The altar of convenience
An article appearing in London’s The Telegraph quotes a Church of England representative as saying that Sunday morning worship has become “inconvenient” for Christians. While “many people still crave quiet reflection,” he says, they are “seeking out less ‘pressurised’ times in the week to worship than Sunday mornings.” Sunday morning “pressures” include “children doing sport, shopping, household maintenance.” Because of these weekend “commitments,” churchgoers are opting to attend midweek meetings, which they can “squeeze … in to very, very pressurised lifestyles…. Taking out half an hour or an hour during the week is much more negotiable, it comes out of much more discretionary time.”
The key to this very sad state of affairs is the word “inconvenient.” This article is Exhibit A in the case that many contemporary professing Christians have chosen to worship at the altar of convenience.
But is Lord’s Day worship negotiable? Do other “commitments” and “pressures” trump the need to gather as the church on the Lord’s Day to worship the risen Saviour? Is inconvenience sufficient reason to shift focus from Sunday to midweek corporate worship?
The article notes that Sunday worship is a “centuries-old practice.” True. In fact, Lord’s Day worship was very quickly adapted into the Christian church—and hardly for reasons of convenience.
The theological justification for Sunday worship lies in the fact that Jesus rose from the dead on a Sunday. It was “on the first day of the week” that Mary and the other women came to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body, only to find the stone rolled away and the tomb empty (John 20:1ff). Jesus’ first appearance to a gathered group of disciples was on the first day of the week (John 20:19). Pentecost was on the first day of the week, and it was that day that the Spirit chose to descend in power on the disciples gathered in the upper room. The New Testament church gathered for corporate worship on the first day of the week (Acts 20:5–12; 1 Corinthians 16:1–2). The Lord chose to give his final inspired revelation of himself to John on “the Lord’s Day” (Revelation 1:10); i.e. Sunday.
The significance of all of this is simple: Sunday, for the first three centuries of new covenant history, was not a day of rest in the Roman Empire. Saturday was the continuing day of rest until the time of Constantine, who changed it to Sunday in 310 AD. But even though Sunday was a regular working day, the early Christians, following apostolic leadership, still chose to gather for corporate worship on Sunday. They would have to have done so outside of regular working hours, since most of the early Christians were slaves. Acts 20:7–16 records the death and resurrection of a young man named Eutychus, who fell asleep on a balcony during a church service while Paul “prolonged his speech until midnight.” Given our understanding of those times, we must not imagine Paul beginning his sermon at 6:00 PM and continuing until midnight. The church likely did not gather until late that night—10:00 PM, perhaps—and Eutychus came to church after a full day’s work. Sunday was hardly a convenient time for the early Christians to worship, but they understood that there was something significant about that day.
The pattern of the New Testament, then, is that Sunday is the appropriate day for corporate worship—whether or not it is convenient. Those who are privileged to live in countries with Christian heritage typically enjoy Sunday as a day off, and so we have become accustomed to corporate worship being quite convenient on that day. But, historically speaking, convenience followed the commitment to the day, not vice versa. That is, Sunday was not selected as a day of worship because it was convenient. On the contrary, the day was eventually made a convenient day for worship because Christians were already committed to worshipping on that day.
Worship has never been about convenience. Even in the Old Testament, convenience was not at the top of God’s list of considerations when he instructed all Jewish males to make three annual pilgrimages to Jerusalem. Convenience did not motivate God to instruct all high places—very convenient places of worship, which could be erected on every high hill and under every green tree (1 Kings 14:23)—to be destroyed. Commitment to obey God did not hold convenience in high regard.
Biblical worship requires sacrifice, and sacrifice is rarely, if ever, convenient. Paul appeals to worshippers, “by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Romans 12:1). The NKJV perhaps captures the sense a little better when it speaks of such presentation as “your reasonable service.”
Was Christ’s sacrifice for us motivated by convenience? Did he lay aside his glory, come to earth in the form of sinful flesh, face hunger, grief, temptation, rejection, and, ultimately, a violent death because it was convenient? If anyone ever was inconvenienced, it was Jesus Christ. But he gladly suffered inconvenience because he was motivated by love and obedience.
In the light of what Christ did for us, it is only our “reasonable service” to present our bodies as a “living sacrifice.” If Christ was so greatly inconvenienced for us, why would we, who profess to love him, object to being “inconvenienced” for him? And if Lord’s Day worship is (by example) mandated in the New Testament, who are we to suggest that it is too “inconvenient” for us to exercise?
We ought to be thankful for the legacy of the gospel, which has afforded most Western-influenced societies the privilege of having Sunday as a day off, thereby making it a most convenient day to worship. But we have taken the good and made it the ultimate: We have made an idol of convenience. God, however, is not a “convenient” God, and his worship is not “convenient” worship. Perhaps it is time for us to repent of our idolatry and return to humbly presenting our bodies as living sacrifices to God. That is, after all, only our reasonable service.