Restless Sundays

For many Americans, Sunday
is no longer different from any other day of the week
Sunday, December 12, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 6:02 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

If you’re not too busy and you visit Cosmo Park on any given Sunday, there’s a good chance you’ll run into the Garners, who go there each week for family fun after Sunday services at the Unity Center and lunch at McDonald’s.

On a chilly November afternoon, 3-year-old Logan Garner used the free time to practice the “Tootie-Tot” song. With a wide smile, he followed the example of his mother, Carolyn, 41, and his big brother, Alex, 7, through the last verse. He stuck out his tongue, touched his knees together, turned his toes inward and kept his neck up, thumbs out, elbows in and rump out while singing the active melody.

“Every Sunday, we just kick back,” Carolyn said of the family routine.

The Garners are among a shrinking number of Americans who keep Sunday as a day of rest, a custom that has waned for the past 40 years. Rather than relaxing after a long week on the job, more people are using Sunday like any other day. They’re shopping, working, running errands, doing paperwork and playing in little leagues. They’re scrambling to catch up with chores left undone and prepare for more to come.

In one sense, the trend simply reflects the frenzied pace of our modern American lifestyle. The repeal of “blue laws” and changes in religious structure, the marketplace and subtle social variables have contributed as well. The phenomenon, experts say, affects individual health, family relationships and the economy.


The Bible’s Exodus lays down the original law: The Fourth Commandment. In Chapter 20, it says to keep the Sabbath holy by refraining from work. The Jewish Sabbath falls on Saturday, commemorating when God rested after creating the universe. Christians chose Sunday as their day of worship.

“We celebrate that on Sunday as the first day of the week because that’s the day the Resurrection took place, and we worship a risen Lord,” said the Rev. Kathy Morrison of Wilkes Boulevard United Methodist Church. “So each Sunday is like a little Easter.”

The day of rest, however, might have biological as well as biblical origins. Retired MU psychology professor Wayne Anderson said he thinks the seven-day cycle fits a natural need to slow down and recuperate. He pointed to the possibility of a “natural ebb and flow of energy” that might have led to resting every seventh day.

“It probably fit some other aspect of human nature and periodic need,” he said.

Richard Callahan, an MU professor of religious studies, said biblical teachings are the primary factor behind the observance of a day of rest, but he also thinks it results from the need to take a break from work, particularly in times when most jobs required hard labor on farms or in factories.

“Others just might want to take Sunday as a day of rest without religion,” Callahan said. “It might have significant meaning to have a day that’s not defined by the marketplace.”


The evidence of a new style of Sunday is everywhere. It’s on the streets, in factories, in lines at the grocery store. It’s in parking lots, in restaurants, on ball fields and in malls. Although some remain dedicated to reserving Sunday for time with God and family, the day for many has become like any other.

“Rarely ever do we have a day where we are just sitting around doing nothing,” Barb Stiffler, 50, said as she walked into Hy-Vee on a recent Sunday. “There’s always something to do: baseball or clean or homework. There’s not really a break.”

Ron Puth, a 53-year-old self-employed carpenter, spends Sunday afternoons talking with clients and catching up on other business.

“The older we get, we kind of change our priorities,” Puth said. “Usually during the weekends, I try to do my paperwork and get things ready for the week ahead. I just prefer, myself, to do it then so I don’t have to worry about it during the week when I’m working on other things.”

Amid the sound of church bells, many Columbians wake to Sunday as an ordinary workday. At Target in the Columbia Mall, 50 to 60 people busily stock shelves and work cash registers. At Boone Hospital Center, 170 people spend Sundays tending to patients and running the emergency room. Thousands wait tables at restaurants or fill fast-food orders. Hundreds more work on factory assembly lines.

For Alex Hedges, 24, Sunday is a day for cooking — at work. Hedges logs a 10-hour shift every Sunday at the Pasta Factory in downtown Columbia.

“I’ve never had a Sunday off since I started working,” Hedges said. Other than missing Kansas City Chiefs’ games, he’s got no problem working on Sundays. He still gets to see friends in the evening.

Changes in Sunday habits are often blamed for Americans’ loss of religion, but studies by the Barna Group and the University of Michigan show church attendance has declined only slightly over the past few decades. People are simply choosing different ways and times to worship.

