understanding of where God is leading Bethesda. We stop working so we can be certain that our work has been good, so that we can see where God has been at work, and we stop in the hopes of preventing spiritual barrenness in our church. It is a rest full of intent and purpose for our communal life.
“The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath,” Jesus told his followers (Mark 2:27); in other words, it is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Communal Sabbath is a means to becoming a more faithful church, better able to live out our call to embody Christ in our part of the world. The August Sabbath Journey is not a vacation from church. It is a means to becoming more fully Christ’s church.
One of the most common concerns of keeping a communal Sabbath is that a congregation will lose people. Leaders worry that parishioners will find a church they like better or they will get out of the habit of going to church and never return. At Bethesda we have found the opposite to be true. This process has strengthened our congregation, and members become more committed to the church because of it. Moreover, people become connected to each other as they hear each other’s stories and make plans to attend other churches together. So far, Bethesda has never lost anyone during the August Sabbath. However, it is still a radical and countercultural church practice, and the decision to keep a communal Sabbath should be done with intentionality and discernment. Below are some practical suggestions to help in the process.
Prepare. Make sure the congregation understands the biblical notion of rest. Spend time talking with your leaders about what your communal Sabbath will look like and what you want it to accomplish. Consider first doing a sermon series or adult study on Sabbath. Prepare the church by advertising the dates well in advance, and especially make sure this information is available to the community and potential visitors. Try to always include a rationale for “canceling church” (but never call it that). Constantly reinforce why your congregation is doing this; communication is key. Another important aspect of preparation is deciding what you will do about your weekly offering. Will you just assume that people will give more on the Sundays before and after? Or will you express openly what your expectations are? Will you ask people to set aside money even if they are not at your church, or will you encourage them to give to other churches? The leaders of your congregation must prayerfully decide what to do in this area.
Provide Resources. Give your congregation a list of books, articles, and scriptures on the topic of Sabbath. Many of these resources list a variety of Sabbath practices individuals or families can try, so encourage parishioners to practice these first on their own. Provide lists of churches in the area, along with reflection and evaluation tools to help guide people’s experiences. Let people sign up for a time to talk to the pastor, or consider asking a spiritual director to be available during this time. Meet with your leaders at least once during the Sabbath to hear how they are doing.
Purposefully Begin and End. Make sure the Sunday worship before and after your Sabbath are mindfully done. If you do not have weekly Eucharist, consider celebrating it the Sunday before the congregation “rests.” Prepare the congregation for publicly sharing Sabbath stories by providing a sign-up sheet and explanation of what you are looking for. Ask leaders in advance to share their experiences so they can get the ball rolling during this time. Remember, the key to keeping the Sabbath is intentionality. The goal in purposefully beginning is to help the congregation feel the pull/necessity of God’s Sabbath; the goal in purposefully ending is to create space to give thanks to God for new insights and renewal.
Finding time to rest is not easy in a place like New York, nor is it much valued in our modern experience. Keeping a communal Sabbath helps us to remember that God does the real work in our churches, and even if we stop working, the Spirit does not. Through this practice, Bethesda has learned what it means to be part of the larger body of Christ; we have experienced renewal in our individual walks with God; we have discerned God’s purpose and vision for our faith community. “It broke routine,” said Sally, “It was a rest. It was a time for me to be thankful for Bethesda and the people that make it what it is—a caring, worshiping community.”
1. Wayne Muller, Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives (New York: Bantam, 1999), 1.
2. Muller, Sabbath, 162.
3. Muller, Sabbath, 165.
4. Ignatius of Loyola, The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, trans. Anthony Mottola (New York: Doubleday, 1989), 48–53.
5. Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1975), 1.
6. Wendell Berry, “Christianity and the Survival of Creation,” The Art of the Commonplace (Washington, DC: Shoemaker & Hoard, 2002), 312.
7. Muller, Sabbath, 211.
Questions for Reflection
- Do an honest assessment of your congregation. Does it have an “essential rhythm of work and rest,” as Muller describes it? Are there times and places set apart for renewal?
- Read the passage in Genesis in which God rested on the seventh day (Genesis 2:1–3) Why did God rest? Was God tired or worn out? If not, what was the purpose of God’s rest? What do you think this says about the purpose of our resting?
- What is the work that God does when we stop working? What is the evidence (or fruit) of God’s work in our church? How do you measure success in your church?
- If the fourth commandment is to “keep the Sabbath” and Jesus says that Sabbath was made for humankind, what is lost when we do not do it?
- Make a list of the things that both concern you and excite you about the idea of a communal Sabbath. What would your congregation have to do in order to prepare for a time of rest? Who would have to be involved to make this happen?