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Won’t Go Back—Can’t Go Back—to the Way It Used to Be


Many adults have memories of having to forgo cartoons and playing certain games on Saturday morning. But some recall the joys of meeting their peers at Sabbath school and AJY. Some athletic adolescents recall lamenting missing out on sports games and meets that took place during Sabbath hours. Other youth and young adults look forward to their church’s robust social program of choir rehearsal and youth group on Friday nights. Adults who are active in leadership love spending Sabbath serving God and community through their talents but they loathe being part of the 20% who do 80% of the work. Many parents of young kids look forward to having their kids interact with others their age at church. Some parents become stressed on Sabbath mornings—yet another day that begins with coaxing and cajoling families out of bed to try to get ready and rush out the door. And some singles love the fellowship church brings. Others feel disconnected in the crowd. Some older adults long for the ability to socialize. Others are reminded of what they’ve lost.

Our tradition of gathering together in a physical building each Sabbath evokes a myriad of responses. These are just a sample. So, it’s no surprise that when the pandemic resulted in social distancing, there were various responses to that too. Some breathed a sigh of sadness. Some breathed a sigh of relief. And there was every reaction in between.

COVID is not over. But people are over COVID. Despite spikes in various places, it seems the majority of communities have decided to resume normal activities. And churches have generally reopened for regular weekly services. Yet for many churches, there is a marked difference in the attendance levels as compared to before the pandemic began. Lots of members have returned. But some are still staying home. Why?

Guilt and shame are effective motivators. Some will try to tell you otherwise. But if guilt and shame didn’t work, the church (and society at large) wouldn’t have used them for millennia to shape behavior. But just because something works doesn’t mean it’s the best thing to employ. If there was a mouse in my house, I could burn the house down with the mouse inside. It would work—but it’s probably not the best method to use because of its destructive means. Similarly, shaming is emotionally destructive, but it’s still often used because it gets the job done. When I was a youth, some pastors and leaders would shame those who skipped church or came late to service by noting how they are able to go to work promptly each weekday but apparently not to church. Even as a child, I doubted that was the appropriate comparison to make. Church = work? That’s the exact opposite of what Sabbath is about! Nevertheless, I’ve seen the same shaming methods rehashed in the wake of recent church reopenings. “If people can go to restaurants and airports, why can’t they come to church?” Comments like these miss the point of Sabbath. They once more focus on the obligation to gather together in person at church. It’s another thing you should be doing.

How did we get to this becoming our Sabbath experience? The Sabbath was never designed to be onerous. Yet many people will tell you how they felt a weight lift off of their shoulders when they were forced to social distance. Online, I’ve seen a number of informal polls on the subject, and the responses from different people across the internet have been illuminating. There are a handful of themes that seem to repeat:

– Going virtual was an adjustment to be sure, but many began to enjoy not having to scramble in the morning.

– Lots of folks have expressed how they’ve liked having the freedom to walk in nature or not go anywhere at all.

– Many appreciated not having to work a “second job” of deacon/deaconess, children’s Sabbath school leader, hospitality leader, etc. It’s not that they didn’t love serving, but they didn’t love that the day intended for rest became anything but restful.

– Although it’s hard for some to believe, I’ve seen several people who expressed how they actually are able to be more connected through virtual fellowship than in person. Several self-described introverts mentioned how virtual worship gave them a measured way to interact instead of the social overload of in-person contact.

– Several people who have joined online small groups shared the benefits of these forums over the “sit in a pew facing forward” configuration of traditional church. Their voice can actually be heard in a virtual space.

– Plenty of people do long to return to in-person worship, but they don’t want to return to the status quo.

So, what does all this mean? Where do churches go from here? The most obvious point is that if we’re serious about ministering to everyone, virtual services are here to stay. But ministry in this day and age can’t merely entail streaming your church’s live services. There is a true potential to connect people in unique and meaningful ways that can be done only by virtual avenues. It also means that in-person services can’t simply go back to normal. Churches can’t continue to make Sabbath the sixth day of work. People who return to in-person services should do so because they want to, not because they’ve been guilted to. Maybe the entire style of liturgy needs to change. I know that’s difficult. I remember the strife that erupted in one of my former churches when the pastoral team wanted to move the offering from before the sermon to afterward! However, that was then—this is now. People are most open to changes when they are already in the midst of other changes. This period of flux represents a small window of opportunity to do things that haven’t been done before. Things that your congregation may never have considered before might be on the table for trial. Many churches have the chance to strike while the iron is hot because this opening for change won’t always be available.

Church can’t and shouldn’t be the same now as it was before the pandemic. What it will look like is still unknown. But it would be great if it more accurately reflected the original intentions of what Sabbath was designed for (Mark 2:27-28). To paraphrase one of my favorite praise songs, let’s come back to the heart of worship instead of the things we’ve made it. Instead of all the other things, let’s return it to being all about Jesus.


Courtney Ray, MDiv, PhD, is an ordained minister of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and President of the Society for Black Neuropsychology. 

Previous Spectrum columns by Courtney Ray can be found by clicking here.

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