“Preachers used to have Sunday sermons about the need to have God’s day kept sacred. … You would never hear that today,” said Rex Campbell, an MU professor of rural sociology. “Today, religion is much more about belief and prayer, things people can do at many other times.”

The Rev. Herschel Martindale of Valley View Community Church said more people today see faith as something they can practice on their own terms, not just on Sunday.

“People choose what fits their lifestyle because it’s more personalized, and less ecclesiastical or organizational,” Martindale said.

The changing nature of Sunday also has roots in the social upheaval of the 1960s, when public angst over assassinations, the Vietnam War and the civil-rights movement caused people to question the establishment.

“Up and through the 1950s, religion in America was something you just sort of did,” Callahan said. “With all kinds of things that happened in the ’60s, the ‘given’ got questioned. They questioned religion. They questioned politics.”

As personal attitudes and needs change, church leaders have shifted their views about what is required on Sundays.

“We have come to a conviction that every day is important to a Christian,” Martindale said, adding that his church endorses a variety of activities that years ago might have been considered unacceptable. “Often as a church we’ll go to a ball game. Our youth are in sports,” Martindale said. “I don’t think it’s a desecration of the Sabbath at all.”

The Catholic Church offers Saturday-night Mass to accommodate changing demands. The service fills the obligation of Sunday worship because Catholicism holds that the Sabbath starts at sundown Saturday, said Monsignor Michael Flanagan of Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church.

Much religious teaching, however, continues to emphasize rejuvenation on Sundays.

“We encourage people to make it a day off,” said Flanagan, who encourages parishioners to do a “joyful activity that renews the spirit, because body and soul are important.”

Contributing factors

The repeal of blue laws across the country coincides with changing Sunday trends, but it’s difficult to know whether the reforms contributed to the phenomenon or resulted from it.

Today, most people think of blue laws as rules restricting Sunday liquor sales. But blue laws used to do much more; they restricted all sales — from automobiles to oranges — and carried stiff penalties that were strongly enforced. Only drugstores were exempt.

The absence of commerce, Anderson said, left people with little to do.

“The only thing you could do was go to church,” he said. It was as if the government was saying, “Whether you like it or not, you’re going to rest.”

States in the latter half of the 20th century began whittling at blue-law limits. Some passed statewide referendums; others deferred to individual counties. Blue laws have eased across the country, and 32 states allow some sort of Sunday liquor sales.

Sunday has become a day of options. Shopping centers, grocery stores and restaurants are open. Even liquor stores and bars do big business. That, in turn, has more people reporting to Sunday jobs. It’s a marked change from the 1950s, a product in part of new thinking that began in the ’60s.

Callahan said that was a time when many people found that mainline churches — such as Episcopalian, Catholic, Presbyterian and Lutheran — failed to meet their spiritual needs. Changes in strict practices began to emerge, such as Catholics’ addition of Saturday-night Mass.

Labor forces also eroded Sunday’s stature as a day of rest. Campbell said the very nature of work — for many an eight-hour shift in front of a telephone and computer screen — is one of the primary reasons people are now more active on Sunday.

“The vast majority of work used to be physical work, so people needed the rest. Now being active on Sunday is a shift from the sedentary work week,” he said.

MU economics professor Kenneth Troske points to women entering the workplace as another factor in the evolution of Sunday. Most women still assume primary responsibility for household shopping, but their time during the week is short. That leads stores to stay open later — or even 24 hours — and to be in business on Sundays.

“You do shopping during time when you can’t be making money,” Troske said.

Profit and competition have led more stores to open on Sunday. “They wouldn’t be open if they aren’t making money,” Troske said. “There are certain kinds of customers, and you have to have hours convenient for them to shop.”

Two Christian bookstores in Columbia differ on Sunday hours. Heart to Heart Christian Supply on Broadway is closed on Sundays, while Lemstone Christian Stores in Crossroads Plaza is open noon to 6 p.m.

“We’re a small business,” said Donni Mize, owner of Heart to Heart. “It’s just me and a part-time person, and (Sunday) is my day of rest.”

Lemstone owner Margaret Darrough said Sunday isn’t her best business day, but being open accommodates customers on their way home from church.

“It’s a service for people who don’t have a lot of other days off,” she said.

