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New Horizons

Twice on Sunday?

"Uncle Glen"

Dear James,

You were probably expecting this letter. Your mother seemed upset Sunday when she told me that you are not going to evening worship. I remember having my share of excuses as a college student, too. I am also aware that many campus ministries provide Bible studies, dormitory fellowship, and the like on Sundays. These are designed with noble intentions. But when it comes to public worship, you should accept no substitutes.

Since you are familiar with the case for evening worship, I needn't go into detail. You know that the fourth commandment instructs us to set the whole day apart for rest and worship. You know that Christ did not abrogate the fourth commandment, but transformed it into the Lord's Day or Christian Sabbath. And you well know that it is still a day, not merely a couple of hours on Sunday morning.

Most American Protestants understood that until the end of the last century, when this practice fell on hard times. Now it is the minority report, even within some conservative Presbyterian denominations that are close to the OPC. I agree with you that we shouldn't do something just because we've always done it. Like your Mom, I too pine for simpler times. Like her, I have warm memories of you (when you were "Jimmy") and Ben chasing fireflies and playing tag on the church lawn with other kids in the congregation while adults enjoyed fellowship on the front steps after evening worship.

Of course, times have changed, but that does not mean the evening service is passé. To claim as much is to say that tradition has no importance in the life of the church. But that is a subject best left for another letter.

Instead, let me encourage you to consider how evening worship helps Reformed Protestants to bring faith and practice into proper alignment. Worldliness has been a problem for Christians of all ages. To be "in the world but not of the world" is the constant dilemma. But faithful discipleship in modern culture often demands that we fight this perennial battle on new and unfamiliar fronts. When novelty, originality, and sincerity are assumed to be always good, as our age presumes, we confront unique forms of idolatry and often more subtle temptations to compromise our obedience to Christ. In response, it is not enough for the church to be "countercultural" in teaching only. The church must reinforce its beliefs with practices that give its doctrine plausibility. This helps Christians resist those voices that constantly whisper that "the old way of doing things is no longer important."

This is what Sabbath keeping does. The Sabbath is akin to what sociologists call a "plausibility structure." It is one of our religious duties that embody the Christian hope. This hope stems from the resurrection of Christ on that first day of the week and looks forward to the hope of the resurrection of all the redeemed. Evening worship is crucial in sustaining our Sabbath hope. Morning and evening worship together frame the day with worship. In gathering again at the close of the Sabbath, we bring the day of rest to a fitting conclusion.

I remember when I was young and looked for ways to engage in political protests on campus. It was, and still is in many places, what American college students do. Now get this: a simple act of worship can become a brazenly political act. If going to church on Sunday morning enables you to resist the conformity of American consumer culture by not using the day either for shopping, brunch, or sports, returning to church on Sunday evening allows you to challenge the conventions of your evangelical friends. Going to church on Sunday morning is a testimony to the world; going in the evening is a witness to worldly Christians.

The point is not to look different simply for the sake of looking odd. Instead, the point is that forms of devotion once considered normal for Presbyterians now appear to be bizarre. If we want to hold on to our Reformed heritage, we will increasingly need to wrestle with how strange our biblical faith and practices are. Unfortunately, for too many Presbyterians, being "Reformed" is a label without consequences. We need to seize and be seized by these truths of our faith. My spiritual journey over the past two decades has impressed upon me the importance of reinforcing religious conviction with godly habits. What once seemed like a burden—having to go to the evening service—has become part of the day I look forward to each week.

I am not trying to browbeat you with a sense of guilt for missing evening worship. I would much prefer that instead of attending to keep your uncle happy, you go to the evening service with a sense that worship is the best possible aid for nurturing the hope within you because God himself has promised to be present with his people and to bless them. But I can't say that I'd rather you not go if your heart isn't in it. Sometimes by "going through the motions" we actually come to enjoy what at first seems difficult, sort of like learning to eat and enjoy oysters on the half shell (yes, I noticed your intake last summer at the Labor Day picnic). It could very well be that God is using this life to cultivate in us a taste for the life to come.


"Uncle" Glen

Editor's note: "Uncle Glen" is a pseudonym. Reprinted from New Horizons, February 2008.

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