Half of U.S. adults today (50 percent) say the Sabbath has personal spiritual meaning for them, down from 74 percent in 1978. However, 62 percent of people agree that it’s important for society to have one day a week set aside for spiritual rest, the survey reported — and only 11 percent disagree with that proposition.
The Deseret News poll was conducted by Y2 Analytics and YouGov among 1,000 Americans plus an oversample of 250 Mormons and 250 Jews, two groups known for their Sabbath observance. It finds that members of some religious groups, such as Mormons and evangelicals, continue to focus their Sunday activities around church attendance and Bible study, while others spend their time on less spiritual pursuits.
It also shows that millennials are less likely than other generations to say the Sabbath is important or engage in religious activities on that day.
Shifts in Sabbath observance illustrate how modern life influences people’s understanding of this holy day, religion experts and Sabbath-keepers said. Religious activities are becoming less common on Sunday — or Saturday for Jews — as people fit shopping, work around the house and time in nature into their Sabbath routines.
The new survey depicts the modern Sabbath as a day focused on relaxation and errand-running rather than religious commitment.
More than 7 in 10 U.S. adults (73 percent) today say they “take rest and relaxation” on the Sabbath, compared to 63 percent in 1978. Thirty percent of people go shopping, an 11 percentage point increase over nearly 40 years.
Religious activities like attending church, prayer and Bible reading are less likely to be a part of people’s weekends today than they were in the past, the Deseret News Sabbath survey reported.
In 2016, 27 percent of U.S. adults attended church on what should have been their Sabbath, compared to 55 percent in 1978. Around one-in-10 (11 percent) spent time in religious meditation, an eight percentage point drop over four decades.
This is part of the de-Christianization of America. People will tell themselves, “Well, I don’t go to church on Sunday, but I can experience God in other ways.” And maybe that’s true. But Sabbath observance, including gathering for prayer and worship, has been at the core of Christianity since the beginning. You begin by neglecting the Sabbath, and you end by losing your faith (or your kids do).
Religion is not just what we believe (that is, the thoughts we carry around in our heads), but what we do. As social anthropologist Paul Connerton has written, societies remember the stories that give shape and meaning to their lives most effectively by recalling them ritually. Modern life is designed to cause you to forget that you are part of a larger story, and that your identity is not fully self-chosen. Connerton’s analysis is somewhat Marxist, but he’s right. As I wrote about it earlier:
He’s telling us that in modernity, the market is our god. It conditions what we imagine to be possible. We can’t dream that life should be ordered by rituals that bound and define our experience, and link it to the past, to a sacred order. There is no sacred order; there is only the here and now, the tangible. The world exists to be remade to fit our desires. There are no ways of living that we should conform our lives to, no stories that tell us how we should live. When Connerton says that in modernity, and under capitalism, we can hardly “imagine life as a structure of exemplary recurrence,” he’s saying that we can no longer easily believe that we should live according to set patterns of thought and action because they conform to eternal truths.
If we no longer keep going to church as at the center of Sabbath observance, we unavoidably deny that there’s anything sacred about time. Or, to be precise, we affirm, whether we want to or not, that we, not the God of the Bible, are the sovereigns of our own lives, and have the right to pick and choose what it means to be faithful. Sabbath worship is absolutely integral to Christianity. For the overwhelming majority of us, it is non-negotiable.
Whether you want it to or not, this habit — or lack of a habit — will erase the memory of Christianity from yourself and your family. This is the risk you take by making Sabbath churchgoing optional. Choices have consequences.
(I don’t know about how Sabbath observance works among Jewish communities in terms of keeping the faith. I’m interested to hear from Jewish readers, both believing and unbelieving.)
UPDATE: Deacon Greg Kandra writes:
A religious ed teacher told me about a talk he had with a Catholic parent a few weeks back. The mother was upset because her grade-school-aged daughter was feeling guilty about missing Mass. The mother blamed the church. Isn’t it enough that they go to CCD classes,? she asked. Don’t you people realize we have a busy schedule on Sunday? There’s sports! Projects! Homework! We can’t get to church every week, you know. There’s too much to do.
The teacher tried, with limited success, to impress upon the mother why Mass is important—above and beyond the simple fact that it’s, you know, an obligation. I don’t know if it sank it. Nobody seems to think that way anymore.
Somewhere along the line, we stopped teaching that going to church isn’t an option, that Mass is an obligation, that we are commanded to “keep holy the sabbath.” We’ve minimized teaching the importance of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist—or in the assembly or in The Word, for that matter—and people think they can take it or leave it.
UPDATE.2: People. People. Chill on chastising me for calling Sunday the “Sabbath”. It may be theologically and historically incorrect, but that’s how most Americans think of the Lord’s Day. That understanding forms the basis of this survey.