A Minneapolis congregation finds new life through the ancient practice of keeping Sabbath
When the Rev. Kara Root came to Lake Nokomis Presbyterian Church in 2008, the congregation wasn't exactly desperate. "They were already past desperate," Root said. "They went through that stage before I arrived." Nobody had joined the Minneapolis church in seven years. It had no children's program, because it had no children. All the kids had aged out. On a good Sunday, maybe 30 people attended services in a sanctuary that once routinely held 300 worshippers. And the church's once-comfortable endowment had just enough funds to last two more years -- if they really pinched pennies.Lake Nokomis Presbyterian was dying, and everybody knew it -- even if they weren't quite ready to accept it. When Root realized the congregation wasn't willing to let go -- at least not yet -- she knew it was the right place and the right time to suggest something radical. "The people who had stayed were hardy adventurers," she said. "They were ready to try new things. And I figured that if we went broke in 18 months instead of 24, what difference would it make?"Now, six and a half years later, the pattern they established is a strong, sustaining rhythm. On the first and third Sundays of the month, Lake Nokomis holds traditional worship services. On the alternate weekends, members gather on Saturday evenings for contemplative services that draw upon the same Scripture and sermon as the previous Sunday's worship. And on the second and fourth Sundays each month? They practice Sabbath, taking a rest from work, obligations, and even formal worship itself. "I sleep in," said Sue Goodspeed, a member of the worship committee. "I don't get to do that often." Lisa Larges settles down with a cup of coffee and the Sunday edition of The New York Times. "I read the whole thing," she said.In months that have five Sundays, the congregation spends the extra Sunday participating in a community outreach event with a local nonprofit that offers mental health and educational services to children with emotional and behavioral issues. The worship schedule is altered for holidays. Next Sunday may be the fourth Sunday in March -- normally a Sabbath day at the church -- but it will still be Easter at Lake Nokomis Presbyterian. "Of course, we're going to have services on Easter," Root said.And the church's financial situation has improved. In fact, it donates 10 percent of its annual budget to neighborhood projects. "One of the big questions for us was, how could we be a blessing for others," Root said. "We're financially stable. We're just as much in the hole as we were before, but at least we're not going any deeper." One of the biggest challenges for Lake Nokomis members has been how to explain Sabbath keeping to people outside the church. After spending a Sunday in retreat from the many obligations of modern life, members are often bombarded with questions: "Why didn't you return my phone call about the Monday meeting?" "How could you not finish that PowerPoint presentation?" "What do you mean your kid isn't coming to soccer practice?""The ethos of society now is hectic," she said. "We're obsessed with productivity in a way that infuses most people's consciousness. … This has become so habitual that we don't even realize how broken we are." Root knows firsthand the knee-jerk guilt of breaking with societal norms. The first Sunday the church observed Sabbath, she and her family went for a walk through their neighborhood. "We went past a church, and when I saw the parking lot full of cars, I felt like I was playing hooky," she said. The cultural ramifications are one reason that Bass was excited to hear about Lake Nokomis Presbyterian and its journey together. Many individuals have taken up Sabbath keeping in recent years, but it is rare for an entire congregation to take such significant steps to encourage one another in the practice, she said. "Doing it collectively, communally, with somebody else -- that's why it's really cool that a congregation is taking this on," she said. "I don't know of any individual who can say, 'I'm going to grant myself this freedom.' No, we're going to need to do that with and for each other." The renewed interest in Sabbath practices among Christians started to surface about 20 years ago. Bass wrote her book in 2000; since then, the need for Sabbath has only grown stronger."I think the practice is more needed now than it was then," Bass said. "We've lost touch with natural time. Now we have Internet time, which governs the economy and is 365, 24/7. I don't think that's the way we were meant to be as human beings."Practicing Sabbath has had a profound effect on Root and her family, Root said. "I'll never forget what that first day felt like," she said. "It felt like it was an eighth day. It felt like a gift. It gave me a palpable feeling of peaceful energy." Taking an entire day off ran counter to everything she'd ever experienced. "I come from a robust line of multitaskers," she said. "I was always trying to put 10 pounds in a 5-pound box. Now I'm focused on putting 5 pounds in a 5-pound box."The third involves being part of a community that commemorates the resurrection. "So get outdoors and celebrate creation. Do something that feels free and life-giving, and get together with people," Bass said. "I like to say, 'No church meetings [on the Sabbath], but church picnics are great.'" The Lake Nokomis congregation took to the Sabbath practice quickly. It was proposed as a one-year experiment, but "six months into it, we had changed so much that there was no going back," Root said. She knew how deeply the practice had taken hold in the church when she sent an email to a member and got a note back chastising her for sending it on a Sunday afternoon.The hour-long service begins with Root speaking to the assembled membership, offering an abridged version of the previous Sunday's sermon. Then the group breaks up. While music director Jeanne Rylander softly plucks a harp, some people meditate. Others visit various stations, where they can, for example, pray for troubled parts of the world, walk a labyrinth or simply rest. At one station, adults and children can color a banner that later will be hung in the church. The Saturday evening program has enabled the congregation to reach out to worshippers who want something different from a traditional worship service but still like the direction that clergy can offer. "We're not a one-size-fits-all church," Goodspeed said. Even though the Saturday service repeats the Scripture and part of the sermon from the previous Sunday, some members like the different approaches so much that they attend both. "I feel that I get something different out of it," Larges said. "We hear the same Scripture, but we hear it in different ways." Ultimately, Root said, the goal of the Saturday services and the Sabbath practices is the same. "Find ways you and God can commune," she told the congregation on the eve of a recent Sabbath Sunday observation. "If you stop, God will come to you," she said. "You will experience something significant. And even if it happens on just one day, it will be worth it."
Strictly speaking, Root's idea wasn't new. In fact, it was thousands of years old. In a time when congregations are searching for new and different ways of being church, Root proposed that Lake Nokomis reclaim the ancient practice of Sabbath keeping and place it at the core of their identity as a congregation.That might mean a day with no shopping trip to the mall. No pulling out a smartphone to check on work emails. No paying bills or balancing the checkbook. And on some Sundays, under Root's proposal, it would mean not even going to church. "People weren't coming every Sunday, anyway," Root said.
A changed worship scheduleAfter a period of discernment, the congregation agreed to change its worship schedule and place Sabbath keeping at the heart of its life together.
Nobody at the church is required to practice Sabbath, and though most congregants have readily joined in since the beginning, some are still less than enthusiastic. Dick Gross, a 50-year member, skips the Saturday services because it means driving after dark, and he misses the opportunity to worship on those weekends."To me, church is Sunday morning," he said. But having watched the congregation shrink over the years, he also appreciates the logic behind the changes. "It seems to work for the younger people," he said.