From this past week, there have been many articles written about the Superbowl, from Christians and non-Christians. Usually, I would be deeply involved in reading through all of the sports blogs to get in-depth analysis of the game. However, for the past couple of years, I’ve decided to stop watching the Superbowl and most of the NFL for two primary reasons.
First, I can say that a sober assessment of life demonstrates that I’m far too attached to sports. I’ve also discovered that I’m not the only one who shares this view. Al Mohler wrote an article this week entitled: The New American Religion: The Rise of Sports and the Decline of the Church. This is an article that resonates deeply with me and I would recommend all to read the article. In regards to our country’s sentiment concerning football, Dr. Mohler writes
In a real sense, big-time sports represent America’s new civic religion, and football is its central sacrament.
The article above gives several studies that points to the central fact that sports devotion is taking the place of religious devotion in the life of many Americans, including Christians. Dr. Mohler concludes his article with a sobering reality:
… secularization does not necessarily mean the disappearance of religious faith, but merely the demotion of religious involvement and identification to a level lower than those granted to sports. Americans may not know who their god is, but you can be sure most know who their team is. Super Bowl XLIX is scheduled to be played next year in the cathedral currently known as the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona. Let the pilgrimage begin.
Even though I’ve never been to an actual football game, I know the reality of the statement as I’ve spent several Sundays, watching hours of football. For this reason, I’ve made a conscious effort to turn away from this temptation.
Second (and primarily), I chose not to watch the Superbowl because my family and I were on worship on the Lord’s Day. Over the past couple of years, I’ve spent more time thinking and studying on the concept of the Christian Sabbath and I’ve become convinced that the observance of the Lord’s Day is a necessary implication of the regulative principle of worship. Both the Westminster Confession and 1689 London Baptist Confession give a direct statement on God’s positive and perpetual command to observe the Sabbath:
As it is the law of nature that in general a proportion of time, by God’s appointment, should be set apart for the worship of God, so He has given in His Word a positive, moral and perpetual commandment, binding upon all men, in all ages to this effect. He has particularly appointed one day in seven for a Sabbath to be kept holy for Him. From the beginning of the world to the resurrection of Christ this was the last day of the week, and from the resurrection of Christ it was changed to the first day of the week and called the Lord’s Day. This is to be continued until the end of the world as the Christian Sabbath, the observation of the last day of the week having been abolished.
The Sabbath is kept holy to the Lord by those who, after the necessary preparation of their hearts and prior arranging of their common affairs, observe all day a holy rest from their own works, words and thoughts about their worldly employment and recreations, and give themselves over to the public and private acts of worship for the whole time, and to carrying out duties of necessity and mercy.
Chapter 22, Section 7 and 8 on Christian Worship and the Sabbath Day in 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith.
Fortunately, my family and I currently attend a church that believes in Lord’s Day observance with morning and evening services. So instead of being sucked into the Superbowl, my family and I spent the evening in worship, fellowship, partaking of the Lord’s Supper, and going through the Westminster Larger Catechism.
Since I’ve begun to observe the Christian Sabbath, I’ve noticed that I’ve become the oddball in my local culture since I’m usually the last one to find out about sporting events. In observing this, I had an “aha” moment: perhaps one of the most counter-cultural activities that a Christian can do in our society is to actually observe the Lord’s Day. It clearly demonstrates that we are serious about our faith and demonstrates that we aren’t “cultural Christians”. It clearly demonstrates what our treasure is and who truly holds our affections (I also recommend this article on the Superbowl which discusses a similar topic).
What I’ve also learned over the past year from older Christians was that this shift in devotion is a relatively new phenomena as well. In speaking to older Christians, they describe a time where the observance of the Lord’s Day was the general consensus among evangelicals across the board. They described a time where football was relatively unpopular primarily because the NFL was played on Sunday, which was during a time where evangelicals uniformly agreed in Lord’s Day observance. In hearing this from older Christians, it brought some interesting thoughts to my mind: Can the modern success of the NFL (which is seen in athlete’s salary as well) be largely attributed to evangelical’s capitulation of the Lord’s Day? Would the NFL still be America’s passion if Christians still observed the Lord’s Day? I originally tossed this around as pure speculation until I found an article which addresses this topic entitled Worship and Music. In the subsection entitled Whither the Sabbath, Rev. Terry Johnson examines how the neglect of Sabbath observance dramatically affected both the Church and the culture. I believe that his assessment accurately describes what has happened to a large section of American evangelicalism and it’s definitely worth the read. He writes
Now that “Super Bowl Sunday” (a.k.a. “the Lord’s Day”) is past, and all the understandable excitement about the game is behind us, perhaps we might now raise the awkward question, “Whither the Christian Sabbath?” Time was when American Protestants all agreed: Sunday’s 24 hours were to be “remembered” by services of worship, and “hallowed” by laying aside secular employments and recreations. Respecting Sabbatarian restrictions, the Methodists were as strict as the Presbyterians, who were as strict as the Baptists, who were as strict as the Congregationalists. No work, no play, no entertainment, and no shopping was allowed on God’s holy Sabbath. Sunday was to be spent in morning and evening worship, and the time between services committed to the “holy rest” of devotional reading, naps, and works of mercy. When the fundamentalist – modernist debates raged in the 1920s this was the one area in which they all agreed, liberal and conservative alike. The Sabbatarian consensus held until the 1960s, and then suddenly collapsed, and how great was the fall.
