Over the last few weeks there has been a lot of discussion regarding the announcement by the First Seventh-day Adventist Church in Huntsville, Alabama that the congregation would begin offering worship services on Sunday mornings at 10:00 a.m.
Not being one for speculation, I drove three hours up to North Alabama on the weekend of February 6-8 to learn and observe for myself what First Church was attempting to do.
In Huntsville, I stayed with a family that were members of First Church. Although they had heard about the Sunday service, they were initially unaware of the notoriety that the initiative had garnered. However, they believed that having the worship service on Sunday morning would be a good evangelistic tool for non-believers (the "unchurched").
On Sabbath morning I rose early to go to Sabbath School at First Church. I arrived to a large parking lot that was full by 10:00 a.m. (the church seats around 1,200). I walked into the building and went into one of the Sabbath School rooms, where I was warmly welcomed by the Sabbath School teacher when I arrived. There was no discussion regarding the Sunday Service that was to take place the next day at the exact same time. At the conclusion of the Sabbath School class I left for the sanctuary. Before I walked in I picked up a printed copy of the AL.com article that Senior Pastor Debleaire Snell was interviewed for, and that has been circulating on the Internet. The greeters' table in the lobby had copies available. The sanctuary was standing room only by quarter of 11:00. After general preliminaries, Pastor Snell took the podium to clarify the role and importance of the Sunday service. First, he emphasized that the service was an evangelistic effort and not meant to replace Sabbath Service. He shared a document outlining the effort.
The document provided 4 key points:
1. The service is dedicated to teaching Adventist truths (Fundamental Beliefs, The Sanctuary Message, Prophecy, etc.).
2. The service is to be the first point of contact for those who are not Adventist. The service aims to be an evangelistic tool.
3. It is to be an outlet of spiritual growth for members who would like a spiritual boost to start the new week.
4. This allows new members to have their beliefs reinforced.
Snell then provided both biblical texts and quotes from the Spirit of Prophecy to reinforce his position. Near the conclusion of his remarks, he said to the audience that their congregation would not apologize or ask for permission to do what God had asked for them to do. Later, he built on the same themes during his sermon, noting that sometimes the church must move beyond past traditions to be effective in ministry.
After the service I had dinner with a couple of families from the church. Both families seemed very supportive of their pastor and this initiative. However, no one there could recall an open discussion regarding having Sunday services. To their recollection no business meeting was called to discuss this initiative. They did share that the pastor had told them that he was starting the services the week before, which they did not mind.
The next morning I woke up early to make sure that I could be at the service. One of the marked differences between the Sabbath and Sunday was that I was able to dress down for Sunday's service. When I arrived at the church around 10:00 a.m. the parking lot was relatively full. As I walked to the front door I was greeted by both male and female greeters in coordinating t-shirts and jeans. When I came into the sanctuary, I could feel the energy. A praise team led the church into worship, and there was a strong, celebratory feel to the service.
After the praise team finished, Pastor Snell came up to the podium wearing a plaid shirt and jeans. He welcomed first- and second-time guests to the church. He asked them to raise their hands. Around twenty people acknowledged that they were guests. This was interesting to note as there were some 300 people in attendance. Snell acknowledged several pastors and the South Central Conference president who were in attendance and thanked them for their support.
The focus of his sermon was on the love of God, and he used John 3:16 as the morning's Scripture passage. Pastor Snell concluded by sharing how a person can be saved.
To me, the Sunday service really felt like a modern tent revival in a church! It led me to conclude that there is nothing wrong with having the service on Sunday morning, if the congregation continues to uphold biblical truths and Adventist teachings.
However, I do have some critiques:
1. Messaging—I, along with even some members of the church, felt very uneasy about learning about this "modern revival" from the public press and not from an official church periodical. This led to confusion about it purpose and mission.
2. The use of the term "Worship"—Using the term "worship" before the term "service" automatically had some jump to the conclusion that the Sunday service would mirror the traditional "Divine" worship service. This was even brought up by members.
3. The 10:00 a.m. time slot—Some people were saying that nobody would have said anything if they had the service at 4, 6, or 7 p.m., and I agree! The real issue is that a time was chosen that similarly parallels closely the sacred hour that we worship on Saturday. I believe it is a disingenuous stance to act as if the timing of the service does not influence how the service is perceived.
4. One argument that I heard throughout the weekend was that if you didn't agree with this approach to witnessing you somehow are less supportive of evangelism- I think we go into very dangerous territory when we begin to speak about our fellow brothers and sisters in this way. Although I would be probably viewed in many ways as an open-minded Adventist, I think that it is totally inappropriate to say someone that does not think or agree that Adventist churches should be offering Sunday morning services is not interested in evangelism. There are varying approaches to ministry and I think the final test of the effectiveness of this initiative will be the souls won for Christ.
Dr. Sydney Freeman, Jr. is President and Chief Research Scientist at Preeminent Leadership & Research Solutions, LLC., and a member of the South Central Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/6645