Going Deeper as We Go Wider: 3 Key lessons for Church Planting Teams from Dana Trent’s For Sabbath’s Sake

By Doug Ruffle

Church planters and their leadership teams are often so busy doing the entrepreneurial business of starting up a new faith community that they neglect spiritual formation. They engage in good business practices marketing their vision, inviting newcomers to join the cause, raising funds. What about their daily walk with Jesus? What about the spiritual practices that form Christian character and build strong lead teams?

As new faith communities emerge, it is important to plan how to strengthen spiritual depth among the lead team for several reasons. If the team experiences together a deeper form of Christian experience, they will share a common bond with one another. If they can draw from spiritual wholeness, their witness to others they seek to reach will come from that wellspring of solid formation. If they practice Christian spirituality, they will align themselves with what Jesus modeled in his ministry on earth.

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This blog posting considers a key area: remembering and observing the Sabbath.

A plethora of books have been written in recent years encouraging us to observe the Sabbath. I have written my share of sermons and blogs on the subject as this theme continues to challenge me personally. [see “8 Steps Toward Keeping Sabbath“]. J. Dana Trent’s For Sabbath’s Sake: Embracing Your Need for Rest, Worship, and Community, was published by Upper Room Books in 2017.

Trent tells her story of being afflicted with migraine headaches and the odyssey of seeking treatment, including participation in clinical studies for new remedies. She had become totally stressed out and it was affecting her health in serious ways. She remembered times when she was younger and migraine free. She remembered practices taught at her grandmother’s church—lessons about observing the Sabbath, on Sundays. She remembered the rhythm and ritual that made space for “worship, food, family, rest, stillness, and solitude” (p. 20).

As an adult, Sabbath taking no longer held a place in her life. When the stress of daily life led to migraines and melancholy, she yearned for the rhythm and ritual she had experienced as a child. To find her way back to a healthy observance of Sabbath, Trent sought ways to recover its practice. She participated in Jewish-led Seder and Shabbat observances. She learned about slowing down and the art of becoming immersed in everyday holiness. Trent came to appreciate Sabbath as “a day to keep holy, a day to acknowledge our blessings, and a day to repair” (p. 30).

Here are three takeaways from Trent’s very helpful book that serve as invitations to church planting teams. We can choose to live into a better way of observing Sabbath which...

  • Connects us with our roots in Judaism
  • Connects us to a reliance on God’s intention for our lives
  • Connects us to restoration of our souls

Our Jewish Roots

Jon Wertheim recently filmed a documentary of Pope Francis entitled, “Pope Francis—A Man of his Word.” Among the themes Pope Francis addressed was the Sabbath. He said,

We live with the accelerator down from morning to night. This ruins mental health, spiritual health, and physical health. More so, it affects and destroys the family, and therefore society. "On the seventh day, He rested." What the Jews followed and still observe, was to consider the Sabbath as holy. On Saturday you rest. One day of the week, that's the least! Out of gratitude, to worship God, to spend time with the family, to play, to do all these things. We are not machines![i]

The Pope articulates a deep need for rest for people living in the fast-paced contemporary world. He reminds us that the roots of Sabbath are firmly planted in Judaism. Trent writes that Sabbath observance among Jews transmits to us the “gift of slowing down; giving thanks; offering praise, and enjoying the blessings of friends, family, community, and the bounty of our lush, green earth” (Trent, p. 30). All expressions of Judaism have held Sabbath observance as central to faith and life.

Those of us involved in planting new Christian faith communities would be wise to instill clarity on Sabbath observance. We recognize that in today’s culture, many must work on weekends. Our culture runs counter to the notion of setting aside one day, whether Saturday, Sunday, or any other day of the week, to rest, worship and be with friends. Yet, what if we formed small groups within the life of a congregation among people who could live into Sabbath-taking together? Such a group could help one another finds ways to observe the intentionality of the fourth commandment. For those who must work on Sunday, they could join a group that sets aside another day of the week. A niche faith community could all agree on a same day for Sabbath observance.

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Trent talks about having “Sabbath buddies” (Trent, p. 66) who hold one another accountable in its observance. If a new faith community were to prioritize intentional Sabbath observance, it would be offering a gift to many non-religious people who experience the damaging effects of living in a “24/7” world. What if your new faith community could say to your community: “Come find deep rest, relationships and reflection with us each week.”

Our reliance on God

Trent writes that there is no better “to do list” than to do what Mary did and to not be so preoccupied as Martha (see Luke 10:38-42). The Spirit invites us to prioritize sitting, resting, and doing “the better part” of listening to Jesus. Yet, often church planting leaders are most like Martha when we are preparing for weekly worship—fussing about how best to offer hospitality, preparing children’s church, making sure the audio-visual system is ready.

Doing “the better part” can be difficult when we are wired more like Martha. Sitting at the feet of Jesus, as Mary did, reminds us to rely on His way and not our own way. It teaches us to rely more on God than ourselves. I’m not saying that we neglect all the preparations that are so important to providing meaning worship. I am agreeing with J. Dana Trent that there is a better to do list that involves intentionality about leaning into the rhythm of Sabbath rest (Trent, p. 80).

We are invited to make space and time for slowing down, listening to the Spirit, and listening to one another. Trent suggests that spending time in a monastery for a weekend personal retreat, or walking a labyrinth are ways to help slow us down. These practices can help us embrace a rhythm that leans into the true meaning of Sabbath.

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Jesus said that “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27 NRSV). Sabbath was devised to help us live better, healthier, more holistic lives. I think many of us Christians, because we do not set aside a whole day to observe the Sabbath, give up on the idea altogether. J. Dana Trent invites us to reconsider that notion and strive to find ways of being intentional about living into the rhythm and ritual that lies behind the essence of rest, worship, and community. Sabbath teaches us to rely on God and not on ourselves.

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He restoreth my soul

I learned the King James Version of the 23rd Psalm in Sunday School. This is such a comforting passage of scripture that paints a picture of a good shepherd who cares for our well-being. He makes us lie down (rest). He leads us beside still waters (replenishment). He restores our soul. I think that the good shepherd does these things through the gift that is Sabbath. The image of Psalm 23 is a Sabbath fulfilled.

Dana Trent writes that observing the Sabbath, even if for an afternoon, reminds us “that we are not in charge and we don’t control the universe” (Trent, p. 118). Trent goes on to say that “Practicing Sabbath turns our worlds upside down and requires us to ask: How do we gain something by doing nothing? How do we refill ourselves by emptying?” (Trent, p. 118). She reminds us that it is the journey toward living into Sabbath that is most important. Her book invites us to think through and come up with practical ways in which we can stop our daily routines and get into a God-infused time. It is not easy for Jews or Christians to set aside 24 hours of Sabbath observance. There is a cost to setting aside sacred time. But, as Trent writes, “the cost of not keeping Sabbath is much higher” (Trent, p. 120). For Trent, it led to a deterioration of her physical, mental and spiritual health.

The invitation to church planting teams is to gain clarity on how your new faith community will observe Sabbath. Take time as a team to read and reflect on J. Dana Trent’s book. Come up with your own Sabbath plan. I believe that you will find renewal in your appreciation of your Jewish roots, your reliance on God, and the restoration of your soul. No small thing.

You can purchase a print or digital copy of "For Sabbath's Sake" by J. Dana Trent at the Upper Room Bookstore. There's also an eLearning course available based on the book. To register for the eCourse click here.

[i] Jon Wertheim, “Pope Francis shares candid thoughts in new documentary,” found November 9, 2018, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/pope-francis-shares-candid-thoughts-in-new-documentary/.