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A new Deseret News survey about the Sabbath explores how modern Americans approach their observance of the holy day.

The Sabbath may be losing its religious significance in the eyes of many Americans, but a majority still believe taking a day of rest benefits society, according to a new survey on Sabbath observance by the Deseret News.

Half of U.S. adults today (50 percent) say the Sabbath has personal spiritual meaning for them, down from 74 percent in 1978. However, 62 percent of people agree that it's important for society to have one day a week set aside for spiritual rest, the survey reported — and only 11 percent disagree with that proposition.

The Deseret News poll was conducted by Y2 Analytics and YouGov among 1,000 Americans plus an oversample of 250 Mormons and 250 Jews, two groups known for their Sabbath observance. It finds that members of some religious groups, such as Mormons and evangelicals, continue to focus their Sunday activities around church attendance and Bible study, while others spend their time on less spiritual pursuits.

It also shows that millennials are less likely than other generations to say the Sabbath is important or engage in religious activities on that day.

Shifts in Sabbath observance illustrate how modern life influences people's understanding of this holy day, religion experts and Sabbath-keepers said. Religious activities are becoming less common on Sunday — or Saturday for Jews — as people fit shopping, work around the house and time in nature into their Sabbath routines.

For example, MaryAnn McKibben Dana, who is an ordained Presbyterian pastor, and her husband and three kids have created unique Sabbath habits, focusing on activities that bring them joy, like reading and bike rides. She said they enjoy the freedom of branching out beyond obviously religious behaviors and finding other ways to be spiritually nurtured.

"Our lives are so scheduled. … There's always something that we need to be doing," Dana said. "Just to say 'I'm going to go where my delight takes me' is a wonderful thing."

Increasingly, Sabbath-keepers like the Dana family reject the idea that there is a one-size-fits-all Sabbath, said Craig Harline, author of "Sunday: A History of the First Day from Babylonia to the Super Bowl."

"They're interested in shaping it in a way that they think is best for them," he said.

But without boundaries, others say, the sacred purpose of the day can get lost. Strict Sabbath-keepers know that some limitations are surprisingly freeing, allowing them time and space to reconnect with their faith.

The Sabbath through the ages

Sabbath practices stem from the fourth commandment, which instructs believers to dedicate each seventh day to worship. God tells them to take a day of rest from their work, just as God rested after six days of creating the earth.

Religious communities present the Sabbath as an opportunity to step back from hectic everyday life and reconnect with family members, friends and faith. Some Sabbath-keepers follow strict rules, such as shutting off phones, televisions and computers, while others focus on socializing in any form.

People of faith have been debating how to properly spend the Sabbath for centuries, Harline said.

The Puritans, who settled in what is now the U.S. in the 17th century, disapproved of prevailing European habits like playing sports after church. When they came to the New World, they made Sabbath strictness the norm, urging families to come home from religious services and spend the day reflecting on what they'd learned, he noted.

"They insisted that you shouldn't work or play," said Harline, a professor of history at Brigham Young University.

These standards became less common as members of other religious groups began to outnumber the Puritans in America, but some faith communities continue to follow difficult Sabbath guidelines.

For example, the Deseret News survey finds that members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints stand out for high levels of Sabbath observance. Mormons are 28 percentage points more likely than average to spend time in religious meditation and more than 40 percentage points more likely to attend church, reflecting encouragement from church leaders to focus on family time and avoid activities that cause others to work on the Sabbath, such as eating out at a restaurant. Mormons are half as likely as the general population to say they go shopping on Sunday (16 percent vs. 30 percent).

Other Christian groups, like evangelicals, present Sunday as "the Lord's day," and their members also spend the Sabbath attending church services and gathering with family members. Evangelical Protestants are 15 percentage points more likely than average to go to church and read the Bible on the Sabbath, the survey reported. They are also less likely than others to work in or around the home or to participate in sports or outdoors activities.

Jews who observe a traditional Sabbath refrain from 39 categories of work from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday. They don't prepare food, drive a car or flip a light switch. Most of these Sabbath-keepers are Orthodox Jews; it's much rarer for members of Conservative or Reform synagogues to focus on observing a holy day of rest.

People who follow Sabbath restrictions often celebrate having the extra motivation to take a day off from their routines, even if they appear intimidating to outsiders, Harline said, noting that Puritan leaders weren't trying to be cruel.

"It was a redefinition of joy. They were rejoicing in the Lord," he said.

Sheina Zippel, a Jew who abides by intense Sabbath guidelines, shared a similar sentiment with the Deseret News last year.

