From Holy Day to Holiday
New Zealand has never been a thoroughly Christian country, certainly not in the sense that the majority of New Zealanders were committed Christians. Historical records show that regular church attendance has never exceeded 30% of the population, and we can assume that this percentage, even in its peak years, included those who were believers, unbelievers, nominal Christians and hypocrites. Having said this, for a long time New Zealanders had enough Christian memory to regard the Sunday as a holy day, a day set apart for church services, or at least as a family day. This is no longer the case. The attitude of most New Zealanders to the Sunday has changed from regarding it as a holy day to using it as a holiday.
How the Sunday has changed
This dramatic change has taken place in my lifetime. In 1956, the year before I was born, Dudley Wills, a noted figure in physical education, described the New Zealand Sunday as a “monument to utter boredom”. Someone else said that on a Sunday you could fire a rifle up Queen Street in Central Auckland with perfect safety because there was no one there to hit – shops, restaurants and picture theatres were all closed.1As a young boy in the 1960s I remember that all the shops in the city centre of Christchurch were closed for business; you could go window shopping but you could not buy anything. (Large shopping malls did not exist back then – hard to believe, but true – but if they did they too would not have been trading.) If a member of our family became ill on a Sunday and had to see a doctor there was only one pharmacy open in the central city to present and collect your prescription. Similarly, if you were getting low on petrol there were only a few stations open in the city. We drove past one the way to church and I remember seeing the taxis refueling there.
Since those quiet (boring!?) Sundays secularists have been doing their very best to make the first day of the week just like every other day. How successful have they been?
In 1952, despite some protests, the Barbarians Rugby Club played an Auckland club’s fifteen at Waikaraka Park on a Sunday in July.2Now, 60 years on, depending on the season, sports of all kinds are played at all levels on Sundays in sports grounds and parks all through the country. Motorcars race on Sundays; we can hear them on the Pukekohe racetrack, especially when the V-8 Supercar competition is held, and that runs for the entire weekend. Competitions for rugby, football, tennis, cricket and golf, to name but a few, are all held on Sundays. This means that young people in our churches often have to drop out of the top levels of competitive sports.
Saturday trading for shops became established in the 1980s. Between 1980 and 1987 exemptions were granted to 2700 small businesses allowing them to open on Sunday and those with shops in tourist centres were permitted to trade seven days of the week.3In the late 80s there were moves to open up Sunday trading to more retailers. On my desk I have a letter I wrote in March 1988, on behalf of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Bucklands Beach, to Maurice Williamson, the Member of Parliament for Pakuranga at the time. The letter outlined our objections to Sunday trading with our biblical, historical and social reasons. Sadly, we also lost this battle.
The movie theatres also do well on the first day of the week. For more than a year now Pukekohe has had its own cinema. Getting it was quite a process; a group of business people and developers worked at it for some time. At the end of 2010 there was a hearing before an independent commissioner; 249 people entered submissions in favour of the cinema and 64 people put in submissions against it. The commissioner gave approval for the cinema and also for Sunday trading. Some of those opposed to the cinema objected on the basis that Sunday was a day of rest, “but the hearing commissioner found no evidence to show that Sunday carried any specific significance.” 4
This is where we are in New Zealand at the present time with respect to the Sunday; for most people it has no specific significance, it is not a special day, and certainly not a holy day. For many people Sunday has become the main day for sports and/or for shopping. For many retailers this is their busiest day. Christian commentators have rightly pointed out that the shopping malls are the cathedrals of the post-modern age; these are the places people go to worship the god of materialism!
How Sunday worship has changed
We have considered how the Sunday has changed for non-Christians; it has become a day for sport, recreation, gardening and shopping. However, the Christian observance of the Lord’s Day has also changed.
