This past week the Saint John city council postponed making a decision that would allow businesses to determine their hours of operation on Sundays. At the present time, a city by-law allows retailers to be open between the hours of 12 noon to 5pm on Sundays. The council postponed the decision because even though 85% of the business owners who responded to a survey want the restrictions, less than half of the businesses in the city responded to the survey at all. Despite the decision not to review the by-law, the trend in the province of New Brunswick is most definitely leaning in the direction of lifting all restrictions on Sunday shopping. Fredericton, Moncton, and Bathurst have already removed such restrictions. Surely, Saint John will eventually follow. [Update: Saint John city council have now revised the by-law removing restrictions on Sunday shopping.]
Alongside the increasingly prevalent practice of scheduling sports team practices and games during the time that most churches hold their services, Sunday shopping is often held up as an example of a culture slipping away from traditional religious values and practices. More specifically, it’s one of the reasons, some suggest, that fewer and fewer people attend church on Sundays. Given the consumerist bent of our society, many would much rather be sitting in a food court at the local mall than in a pew in their local church. The more cars there are parked at Walmart, the fewer there will be in the church parking lot. Or so some say.
Others would say, “So what?”
As a Christian, I agree that the decision to lift Sunday shopping restrictions reflects a culture that is less and less influenced by religious concerns. However, I am not convinced that Sunday shopping is a culprit in the decreased attendance that a number of churches may be experiencing. As far as I’m concerned, if your congregation is dwindling on Sunday mornings, don’t go blaming McDonald’s or Old Navy. Other factors closer to home are no doubt responsible for church decline in the US and Canada. Retailers are simply reaping the benefits.
Whatever the connection is between Sunday shopping and the realities of church life, those of who are Christians—who are committed to Christian community—do have to face the facts. How do we deal with a culture where Sundays are no longer sacred? Because even if the majority of those shopping on Sundays wouldn’t have been in church if the stores weren’t open, it’s still the case that changing attitudes and cultural shifts regarding what used to be called “The Lord’s Day” are having a significant impact on a number of congregations.
For instance, as a pastor, I have a few people in my own congregation that occasionally have to be away on Sundays because of their work. And while I used to think that maybe these people should ask for Sundays off and give as the reason their religious convictions, now I realize that this approach could make it incredibly difficult for a business owner. If an employer gives a Christian employee every Sunday off, does he or she also have to give all Jewish employees the Sabbath off? What about people who have no specific religious beliefs? Is it fair for them to have to make up for the fact that on the weekends their co-workers are attending church or synagogue? Add to this all of the business owners who are also Christian. Do they open their stores and restaurants on Sundays? How do they balance their faith and their business practices?
There are some who would, on the basis of all of this, argue that this is precisely why we should fight to restrict or completely eliminate Sunday shopping. All of these issues would then be moot. But, of course, this would only help those of a Christian persuasion, and therefore leave out our Jewish and Muslim neighbours plus many others. That there may be proportionately a much higher percentage of Christians is not altogether pertinent, not if we want to show a genuine love for neighbour. Besides, once restrictions on Sunday shopping have been lifted, I can’t begin to imagine how they might be put in place again. That’s fighting against a very strong current.
Perhaps more importantly for business owners is to incorporate the biblical principle of rest into their business practices. And many businesses are doing this, having recognized that well-rested, contented employees are also, by and large, more productive. Business owners may not always be in the position of being able to give their employees the exact days off they would prefer, but they can guarantee reasonable time off, time during which the employees can prioritize as they please. And if that means taking time to attend a Bible study, go to a Mosque, or simply spend time with family and friends, so be it.
In the midst of this, churches need to become more understanding of the people who are in the awkward position of having to straddle what can seem like two worlds: their Christian life and their work life. And some churches already make provision for such people by having multiple services, some even during the week. Yes, it’s true; there are those who feel that moving the worship service from Sunday morning at eleven a.m. to Thursday evening at seven p.m. is anathema, but if we’re going to meet people where they are, we have to consider such accommodations.
And I know and agree that, yes, even the New Testament is clear that Sunday was the Lord’s Day, the day that Christians met to celebrate, pray, and learn from the Scriptures together. And this is because Jesus was raised from the dead on a Sunday; our worship services are to celebrate his resurrection and what it means for us. And so certainly there’s no reason that most churches can’t continue to have their worship services on Sunday mornings; moreover, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t.
But this point doesn’t necessarily mean fighting to restrict Sunday shopping. In his book Surprised By Hope, New Testament scholar N.T. Wright says this:
“Many Christians will find, for all kinds of reasons, that Sunday is a difficult day to attend church services. But we should remind ourselves that the earliest Christians lived in a world where Sunday was the first day of the working week, much like our Monday, and that they valued its symbolism so highly that they were prepared to get up extra early both to celebrate Easter once again and to anticipate the final Eighth Day of Creation, the start of the new week, the day when God will renew all things.”
Aha! Do you see what he said? Even the earliest Christians had Sunday shopping; that is, Sundays were a work day, the first day of the work week. So they did the only thing they could do. They met in wee hours of the morning, before going to work. It wasn’t until decades later in the era of Constantine that Sunday became more of an official day off.
Sure, having had Sunday as a day off for everyone everywhere was extremely convenient for those of us who are Christians. It was great for churches. There was nowhere else for people to be! Convenient, yes; biblical, not so much. So interestingly, the first Christians never had the option of scheduling their communal worship at a time that everyone would automatically have free.
These brings me to two simple conclusions.
First, churches, pastors, and Christians need to stop whining about Sunday shopping, and instead, even if the main service remains on Sunday morning, make other opportunities for people to worship, learn from the Scriptures, and find fellowship. Small groups are definitely a great option here. Some churches can have alternate services, maybe even, gasp, an earlier morning option! Whatever we do, let’s help the people who are stuck working on Sundays rather than complain about them and their lack of attendance.
Second, the real purpose of a day of rest is precisely that: rest. Stop, do nothing, sit down, shut up. Too many Christians complain about Sunday shopping on the one hand, and then go to Swiss Chalet after church on the other hand. And then leave a poor tip. As Christians we generally do a poor job of practicing Sabbath. In a culture filled to the brim with both important and senseless activity, being able to step aside and realize that we are not the center of the universe and that it won’t fall apart if we take time to rest is crucial to affirming the sovereignty of God and the sufficiency of his grace. It’s a part of the good news we’re called to proclaim.
I can understand why the Saint John city council was hesitant to review the by-law regarding Sunday shopping hours. Of course, we can still shop in Saint John for five hours a day. And if we go to church, and it gets out just in time, we can probably still have at least four and a half! But the truth is, if my faith is as important to me as it should be, then even if I had to work every Sunday at another profession, I ought to still be willing to make a priority of communal worship, regardless on which day of the week it falls.