Sundays in a large church with an average worship attendance of about 1100-1400 people begins at approximately 7:30 AM. The preaching pastor prepares for the first service and spends some quiet time in reflection with God. A group comes in and prays for him/her and then begins the marathon of three worship services; 8:30 – 9:45 – 11:00. Following the services, prayerfully, the afternoon is open. But for a youth minister, the day has just gotten warmed up. Sometimes there might be an afternoon meeting, but mostly the time is spent in preparation for the evening activities. In this church, the students arrive at 4:15, a few minutes before youth choir and then off to Youth Group Fellowship (AKA: U.M. Youth Fellowship, Youth Group Time, etc.) By the time that ends, staff members are exhausted and we wonder why on earth we call it “Sabbath.”
Unfortunately, that is not a unique schedule for churches or families today. Genesis 2:1-3 tells us the story of God resting after six days of laboring over the creation of the world. God blessed the seventh day and set it apart as a holy day of rest. It has even been commanded upon us to rest on the seventh day and keep it holy, as God is Holy. (Exodus 20:8-11; Deut. 5:12) Yet, it has become just another working day for families, churches and communities throughout the Christian faith.
There once was a time when nothing but church was scheduled on Sundays. Sunday was a sacred day and communities, schools, businesses and people made a covenant to honor this day and allow people time to worship God. In those days, the church was the biggest gig in town on Sundays, and so, youth groups sprouted up and became the place for teenagers to come and hang out in a safe place, while worshipping and learning about God. Every youth in town, usually, made it a priority to be at youth group on Sunday nights. It was fun and fellowship with Jesus!
But, once again, time shifted, the world shifted and priorities shifted and people began opening businesses on Sundays, in order to make a few extra bucks. Then, in an effort to improve the skills of students playing sports, coaches started scheduling practices on Sunday afternoons to enhance their teams. Next, community groups got on the band-wagon, and scheduled more and more activities on Sundays, moving the culture away from the sacred Sabbath of Sunday.
Today, youth leaders bemoan a decline in their Sunday evening youth programming. Students, who work all week in school, spend all day Saturday in sports or other community activities. They squeeze in a little bit of worship Sunday morning, find themselves by Sunday evening exhausted and overwhelmed by the fact that now homework needs to get done, too.
This isn’t a new question, but I wonder where the church fits into this picture of life. Do we continue to add to the stress put on families by mandating, encouraging, pressuring, youth to be at youth group on Sunday nights? After all, we are fighting for their souls to be dedicated to Jesus, right? Or do we succumb to the pressures of the culture and the world and set aside Sunday nights for families, for rest (or for homework) as a community of faith? Are Sunday mornings the only sacred space for the church?
As a mother, a youth minister and a community member, I grapple with balance. If God is supposed to be our #1 priority, I wonder why families don’t emphasize time with God the same way they emphasize time with sports, or friends, or work? If God is lucky, in most of our busy lives, God will get an hour a week. Is God satisfied? Or have we said to God, “I’m going to do the bare minimum to continue this relationship with you, Lord.” Goodness knows, that’s what our world is telling us to do, and so far, we’re responding really well. What will it take to change the culture today? I’m certain, God isn’t satisfied and it’s time for us to shift again. Prayerfully, we’ll be shifting towards more time with God.
(What are your ministries doing to help youth prioritize God during the week? What are your communities doing to support the faith community? If Sundays are no longer sacred in your church community, how are you responding?)
Rev. Amy Valdez Barker
Minister of Families with Youth
Athens First UMC