What would it mean to take up the long-forgotten Pentecostal Practice of Sabbath? Every Friday night for the past year or so in the Nippard house, there is a celebration. The laundry is done, the dishes are washed, a lavish dessert is brought to the table, and we gratefully begin to rest and enjoy each other’s company. We decided as a family to take up a long-forgotten Pentecostal practice. We decided to Sabbath, and we’re never going back.
I remember when the word, “Sabbath” was used frequently in Pentecostal circles. But it wasn’t just Pentecostal circles. It was a culturally accepted norm. In my early childhood in the 1980’s, I saw almost all of my neighbours pull out of their driveways along with us to go to church. Almost everyone had a slower day on Sundays. The repealing of the Shops Closing Act happened right in the middle of my adolescence at age 15 with these words:
“Society has changed significantly over the years and therefore, government must be ready to accommodate such change.” This is big. Put a pin in it for later.
It was around the same time that the word, “Sabbath” began to disappear from our Pentecostal vocabulary. Because of my upbringing, where religious practice was encouraged in the home but not enforced, the shift wasn’t “felt.” There was already little regulation of my behaviour on Sundays. Beyond not having to go to clothing stores, which was a big win, I could already ride my bike, do homework, and generally enjoy another version of Saturday, with a little more church attendance. I had to learn from Pentecostal friends and colleagues later on that the change for them had many more practical implications. Gradually during this period, Sunday began to be more like any other day, except for church attendance – in other words, more like MY Sundays.
If you were to look for clues to why the change happened, you will find very little in our General Constitution and By-Laws, other than a short appendix near the end about legalism, where Pentecostals are basically warned not to take on Seventh Day Adventist Teaching about Sabbath:
“The Pentecostal Assemblies of Newfoundland and Labrador disapproves of those who hold to issues which seem to add conditions to salvation, such as the keeping of the seventh day, and who press their opinions on others.”
It would appear (and my anecdotal interviews support this conclusion) that the shift away from Sabbath-keeping for Pentecostals was driven by two impulses: it was a reaction against legalism, which was perceived at the time as a real problem for us, and also an accommodation to the cultural change that was happening all around us. You might want to refer back to the quote at the beginning about the “Shops Closing Act” now. In other words, it was not an overtly theological shift for us. There is nothing in our statement of faith that either supports or denounces Sabbath-keeping. My question is, did we throw out the baby with the bathwater? Did we stop practicing Sabbath for purely practical reasons that are probably less practical now than ever?
Why am I bringing this up, now? Around 2020, I began to feel a soul-deep exhaustion that I have never experienced before. In my devotional time, I began to hear the Spirit (through scripture, prayer, preaching, listening with other disciples, study, reading) whispering the word, “Sabbath.” I was living in the Exodus narrative, and feeling the soul-deep exhaustion of the people of Israel in slavery. And then I got to Deuteronomy 5 and re-heard the rationale for the commandment:
“Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your ox, your donkey or any of your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns, so that your male and female servants may rest, as you do. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore, the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.”
In that moment, I began to wonder when I gave work permission to take what was mine and the Lord’s. I began to wonder when slavery became to me more appealing than freedom. I began to wonder if my non-participation in Sabbath was a reflection of my liberty in Christ, or participation in subtle cultural idolatry to the god of busy. I gathered groups of friends and mentors of all ages (mostly over 50), and asked them to fill in the gaps for me. Did they enjoy Sabbath? Did it feel like legalism? Why did they stop practicing? And without fail I heard that Sabbath used to be a gift (though as children, sometimes inconvenient), and that they are not really sure why they stopped practicing, other than that everyone around them seemed to be doing the same thing.
So, I started an experiment. I was going to take Jesus’ words seriously in Mark 2:27:
“Then Jesus said to them, ‘The Sabbath was made to meet the needs of people, and not people to meet the requirements of the Sabbath.’”