Travel on Sunday
You may have heard it said that when it rains in the world it drips in the church. This is a great danger with regard to our use of the Lord’s Day; we are inclined to adopt the attitudes of the world. Unbelievers have no respect for the Sunday as a day of rest and worship and these aspects of Sunday observance are also declining amongst Christians. Andre Holt-slag makes some pertinent applications about this in his article, but I can’t resist reinforcing one point he makes. Some years ago I remember reading an article in Trowel and Sword with the title, See you at the airport on Sunday. We could well reprint that article today. Travel by plane – both domestic and international – on the Sunday, is becoming more and more common among us. I ask you, as readers; Is this a good use of the Lord’s Day? Is this how God wants us to occupy our time on this holy day? Does this allow us to gather with God’s people to worship him with a mind that is focused and undistracted by the activities of the rest of the week?
Worship on Sunday
Attitudes to worship have also changed. Fifty years ago most denominations had two services on the Lord’s Day, one in the morning and one in the evening. It was expected that all church members who were physically capable of doing so, and who were not providentially hindered, would attend both of these. This is still the expectation in our own denomination, although most of our churches have moved the evening service to the late afternoon to allow the whole family to attend. Regular attendance at both services is not the expectation in most of the other denominations. Allow me to explain some of the variations on this theme.
When my wife and I are on holiday in or near some of the small towns of our country we look around the town on Saturday to see where we will worship the next day. There is usually some choice for morning services but it is rare to find a church that has a second service. Presumably the attendance at a second service would be so small that it would not be viable or edifying.
In the cities of New Zealand most churches have more than one service on the Sunday. A typical Sunday programme would be: 9.30am Traditional Service; 11am Family Worship; 7pm Youth Service. The Traditional Service will be just that – traditional and conservative, singing hymns and attended mainly by elderly people. The Family Worship service will have the same sermon as the early service but the format of the service will be more contemporary, with modern songs led by a band, and attended by families with younger children. The Youth Service will be loud and lively and attended only by young people. The expectation is that each member will attend only one of these services.
There are at least two problems with this programme. One is that it divides the church along generational lines with the elderly, families and youth all attending separate services. The members of the church are no longer worshipping as the covenant community of God’s people across all ages, from infants to the oldest member. This is a great loss for all members. Contrast this segregated worship with the covenant renewal of God with his people at Mount Ebal where Joshua read all the words of the law;
There was not a word of all that Moses had commanded that Joshua did not read to the whole assembly of Israel, including the women and children, and the aliens who lived among them. 5
The other problem with this programme of worship is that it provides only one opportunity for members to worship the Lord. In the Old Testament temple there was a morning and evening sacrifice. What a fitting way to begin and end the day. That is surely true of our worship of God on the Lord’s Day. God has given us one day in seven to rest from our usual work so that we may worship him. Surely this requires that we devote more than just one hour in a morning service? Attending both services helps frame the day and helps us maintain our focus on God’s word and worship throughout the day.
Worship on Saturday!
Some years ago I had the privilege of spending one month studying at Westminster Theological Seminary in Escondido, California. As you know, California has a warm climate with lots of sunshine. The residents of this state enjoy their outdoor recreation and water sports. A number of churches held services on Saturday evening so that the worship service did not impinge on their leisure activities on the Sunday; instead church members could spend the entire Sunday enjoying the sunny Californian weather. Another church only has a Thursday night service so that those who crave uninterrupted recreation can have the entire weekend free without having to be inconvenienced by attending services on Saturday or Sunday! One writer described this as the “McSabbath ... worship services that are quick, easy, convenient, and user friendly. No muss, no fuss. Little or no sacrifice required.” The writer asked; “Am I Lord of the Sabbath and therefore free to do whatever I please or is the Son of Man? Is it my day or his??” 6All this recalls the rebuke of the Lord through Isaiah the prophet to the people of Judah when he described them as “breaking the Sabbath” and “doing as you please on my holy day” and “going your own way.” 7
The purpose of my article is descriptive rather than prescriptive; I was asked to describe how we have reached the current situation with respect to the Lord’s Day in New Zealand. To do so I have reviewed the changing attitudes of both unbelievers and believers to the Sunday as a day of rest and worship, all of which ought to give us great cause for concern.