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​Are Sunday Worship Services a Mission Strategy?

Clinton Wahlen, associate director of the Biblical Research Institute, tackles nine common reasons that Adventists give for Sunday worship services.

By Andrew McChesney,

As pastors seek new ways to share the Seventh-day Adventist message, some have considered offering worship services on Sunday.

People can — and should — worship God every day of the week, said Clinton Wahlen, associate director of the Biblical Research Institute.

“But,” he said, “God has set aside the seventh-day Sabbath as holy, His chosen day to gather for worship, and the only day that qualifies for His special blessing. Experimentation with a regular Sunday worship service has been problematic.”

Wahlen said he was aware of several troubling examples, including a case in which an Adventist church in North America tried regular worship services on Sunday as an “experiment” several years ago. The pastor soon led his church away from Sabbath services altogether, and he and many of his members are no longer are Adventists.

“Adventists who support Sunday worship services for evangelistic purposes may offer what sound like persuasive arguments,” he said. “But they tend to misuse Scripture and the writings of Ellen G. White to make their points.”

Adventist Mission presented Wahlen with nine common reasons that Adventists give in favor of Sunday services and asked him to respond.

Reason No. 1: Jewish people gathered daily in the temple after Jesus’ resurrection to continue Judaism’s outdated practices or teachings. To counterbalance this, the apostles met “daily” (Acts 5:42, 17:17) to preach the truth about Jesus, and their practice did not invalidate the Sabbath.

Wahlen: This misreads the New Testament, specifically Luke 24:53, and the message of Acts. The apostles went to the temple worshippers in their place of worship to witness. They did not set up a rival or counterfeit temple to invite people to come to them. Throughout the book of Acts they went into the synagogues, the Jewish places of worship, to evangelize. When they set up their own Sabbath venues of worship, they even used a different name so that there would be no confusion (ekklēsia in Greek, rather than synagogē), even though they worshipped on the same day as the Jews.

Reason No. 2: Paul did not invalidate the Sabbath when he preached on the first day of the week in Acts 20:7.

Sunday-keeping Christians use this verse to justify worship on Sunday. In reality, this meeting most likely was held on Saturday night and had nothing to do with gathering for worship on Sunday, let alone regular Sunday services. Paul was on his way to the Jerusalem temple for Pentecost, and this was a special meeting to bid farewell to him. By using this passage to justify worship on Sunday, we are playing into the hands of those who oppose the Sabbath.

Reason No. 3: The pastor has involved local church leaders in thinking about the possibility of having a Sunday worship service. He received the support of all church members over a period of time and secured the approval of conference administrators before moving ahead.

This is all proper procedure, though having such widespread consent to this proposal is surprising and unusual to say the least. However, the main question is not what will the people or even the conference support but what is the Lord’s will in this matter and can He bless this effort? God’s will is known through His inspired Word and the writings of Ellen White. Unfortunately, the pastor has misunderstood and misapplied the inspired passages he quotes.

Reason No. 4: Other Adventist churches have experimented with Sunday meetings in an attempt to reach out to local communities.

If the purpose of the meetings is evangelistic with a goal to bring attendees to receive the Adventist message, keep the Sabbath, and worship on God’s holy day, evangelistic meetings on Sunday for a limited time can be a good thing. But I am not aware of any experiments of holding Sunday services for worship that proved successful in the long term, although I am open to being corrected about this. On the other hand, how do we measure success? Do we base what we do on what we believe God can bless or what we think the public will bless?

Reason No. 5: We want to avoid prejudicing people against Adventists by meeting on a more neutral day.

Unfortunately, this has the potential of prejudicing people even more once they realize that the method (Sunday worship) was being used just to lure them into an Adventist church. Imagine their surprise when they learn that they really should be worshipping on Saturday! What some people who have grown up in the church don’t seem to realize is this: “The truth as it is in Jesus” revealed in the books of Daniel and Revelation is what motivates the drastic lifestyle change characteristic of the Adventist message. Good preaching, heartfelt worship, and a welcoming church may interest people to study with us, but it is Bible truth that makes lasting change in a person’s life. Is it really any surprise, then, that methods used by other denominations have not worked well for us?