"When you're at a (Sabbath) meal, you don't feel like, 'Don't do this. Don't do that.' You feel like, 'Come! Let's have fun. Let's talk together,'" she said.

But the idea that strict Sabbath observance is anything but bothersome can get lost when fewer and fewer people take the holy day seriously, said Nancy Ammerman, a sociologist of religion at Boston University.

"It has become more difficult to observe a day of rest because the whole world around is so busy," she said.

It's unlikely Americans will return to a more traditional view of the Sabbath in the near future. The rising generation of young adults is less likely than other Americans to say the Sabbath has meaning for them, even among religious groups, such as Mormons, where Sabbath observance is high.

Millennials are also more likely to spend their Sundays working, according to the Deseret News survey. Eighteen percent of millennials work at a full- or part-time job on the Sabbath, compared to 12 percent of generation Xers.

Sabbath habits

The new survey depicts the modern Sabbath as a day focused on relaxation and errand-running rather than religious commitment.

More than 7 in 10 U.S. adults (73 percent) today say they "take rest and relaxation" on the Sabbath, compared to 63 percent in 1978. Thirty percent of people go shopping, an 11 percentage point increase over nearly 40 years.

Religious activities like attending church, prayer and Bible reading are less likely to be a part of people's weekends today than they were in the past, the Deseret News Sabbath survey reported.

In 2016, 27 percent of U.S. adults attended church on what should have been their Sabbath, compared to 55 percent in 1978. Around one-in-10 (11 percent) spent time in religious meditation, an eight percentage point drop over four decades.

Other recent research suggests that faith communities have stopped focusing on the fourth commandment.

More than 9 in 10 Jews (94 percent) believe that a person can be Jewish if he or she works on the Sabbath, according to a 2013 survey of American Jews from Pew Research Center. Another Pew survey, released earlier this month, showed that only 21 percent of evangelicals and 12 percent of mainline Protestants and Catholics said resting on the Sabbath is "essential to what being Christian means to them."

However, a majority of older Americans still say the Sabbath has religious significance, according to the Deseret News survey. Nearly 6 in 10 members of the silent generation (58 percent) and 56 percent of baby boomers say the day holds "religious or spiritual meaning," compared to 41 percent of millennials.

Ammerman, who grew up Southern Baptist, said she's witnessed these generational differences in her own life.

"My mother still makes disapproving noises when I talk to her on the phone on Sundays and say I'm doing my laundry," she said. More than half of Americans (56 percent) work in or around the house on the Sabbath, the survey reported.

Overall, society seems to have moved away from approaching the Sabbath with a list of do's and don'ts, Harline said. A choose-your-own-adventure type of spirit helps explain the wide variety of Sabbath habits that exist both within and between groups.

"Most people see it as family time, and that can take all kinds of forms," he said.

Harline is Mormon and, when his kids still lived at home, they'd spend the Sabbath playing impromptu basketball games after church. Now, Harline and his wife schedule meals with extended family members.

Recreation

Fewer people today describe the Sabbath as religiously significant, but there is a growing interest in the mental and spiritual health benefits of taking a day of rest, Ammerman said. People who are burnt out by a workweek spent behind a computer screen rejoice in a day filled with bike rides or dinner with friends.

"There are a lot of arguments out there about how good it is for people to set aside a day of rest that aren't necessarily based on divine command," she said.

Although modern Sabbath-keepers may not be following the rituals described in the Bible and other religious texts, change isn't always unholy, Harline said. People have been reimagining old traditions and creating new ones around the Sabbath for as long as it's been celebrated.

"When my parents met in the 1950s, they were singing in a young adult choir. After rehearsal, they would go to an ice cream shop. Some Mormons (today) would be horrified that they were patronizing a shop on Sunday," he said.

Even as an ordained pastor, Dana doesn't force her family to choose obviously religious Sabbath activities. They like to spend time outside, play games and read together.

"We acknowledge that God is with us all the time, not just when we're doing 'holy' activities," said Dana, author of "Sabbath in the Suburbs: A Family's Experiment with Holy Time."

However, spiritual nourishment is the goal of the day, which means Dana has to draw some boundaries. She won't allow work projects or unfinished chores to call her away from the time her family needs to re-center their lives around God and each other.

"Sabbath is deeply important for our spiritual lives," she said. "We have to find the space and time to get away and disengage, and remember that we're not indispensable to the running of the world."

Email: kdallas@deseretnews.com, Twitter: @kelsey_dallas

Read More:

Full report: Sabbath Day observance in the U.S.

How families can keep the Sabbath when the world interferes

Should your boss know that you keep the Sabbath?