“I don’t miss church.” I (Rachel) stopped mid Facebook scroll as the thought hit me. What? Of course, I missed church! We were about a month into COVID-19-induced lockdown, and all church gatherings had ceased. During the week, I didn’t feel much of a difference, since I was still busy working, but during the weekends I had begun to feel the absence of my friends and my former routine. I missed my people. I missed hugs and spiritual conversations on a Sabbath. However, on these quiet Sabbaths, I also had to admit that I felt more rested than I had in a long time.
That particular Friday night, I was scrolling through social media, seeing many posts from friends saying how they missed church. “But you don’t miss church,” my thoughts insisted, and slowly the uncomfortable realization settled on me that my gut reaction was true. I didn’t miss church. But I felt incredibly guilty for saying so. After all, I was very involved in church and even held official positions. And didn’t the Bible counsel us not to give up meeting together (Hebrews 10:25)?
Dare I tell anyone of the relief and rest I felt in not having to go to church? What would they think of me? Besides, what was making me feel this way? I prayed and processed through my thoughts, and eventually shared them with a good friend, Laura. To my surprise, she felt similarly. We began to understand that three core issues lay at the center of our perspective: the exhaustion of traditional Sabbath-keeping, a disconnect with conventional church culture, and a deep sense of loneliness.
Saturdays can be frantic. Rather than “that Friday feeling,” sometimes I (Laura) get “that Friday fret.” I work fulltime. On Fridays, I also need to clean, shop, and prepare to teach Sabbath School or rehearse worship songs. To be honest, it’s a lot of work, and not enough rest. Ironically, I find myself truly resting on Sundays. I cannot begin to imagine what pastors, leaders, and their families must feel navigating the demands of modern church! When did church became so busy? Is this highly orchestrated approach yielding better results?
It is sad that it took a pandemic for me to discover how lavishly restful Sabbaths can be. But now that they have a slower peace and a delightful quietness, I don’t want to surrender them so easily! In fact, I don’t think we should. Rest is both a commandment and a gift from God. We should take the opportunity that this tragedy has afforded us to reflect on the aspects of corporate worship that are truly necessary and conductive to rest. We should bravely let go of the cultural conventions that prevent us from calling Sabbath a delight (Luke 14:1-12).
As I (Rachel) appreciated the sense of rest and freedom that came with my forced break from church, I realized I did not miss conventional church culture. Sometimes services had felt like a performance, and I found myself detached, as if I were going through the motions because it was the “right” thing to do. My heart wasn’t fully engaged, much as I tried to make it so. The Bible describes Sabbath as a day for holy assembly (Leviticus 23:3). “But,” I thought, “does such assembly always have to look like our traditional style of church, with Sabbath school at ten and divine service at eleven, a sermon, and three hymns? Where did that come from? Is it the best way to connect with my generation and our unchurched peers, whom we might want to introduce to church and Christianity?” Undoubtedly, a traditional style of church appeals to some, yet I believe there are other equally valid ways to worship together. Even our pioneers had some ideas that are quite different from what current church culture has become. For example, Ellen White advised us not to have a sermon every Sabbath (Ev p. 348). She also felt concerned that ministers were “hovering” about churches to keep them “propped up” in such a way that made members dependent (TM p.231).
When we return to church after this pandemic, we should creatively redesign it in a way that is appealing and relevant to our local context, and in a way that stewards the Sabbath as a true day of rest. Laura and I are craving a simpler church, unencumbered with over-programming and the entertainment of church consumers. We dream of smaller gatherings and shorter services that are less scripted and far more open to the mysterious movement of God’s grace. We dream of having more time for friends and breaking bread together, on a regular basis, not just for Communion.
Alone in a Crowd
Church can be a lonely place. On Sabbaths, I (Laura) am acutely aware of my relationship status. I do not feel that way the rest of the week. I have friends, hobbies, and a good job. Ironically, in no other place do I feel more like an outsider than at church. I am not married, I do not have children, and I am not under 25. I do not fit any category in my local church. Thus, the church has virtually no activities or ministries aimed at me. Church revolves around families. If you have a family, that’s great! If you don’t, the unspoken message is sadly clear: you don’t belong (or even worse: there is something wrong with you).
David Pullinger, one of the UK’s leading researchers on singleness and Christian faith, reports that, “Singles often feel isolated and lonely in their churches. They feel invisible and they think about leaving.” I don’t want to leave, so I get busy. I get involved in many activities, unconsciously hoping the busyness will numb the loneliness. To a degree, it works.
However, there can still be a sense of disconnect. One of the most common pieces of advice I (Rachel) heard to combat loneliness was to get involved. As I started to serve, I met new people and felt less awkward when I knew names and faces; besides, it was truly meaningful to help others and offer my talents to the church. Yet I discovered that being involved did not always lead to the sense of belonging I wished for. I still felt that I was missing true community. There were few people I seemed to truly bond with. When I sat on the church pew watching couples and families around me and noticing that there was almost no one of my peer group in the church, I felt acutely aware of being alone, as Laura did. When I worshipped from home during lockdown, this sense of being alone in a crowd was refreshingly absent.
In quarantine we are reminded that we can just be with God. We don’t need to try so hard; we can choose the good part (Luke 10:42). We can belong for who we are, and not for what we do. We want to be part of a church that recognizes this!
Back to Basics
Quarantine has forced us to hit the brakes. We believed this pause magnified the disharmony of some of our church practices. As Brett McCracken writes, “coronavirus has rapidly taken away the excesses of church, all the bells and whistles, all the nice-to-haves we’ve come to see as must-haves. What remains are bare essentials: Jesus, the Word, community, prayer, singing.” In a way, this awful tragedy provided us with a unique gift: perspective. We believe this is the time to prayerfully consider the missional validity of our church culture and its ability to foster meaningful relationships. Now is the time to bravely prune every branch that does not bear fruit. We must reclaim Sabbath and dare to rest! After all, as Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made to serve us; we weren’t made to serve the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27 MSG).
Notes & References:
 It does not seem to be the case. Skye Jethani has written an insightful book covering this topic and consumer Christianity in general. In The Divine Commodity Jethani writes, “Do people love God and love others more after regularly participating in the programs of the church? Do institutions produce disciples? Can programs ignite love? The conclusion reached after surveying 15,000 people at Willow Creek and twenty-five other churches was no.”
 Most Christians are single by circumstance, not by choice. We should admit that there is a gender imbalance and stop calling women “picky,” “high-maintenance,” etc. if they are single. According to research conducted by YouGov, there are twice as many ABC1 (educated middle-class) single women as men attending church. Perhaps it’s time to discover and address the causes that are making church so unappealing to single men.
 Brett McCracken, “Coronavirus Could Kill Consumer Christianity”, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/coronavirus-could-kill-consumer-christianity/
Rachel Wilson grew up as a pastor's kid. She works in media and lives in London, UK.
Laura Hodara is a freelance journalist and broadcaster. She writes from London, UK.
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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/10397