Reason No. 6: We will preach the distinctive truths that we believe as Adventists.

We need to think a few steps ahead. Can a church that meets on Sunday really proclaim the three angels’ messages, including the message of the second angel that “Babylon is fallen, is fallen” (Revelation 14:8)? What about the message of the angel of Revelation 18:1-4, who lightens the Earth with his glory and cries with a loud voice to God’s people still in Babylon, “Come out of her, My people, lest you share in her sins, and lest you receive of her plagues”? How can the church use a tool that will eventually be used to enforce “the mark of the beast” (Revelation 13:16-17) to preach to people about receiving the seal of God? Can God really set His seal of approval on this? 

Reason No. 7: Our efforts will focus on non-Christians or non-Adventists.

If a pastor is really focusing on winning non-Christians, why meet in a church and why meet on Sunday? Non-Christians — I used to be one — would not normally be interested in going to a church, particularly on Sunday. This reasoning is disingenuous. The real goal is to try to reach out to non-Adventist Christians who already revere Sunday, and the pastor should be up front about that.

Reason No. 8: There is nothing in Scripture that says the solemnity of the Sabbath is violated by holding a worship service or Bible study on any other day of the week.

Bible study is always good, but when the Bible is silent about something we should consider the possibility that maybe the reason for its silence is because the thing we’re wondering about is not good! After the first century, the Christian church began holding worship services on Sunday and, in some places, this occurred alongside Sabbath services. But eventually the church settled on one day a week, and we know how that “experiment” turned out!

Reason No. 9: Ellen G. White counseled, “Sunday can be used for carrying forward various lines of work that will accomplish much for the Lord. On this day open-air meetings and cottage meetings can be held. House-to-house work can be done. Those who write can devote this day to writing their articles. Whenever it is possible, let religious services be held on Sunday. Make these meetings intensely interesting. Sing genuine revival hymns, and speak with power and assurance of the Saviour’s love. Speak on temperance and on true religious experience” (“Testimonies for the Church,” Vol. 9, p. 233).

In context, this passage is Ellen White’s answer to a brother who had questions about what to do “in the case of Sunday laws being enforced” (p. 232). The message is that when that time comes, we should use Sunday to full advantage for missionary labors:

“To defy the Sunday laws will but strengthen in their persecution the religious zealots who are seeking to enforce them. Give them no occasion to call you lawbreakers. … Keep right on with your missionary work, with your Bibles in your hands, and the enemy will see that he has worsted his own cause. … When we devote Sunday to missionary work, the whip will be taken out of the hands of the arbitrary zealots who would be well pleased to humiliate Seventh-day Adventists. When they see that we employ ourselves on Sunday in visiting the people and opening the Scriptures to them, they will know that it is useless for them to try to hinder our work by making Sunday laws” (pp. 232, 233).

Then follows the passage cited in Reason No. 9.

It is just as important to notice what Ellen White does not say as what she says. She does not say that we are to open our churches on Sunday for worship services, despite the fact that in 1902 when this was written we had nearly two thousand Adventist churches and companies worldwide. No occasion is given in this statement for confusion. We are to hold “open-air meetings” (like camp meetings or evangelistic meetings) and “cottage meetings” (meetings in homes). These are the “religious services” that Ellen White is talking about, and there is no suggestion anywhere in the letter or anywhere else in her writings or in Adventist practices of the time that we should hold worship services on Sunday.

In fact, a little further down on the same page are these words: “God has given us plain directions regarding our work. We are to proclaim the truth in regard to the Sabbath of the Lord, to make up the breach that has been made in His law. We are to do all that we can to enlighten those in ignorance; but we are never to confederate with men of the world in order to receive financial assistance” (p. 233).

Then Ellen White goes on to quote Ezekiel 20:10-20, in which the Lord says that He gave the Sabbath as a sign to show who His people are and that He is their Sanctifier, helping them grow in holiness. It also contains a warning against dishonoring the Sabbath.

The bottom line is this: As Seventh-day Adventists, we are called by God to keep the Sabbath and to raise people to His higher standard. While it might be challenging at times to share the Adventist message, we need to remain true to it and not diminish this wonderful gift God has given His church to be a blessing and the light of the world for these last days.