Here’s an idea for a research project: travel around the world, both interviewing and observing how Seventh-day Adventists in different countries and cultures “keep” Sabbath. Of course, there will be commonalities, but there are likely to be significant differences.
For example, a friend who became an Adventist in eastern Europe told me about the strict restrictions he was taught about not cooking or even re-heating food on Sabbath—all food would be prepared on Friday and eaten cold on Sabbath—but that their church youth group would then go to a local park to play soccer on Sabbath afternoon. When he moved to the United States, he was surprised to see people cooking Sabbath lunch, while he would be frowned upon if he was seen kicking a soccer ball that afternoon.
In Pacific island nations, I have participated in Sabbath programs, of which the traditional Sabbath school and church timeslots have been the focus, but only as part of a day-long schedule of music, worship, prayer, testimonies and preaching that begins before dawn and goes past sunset—of course, with a pause for some kind of “closing Sabbath” worship—into a sacred music concert extending late into Saturday night. But, like many Sabbath-keepers, I have also enjoyed Sabbaths on beaches and mountaintops a long way from any formal worship services or church meetings.
In some parts of the world, I have been taken to restaurants for Sabbath lunch, something that would never have occurred to us growing up in the Adventist Church in Australia. It seems generally accepted that in some professions, primarily medical, Sabbath work is permissible, but what about other professions that are focused on doing good for others, however broadly we might define that “good”? And on hot summer Sabbath afternoons, questions about the appropriateness of swimming—as compared with “nature walks” or even just splashing our bare feet at the water’s edge—seemed to have some urgency when I was a boy.
As our name proclaims and insists, Sabbath is a defining belief and practice of what it means to be Seventh-day Adventist. Within Adventism, it is usually among our least-controversial doctrines. But what Sabbath looks like has always been a subject of some discussion. One of the early questions in Sabbatarian Adventism was a debate that ran over some years about when the observance of Sabbath should begin and end. Once the sunset-to-sunset format was generally agreed, a slew of traditions grew up around what the rest of the day should look like. These included worship meeting formats and times and the other “rules” about what should and shouldn’t be done—some derived from the Bible, others from the churches and cultures that Adventist converts had come from.
And our formulation of the Sabbath belief allows for this—a good example of how our Statement of Fundamental Beliefs was intended to be descriptive rather than prescriptive; a consensus statement of what is generally held among Seventh-day Adventist believers rather than a creed that believers are to be measured against. Key wording in the statement of belief includes that Sabbath is a day for “rest, worship and ministry”, “a day of delightful communion with God and one another” that should be both “joyful” and “holy”. The Seventh-day Adventist doctrinal statement and its variant applications and practices around the world seems a worthwhile example of unity within diversity.