Even in the best churches the best people in those churches camp out in front of the TV all Sunday afternoon to watch the games, and then rush home from evening worship in order to see the last of them. With the man in the pew, the NFL’s rout of the fourth commandment is complete. He no longer even thinks of Sunday as especially the “Lord’s day.” His conscience doesn’t bother him in the slightest.
There is a sense in which I am a realist about this. American entertainment culture is strong. People mean well but are weak. It all seems harmless. It isn’t. But it is understandable. Much more ominous is the capitulation of the churches. All across the country and all across our own city churches canceled services, moved services, and adapted services because of the Super Bowl. The philosophy seems simple enough. If you can’t beat ’em, join’em. Churches put up big screen TV’s, served chili and soft drinks, called it “fellowship,” and declared victory. A potential program failure was turned into a “success.” Instead of a handful of diehards a crowd! Fun! Excitement! One prominent church put up two screens and held their evening service during half-time! A Presbyterian pastor in Seattle announces, “It’s a Super Sunday, ’cause there’s the bowl game and ’cause we’re in the presence of a God who’s crazy about us.” Of course.
But wait a minute. Sometimes it helps to ask ourselves some basic questions. What is a Super Bowl? It is a game. It’s a child’s game played with a ball by grown men. That’s all it is. It is just one form of entertainment in a culture addicted to entertainment. It is noteworthy only in that it has become the most popular spectator-sporting event of the year. This means it brings tremendous pressure on the church to accommodate its presence. After all, everyone will be watching it. But note it is not external pressure, but the internal pressure generated by a culture of entertainment. It is not the pressure of persecution. The government is not ordering us to cancel or move services. We are not being threatened with imprisonment or death if we resist accommodation. Again, it is only a game. But everyone will be watching it and everyone wants to watching it. The only risk for us personally is that we may lose the pleasurable experience of watching a game, and be thought strange by an uncomprehending culture for doing so. The risk for the church is that merely of staging a service to which nobody comes. In other words, the pressures bearing down on us are those of 1) the lust for pleasure, of not wanting to miss out on the fun; 2) the pressure of democratic fashion, of wanting to fit in, to conform, and not be thought different, or strange, or weird; and 3) the pressure of avoiding “failure,” of wanting to “succeed.” Sadly, these pressures have been enough. The church and its members have capitulated.
We don’t show much stomach for resisting our culture. That’s the real lesson of Super Bowl Sunday. If the whole Protestant church was flipped by the pressure of entertainment in the 1960s, and for that abandoned a 350 year consensus dating to the strict Sabbatarianism of Jamestown’s “Dale’s Code” (1611), what do you suppose will happen when real persecution begins? Or more subtly, what are we doing in the face of the pleasures and pressures of entertainment culture? … Today’s church, even the conservative Evangelical church, is thoroughly enculturated and compromised. We show no stomach for resisting the hedonistic (“Lets have fun!”), pluralistic (religions and cultures are all the same), egalitarian (men and women are the same), and relativistic (moral choices are all the same; only lifestyles differ) trends in our culture.
When Christians kept the Sabbath they controlled the culture. The reason for this is clear enough. The Sabbath is a culture-shaping ordinance. It forces work and play into six days. It imposes a one and six cycle of activity. The rest of one day requires careful planning over the remaining six. Consequently it has a sanctifying effect on all of the week, and with it, all of the culture. I don’t think that we understand, and probably will not understand for a hundred years or so the loss we sustained when we abandoned the Sabbath. But what I suspect is that we surrendered the culture. When we lost the Sabbath we lost nothing less than the entire culture. The collapse of American sabbatarianism was quickly followed by the collapse of the rest of the Christian cultural platform, the moral chaos of the 1960s, and a crisis of values ever since. The NFL struggled to survive for the decades prior to the mid-1960’s in part because of Christian American’s resistance to Sunday sports. Sports and the malls wore down that resistance and eventually won. Our sorry counter-attack, chili-bean Super Bowl parties in place of worship services, is an embarrassment to serious Christian people, and only underscores the severity of the defeat. We’re ministering to the culture, they’ll say. But at what cost? At what cost? Shortcuts in ministry which put expedience before principle end up doing more damage than good in the long run. This is not the point at which to minister. It is the point at which to resist. Whither the Sabbath? It’s gone, as is a lot more with it.
I say all of this simply to say that the Lord’s Day was given to us as blessing. It’s a tool in our arsenal for sanctification; it provides a regular pattern of corporate worship with the Church; it’s meant for our physical good so that we can have a deliberate rest for our labors and spend our day meditating upon Christ. For those who stumble on this blog, I pray that you would take the time to consider the importance of God’s positive institution of the Sabbath. I pray that you would resist the temptation of the culture that looks at this as any other day or just a day that we “go to Church”. I pray that you would understand Sabbath observance is truly for our spiritual and physical good.