If Sabbath was made to meet the need of my family, it was going to need some guideposts. First, It had to be a group decision. I had a table meeting with my wife and kids, and I shared what I felt God was laying on my heart: That we would take a full 24 hours that was convenient for us (Sunday doesn’t feel like a day of rest for the pastor, so that was out), and set aside that time to rest, delight, enjoy each other, and enjoy God.
Second, there would be no strict rules (like no video games, no exercise, etc.), but we would be mindful of technology, and when it started draining us, we would shut it off. Sabbath would not be viewed as something to earn God’s favour, and certainly not His salvation. We would not stress if our Sabbath was not perfect – or if we missed a week for unavoidable commitments. I would try to have all the housework done by Friday afternoon so that we wouldn’t feel stressed, and the house would be clean (and Cheryl happy). There would be something we all loved to eat on Friday night, followed, by a decadent dessert. We would practice gratitude at grace time. We would rest and delight until sundown Saturday.
I waited with bated breath. Would they think I had gone off the deep end? That working at head office was turning me into a religious nut? My 10 year old was the first to speak: “So, can we start this Friday?” And it was ON. I’ll be honest, we always looked forward to Friday. But we REALLY look forward to Sabbath. I don’t want to over-sell it, but it has changed the rhythm of the week. This lost or forgotten Pentecostal practice took me out of my soul-tiredness, out of my slavery, and gave me and my family a new way to come to Jesus and take on his easy yoke and light burden.
Please don’t hear judgment or condemnation in this. If it’s present, it’s sin, and exactly what our constitution warns us about. I don’t think practicing Sabbath makes me a better Christian than anyone else. Like all the disciplines, it creates space for grace, for God to make me a better Jeremy than I was before, a better Dad, husband, pastor, human. If you feel the invitation and would like to discuss a plan for you or your family, or you’d like to share your own story of when you practiced Sabbath, feel free to reach out. I’d love to hear you and help you begin. For some great further reading, try 24/6 by Dr. Matthew Sleeth, The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry by John Mark Comer, and the Bible Project series on Sabbath.
Appendix: Why Pentecostals Used to Rest and Worship on Sundays
I remember, as a young adult, reading in scripture that the Jewish people and earliest Christians celebrated the Sabbath on the last day of the week (Friday sundown to Saturday sundown), and wondering why Pentecostals celebrated on Sunday. The answer to why we began is fairly straightforward out of scripture, church history and tradition. Below is probably an oversimplification 😊. Hopefully it is helpful to someone.
Because Jesus rose on the first day, first century (mostly Jewish) Christians would gather for worship on Sunday after observing the Sabbath on Friday-Saturday evenings. It is perhaps referenced in Acts 20:7, and called the Lord’s Day in Revelation 1:10. Ignatius of Antioch wrote around 110AD that believers were “no longer observing the Sabbath, but fashioning their lives after the Lord’s Day” (whether or not this is only true in his context or more broadly is up for debate). By the time Justin Martyr wrote his first apology (AD 155-157), there were formalized traditions observed at these Sunday gatherings, like prayer, instruction, the public reading of scripture and giving gifts to the poor. There is also an “apologetic” for observing on Sunday.
From there on (and perhaps before), there is disagreement. By the early Middle Ages, most of the Western church was observing Sunday as a mix of Sabbath tradition and Lord’s Day celebration. This disagreement continues to the present: There are Christians who do not practice Sabbath at all (recognizing that it is fulfilled in Christ), Christians who observe its practical/moral significance (but not on a particular day), Christians who observe Sabbath on Saturdays, Christians who observe both Lord’s Day and Sabbath requirements on Sundays, Christians who only observe the celebratory aspects of the Lord’s day on Sundays, and a broad spectrum in between.
For Pentecostals, much of our Sabbath/Lord’s Day tradition was inherited from our direct, historical roots, Wesley and the holiness movement primarily. It began with a strict, codified program for proper observance of Sabbath and Lord’s Day requirements, on Sundays. Church attendance, stopping from work, and not doing strenuous exercise were all considered essentials. Newfoundland Pentecostals in the 1980s to early 90s were certainly on this page, according to my own experience and investigation.