The owner of Norton Grange hotel, opposite our vicarage in Rochdale, was planning to open a health club. He came over to win our support.
“It wouldn’t make that much difference,” he tried to reassure us. “Only 8% of members actually use the facilities.” Clearly the only exercise the 92% get is opening their bank statement each month.
This Sunday is “Back to Church Sunday”, which began just down the road from Rochdale nearly ten years ago with the goal of mobilising membership. I guess the overwhelming majority of the members of Norton Grange Spa keep meaning to turn up for a workout but need a gentle/not-so-gentle push to hit the cross trainer. They need a friend to go with them.
And that’s the secret – the encouragement of a friend. For BTCS has taken off and gone global. A recent Tearfund survey showed that there were at least three million people in England who would come back to church if they had an invitation. It’s a great opportunity for those who, for whatever reason, have lost the habit of church, attendance and BTCS offers an opening, one we should take full advantage of.
For worshipping together on a Sunday continues to be at the heart of what it means to be a Christian; it is how we belong to the body of Christ. Clearly there are huge pressures now as the place of Sunday has been radically changed over the last 20 years but it was no easier for those first Christians. For them Sunday worship was integral to being a follower of Jesus.
One of the most compelling arguments for the resurrection of Jesus is the fact that Christians, to begin with overwhelmingly Jewish, started worshipping together on the first day of the week. For the record, all four gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection make clear that it took place on the first day of the week, evidently a very important detail.
Remember, it would be equivalent of us worshipping on a Monday, the first day of our working week. For the keeping of the Sabbath – the seventh day of the week – was at the heart of their Jewish faith, the day set aside as a day of rest and made holy by God (Genesis 2:2–3).
Visiting Israel I was struck how the whole rhythm of the place slows down on the Friday afternoon. You cannot underestimate the power of the Shabbat.
And yet overnight this defining characteristic was abandoned by those first disciples of the risen Jesus. From now on they were to be defined by his resurrection – as shown by their worship on the first day of the week, before or after work.
All this must have seemed very strange to their Jewish neighbours and no doubt it caused the early Christians all kinds of problems. But Sunday worship stuck as the Gospel moved out of its Jewish hinterland.
By Acts 20 Christians were coming together on the first day to break bread, in the evening presumably at the end of the working day – even if Eutychus did fall out of the window.
And by Revelation 1 the first day (Jews did not have names for their weekdays, just numbers) started to be known as the Lord’s Day.
Not long after this, about 111 AD, the Roman lawyer, Pliny the Younger, describes Christian practice. “They had met regularly before dawn on a fixed day to chant verse alternately among themselves in honour of Christ as if to a god. . . . After this ceremony it had been their custom to disperse and reassemble later to take food of an ordinary, harmless kind.”
So there you are, Sunday is special and as Christians we are summoned together on the day of resurrection to worship, to learn, to encourage. It’s who we are.
For as we read in Hebrews 10:25 (Message translation): “Let’s see how inventive we can be in encouraging love and helping out, not avoiding worshipping together as some do but spurring each other on, especially as we see the big Day approaching.”
So think who you can spur on – either for BTCS or for our Alpha launch this coming Wednesday.