We live in a day when those things that stand in the way of the prevailing narrative of the culture are canceled, thrust out from societal recognition. As much as people express concern about cancel culture in the world, perhaps we Christians should repent of our own cancel culture in the church in our cancelling of the second service on the Lord’s Day. As things currently look, this great cancellation in the kingdom of God may never be recovered. We seem to have said good riddance to the evening worship service forever on the very day God set aside for us to anticipate entering our eternal rest.
This cancelation of the evening worship service on the Sabbath is a sad development in America and speaks volumes about our view of corporate worship. In fact, most readers of this article will question that such a complaint has any warrant since most modern Christians are completely unaware that such a practice ever existed. Yet, it shouldn’t go without mentioning that what appears now to be completely unknown was, at one time in this country, across denominational lines, a mainstream conviction. Churches used to have a morning and evening service on the Sabbath. The rare occurrence would have been to find a church whose doors were closed at six o’clock. How did we get here and what are the consequences of this ginormous cancellation of the evening service in Christ’s church?
A Canceled Sabbath?
The value of the evening worship service is bound up with one’s view of the Sabbath. When God commanded Israel to keep the Sabbath, he intended for Israel to call the whole day a delight, resting from their evil works, and trusting in the Lord’s provision to care for them in the wilderness. Patterning the very creation of the world, God called Israel cease from their work done in six-days to rest on the entire seventh day. Part and parcel to Sabbath observance was the corporate gathering of the people for worship.
In the only psalm specifically designated as a “Song for the Sabbath,” Psalm 92, we have described the delight of Sabbath worship. Israel would gather together at the tabernacle for worship, recognizing the pattern established in the law for the morning and evening sacrifice, and they would celebrate God’s “steadfast love in the morning, and his faithfulness by night (Ps. 92:1-2).” It’s not a mere coincidence that Psalm 92 references worship on the Sabbath as belonging to morning and evening.
The great purpose of the Sabbath was to worship the Lord in the beauty of his holiness, providing a great opportunity for the people to be instructed in God’s holy Word and gospel. As Abraham was said to have the gospel preached to him, so too, the Sabbath provided for the people the greatest means to hear about Jesus—his sacrifice, his righteousness, and how to live by faith in the promise. It also provided a way for the people to express gratitude to their God through praise and prayer, growing together in holiness as a separate people. The Sabbath was the best way for Israel to honor the call of Deut. 6, that their children would be diligently instructed in the Lord’s love and will, both in the morning, “when they rise” and at nightfall, “when they lie down.”
Another great purpose of the Sabbath was to enjoy the communion of the saints. On the Sabbath, the people are taught how to love their neighbor, learning each other’s needs, praying for the needy, and giving offerings for the poor. The author of Hebrews references these benefits in calling the new covenant community to give the same devotion to the “assembling of ourselves together,” refusing to avoid gathering for public worship as is the habit of some, for then we would lose: first, the opportunity to come boldly before the throne of grace in worship; second, the opportunity to express sincerity of heart and assurance of faith in worship; third, the opportunity to hold fast the confession of our hope in the difficulty of wilderness life; and fourth the opportunity to help others in love and good works as a gathered people. Yes, these are peculiar blessings of gathering for public worship.
If the Sabbath has the specific intention of enjoying and glorifying God, and worship is the chief means by which these things occur, what in the world could replace, to the spiritual benefit of God’s people, the public gathering of God’s people in worship?
Almost universally, when I ask churchgoers and pastors about their removal of the evening service, the answers are always the same. Some feel that such a service is not commanded in the Bible. But most express that canceling the evening service has opened up other opportunities for Bible study or fellowship. The assumption is that the second service itself is a kind of legalistic imposition upon the people of God.
I’ve always found both excuses to be a sad development in Christ’s church. Aside from the strong case that can be made that God has provided for us a pattern in Scripture of morning and evening worship, by good and necessary inference, I have yet to find any practice that is more consistent and spiritual beneficial for the people than public worship twice on the Sabbath. The very reason Israel was delivered out of Egypt, a type of our deliverance by Jesus on the cross, was, as Moses told Pharaoh, to set God’s people free to worship (see Ex. 7:16). If we are honest, behind both answers is the assumption that public worship twice on the Lord’s Day is unnecessary and to impose calling a service upon the people is more of a burden than a benefit, and that our freedom from the evening service is somehow a better development for the people of God.
One only has to ask what has been accomplished by eliminating an entire service of God’s worship on the Sabbath. What is the state of the church today on the question of biblical literacy? Is there a greater knowledge of the Christian faith among the people of God? Are the people less worldly and more spiritually minded through this elimination? Do we see our children embracing the faith, or departing? Are the people growing in holiness more through this cancellation?
Further, what has the elimination of the evening service done to how people view the importance of the morning service? Is not the church experience in America one of decline in attendance altogether? Might we as leaders be teaching the people that the worship of God is not all that important to their faith through this great cancellation? And maybe all of our current stress, busyness, and anxiety that characterize our times could be a consequence of not taking the full rest God desires of us?
Calling the Sabbath a Delight
The only way to reverse this sad cancellation is to have a heart change in how we view the Sabbath. Isaiah knew that the spiritual vitality of the people was bound up with their view of this great holy day. Isaiah challenged the heart of the people when he said,
If you turn back your foot from the Sabbath, from doing your pleasure on my holy day, and call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the LORD honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, or seeking your own pleasure, or talking idly; then you shall take delight in the LORD, and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken. (Isa. 58:13-14)
Did you hear the heart of the issue, dear reader? Gathering for worship on the Sabbath is the greatest way to delight ourselves in the Lord. At the root of any abandoning of corporate worship is an attempt to find happiness apart from the Lord. Taking delight in God’s worship on the Sabbath is to take delight in Christ. This was the basis upon which the psalmists would cry out in longing desire for worship. Psalm 84 says, “How lovely is your tabernacle, O LORD of hosts my soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the Lord.” They found something pleasant, spiritually beneficial, and delightful in the gathering of the saints for worship.
In worship, God specially speaks to us through his word, strengthens our faith, reassures us of his love, instructs us in righteousness, and reassures us in his gracious promises. Gathering for worship provides a special platform to receive the means of his grace in giving us Christ as we are prepared for the glory to come. On this side of heaven, there is nothing more beneficial that we can do with our time on the Sabbath than to begin and end the day in his blessed courts.
The Lord always wanted his people to call the Sabbath a delight and that includes the special privilege of gathering twice on Sunday to enjoy the Lord. Wouldn’t it be great if we could cancel the cancellation of the evening service? If we’re concerned, at all, about the state of Christianity in our day, a great way to reverse our perils might be to reverse our cancellation of evening worship on the Lord’s Day.
Often, what people think are the little things actually matter the most.