By Nathan Carter
Like a growing number of churches, The Summit Church in Raleigh, N.C., cancelled services the Sunday after Christmas. Pastor J.D. Greear took some heat on social media for the decision, but should he? What’s wrong with skipping a lightly attended service and giving everyone a break after the holidays? What about the growing practice of occasionally cancelling a Sunday service in order to send the people into the community for outreach projects? Should we ever cancel “church”?
In order to answer the question, there are at least two prior questions we must settle in our minds:
First, is a weekly gathering on Sunday commanded by God? Regular Sunday services are a firmly established part of the Christian tradition. There is strong historical warrant for gathering on Sundays, but is it a biblical requirement?
The answer to that question depends largely on whether we believe the Old Testament commandment about Sabbath-keeping teaches an inherent seven-day rhythm to time and the setting aside of one day in seven for special use. Some Christians will point out that the fourth commandment is the only one that is not explicitly repeated in the New Testament. Others will argue that it was never explicitly annulled.
Is it OK to cancel services now and then?
It is clear that Christians are commanded not to forsake assembling together (Heb. 10:25). And there is an assumption throughout the New Testament that believers come together for meetings (see 1 Cor. 11, 14; James 2:2). But where did we get the idea that this expectation applies to every Sunday at the very least?
Well, Christ rose from the dead on the first day of the week and met with his gathered disciples that evening (John 20:19) and again on the next Sunday (John 20:26). In Acts 20 we read that Paul was in Troas for seven days and it was on the first day of the week that the believers all gathered together. 1 Corinthians 16:1-2 says to collect an offering “on the first day of every week.” Are these examples prescriptive, or merely descriptive? That’s an interpretative decision. Wherever we land, we must at least admit that the case for first day observance cannot be easily dismissed.
The second question we must consider is this: What is the purpose of the Sunday gathering?
We’ve all probably wrestled at some point with whether Sundays are for the saints to be edified or outsiders to be evangelized. I think we must answer, “Both!” Paul envisioned unbelievers having an encounter with God after walking in on Christians worshiping and ministering to each other (1 Cor. 14:23-25).
Even more fundamentally, however, we must reckon with the very essence of what it means to be the church. Most scholars agree that the word “church” (ekklesia) means “assembly.” This would imply that when the church assembles it is being most true to its identity.
So is gathering together simply one (among many) practical means of achieving edification and/or evangelization? Or is holding a public meeting a declaration of what it means to be the church, sinners reconciled to God and each other through the blood of Christ? These are important questions church leaders must resolve in their minds before calling off a corporate gathering.
My conviction is that there is something sacred to Sundays, not as a legalistic box to check to be right with God, but as a time for the church to gather as the people of God and be regularly reminded of what indeed makes us righteous and what alone has the power to save—the work of Christ. If workers need a break, find temporary replacements or schedule a simpler service. Cancel Christmas Eve, but stick with Sundays. And if only two or three show up, his presence is still among us.
Nathan Carter pastors Immanuel Baptist Church in Chicago.