Lemstone was required to be open on Sundays during the 17½ years it was in Columbia Mall. Darrough stuck to the practice after relocating the bookstore.

Mize concedes it’s difficult to close when competitors are open, but she doesn’t think the sacrifice would be worthwhile.

Her convictions have led her to close on Sunday rather than stay open to make more money. “I’m honoring (God) by being closed,” Mize said.


Giving up a day of rest carries consequences that affect our health and families. While the academic world has produced little research specific to Sundays, experts agree the trend away from free time with family carries far-ranging effects.

For many people who grew up in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, Sunday was a day to spend with the family.

“We had dinner with both grandmas every Sunday after church,” Carolyn Garner said. “There was more family around then.”

Today’s jam-packed Sunday itineraries make it difficult to continue such childhood habits. Juggling individual schedules to find other time for family often becomes a hassle.

“It makes family life more complicated,” Campbell said. “It detracts from the basic things like visiting with family.”

Flanagan said he’s noticed that most people in his congregation have more demands on their time.

“They have difficulty finding free time,” he said. “It’s pulling families … people are torn in all directions.”

Heidi Blackstun, an independent psychotherapist in Columbia, said the shift away from Sunday as a traditional day of rest and social relaxation could contribute to weakened communication skills and increased stress.

“One of the things I see with many families is that they don’t have strong communication,” Blackstun said, adding that families who spend more time together often communicate better. Blackstun said she recommends families set aside time at least once per week to do activities together. And though she doesn’t recommend it specifically, she said Sunday is a great day to create such traditions.

“I think there’s huge benefits,” Blackstun said. “The traditions that are created give people a sense of belonging and attachment to their family.”

Deanna Pledge, a psychologist with the Center for Family and Individual Counseling, said the routine of resting on Sundays might be comforting to some, but others might find it constraining. While she agreed that changing trends could have psychological effects, she said the sorts of things busy people do on Sundays aren’t all bad.

“For many families today — whether it’s good or bad — shopping is a form of bonding,” Pledge said.

Blackstun concedes it’s difficult to set aside time, even on Sundays, amid the economic pressures of today’s hustle-and-bustle world.

“I know I work on Sunday, and I never used to,” Blackstun said. “I’m a lot busier than I used to be.”

Economic implications of the Sunday phenomenon are obvious. National retailers such as Wal-Mart, Target and Best Buy celebrate Sunday kickoffs for weekly sales. Shoppers endure crowded aisles and long checkout lines as they scurry for weekly necessities. Darrough, of Lemstone, said she visited the mall on a recent Sunday to find it packed. Mall spokeswoman Katie Essing said Sunday is one of its busiest days, especially during the holiday shopping season.

At Wal-Mart Corp., spokeswoman Sharon Weber said the company doesn’t break down sales by day, but she acknowledged “the weekend is a very busy time for us. … We try to be open when our customers want to shop.”

Amber Stanford, 31, takes advantage of the Sunday accessibility. A few Sundays ago, she was stuffing the back of her sport utility vehicle with Target shopping bags.

“I appreciate my Sundays because we have three kids and we have to get things done or else they don’t get done,” said Stanford, who owns and operates ConScape Concrete with her husband. She described Sunday as a “family cleanup day.”

It’s become common knowledge that non-stop stress, stemming from the need to stick to an ever-growing chore list, can pose health risks over time.

Anderson, the psychology professor, said if he doesn’t stop and rest, he begins to sense that his body will collapse if he doesn’t give it time to recuperate.

“I think that people make a tremendous mistake by not using that day of rest,” Anderson said. It is a mistake he and his family try to never make.

Anderson tries to cook dinner for his grown family of 12 every Sunday. He fixes the main course while his wife cooks side dishes. It’s a practice that allows them to keep up with family developments.

“People don’t find time for that sort of thing,” Anderson said. “We’ve got ourselves thinking things are important that aren’t.”

Anderson isn’t alone in his thinking.

“There are a number of people worrying America is losing its values,” said Callahan, the religious studies professor. “Whether it had those values ever is a whole other question. I think we’re going to continue butting heads until we come to a new way of thinking about America.

“We’re in a really interesting transitional time.”

Missourian reporters Jonathan Rivoli, Angad Nagra and Coulter Jones contributed to this report.

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