I have been writing columns for Westminster Church for over ten years now, and I have often used them to write about events or new initiatives at my church. This column is different. This month, I’m going to tell you about what we’re NOT doing.
That’s right. We’re not doing a lot in March and April at Westminster. We are taking a Sabbath. We have made an intentional decision to slow down, take a breath, and use these months to concentrate on the essentials of worshiping God and finding God’s presence in our lives.
Like any organization (and yes, churches are organizations), Westminster’s default mode has always been to try to do more. How can we improve worship? Let’s get more people involved, add more diverse music, decorate the chancel creatively, create new worship services with different times and styles. How can we grow in our faith? Let’s have more classes, more workshops, more outreach for all ages and at different times. How do we serve our neighbors? Let’s participate in more mission initiatives and more service projects, let’s partner with other organizations, let’s always say yes when we’re asked to volunteer, and let’s send money to every worthy cause.
No matter how much we do, though, it’s never enough. Church leaders and church members often find themselves frustrated, tired, and burnt out, sometimes to the point of pulling away. We’ve all heard of the “nones”- people who claim no religious affiliation. There’s another group called the “dones.” They’re people who were highly engaged in church life, and who then left organized religion with no plans to return. Many of these folks maintain deep personal spiritual lives but they’re “done” with church.
The pandemic made things even harder. When all the regular ways of doing things were yanked out from under us, churches had to create new ways to hold worship, to offer educational opportunities, to engage in meetings, and to stay connected. We created (often on the fly) new ways of being church while people still expected the old ways to return. The pandemic brought on double the work, done by fewer people, and sometimes with only half the results.
Covid seems to be on the wane, but we still don’t know what the future holds. We know as we emerge from the pandemic that a “return to normal” will not happen. We’ve discovered that some of the new initiatives (online worship, especially) are here to stay, and some things we used to do we might not do again. We engaged in a congregational study to talk about how to move forward. We plan to experiment with a new planning model that will be more fluid and seasonal. We plan to streamline and perhaps eliminate some of our committees. We plan to encourage small groups to form organically when like-minded individuals want to gather over common interests or goals.
But like everyone, we are tired. And being tired is a terrible time to make major decisions or major changes. We need a rest.
So, we are taking one. We have declared March and April a time of Sabbath. We are cutting back on meetings, programs, events, and demands. We are concentrating on the essentials of worship, which will be simpler, less structured, and less labor intensive. We are encouraging people to say “no” without guilt. We are hoping that this will open time in our personal lives and in our lives together to find God in ways we find life-giving, rather than life-draining.
It's very possible that we might find we don’t miss some of the things we’ve given up. And if that’s the case, then we won’t resume them. We also might find that some things were more important than we realized, but maybe had become stale or repetitious. We can resume those things in fresh new ways. We hope that a time of Sabbath will refresh us for more enriching, life-giving relationships with God and with each other.
God rested on the seventh day of creation. Jesus retreated from the crowds when he was overwhelmed with his ministry. A time of Sabbath is a gift to ourselves, a gift that will help us realize who we are and to whom we belong.