After the invention of the electric light bulb and availability of electricity, many churches added a Sunday evening worship service along with other activities. Indeed, the morning worship remained the pearl that received greater attention and preparation but Sunday evening services were often well attended. In this writer’s experience, churches often enjoyed at least half as many on Sunday evening as they did in the morning service. Approaching the turn of the 21st century, Sunday evening worship attendance had dropped in many churches. As some churches began to cancel Sunday evening services, more church leaders began to consider doing the same and many followed suit. This article looks at the decline and demise of the Sunday evening service and offers a challenge. Did churches cancel Sunday evening worship services for the right reasons? Is the cancellation of Sunday evening services a portend of future church decline? Is it simply the effect of urbanization and competing activities? Is a Sunday evening service a viable option today? Before we react and cancel or change a major church activity we must ask the right questions!
HOW A CHURCH ENDED SUNDAY EVENING SERVICES
Since I began serving as a pastor in the early 1990s Sunday evening services were expected. Indeed, much work went into the effort and it was difficult to measure the benefit. In 2003 I was participating in a leadership development program for church leaders and a pastor presenter from the metro-Atlanta area said that his church had recently canceled Sunday evening services. The reactions around the room were audible as pastors began talking about what they might do with all of the extra time not spent in preparation and delivery for the evening service every week. They were obviously intrigued as the presenter explained how his church had navigated doing away with what many thought was a sacred tradition in many churches.
The presenter said he began asking questions of his lay leaders regarding the Sunday evening service. He asked:
- When was the last time we had someone receive Christ in a Sunday evening service?
- The church is seemingly always busy, so what service is the least important activity that we might cancel that would encourage your involvement at a different time?
To question 1, no one could remember the last time a person received Christ in the Sunday evening service. Question 2 was more problematic. The pastor had started a men’s Bible study on Monday nights and was having difficulty getting the men to attend. One prominent leader said, “Pastor, if I’m going to be at church on Sunday night then I can’t be here on Monday night too.” That comment resonated among the other men so the answer to question 2 was…Sunday evening services. But they still had to get the buy-in of the congregation.
One Sunday morning as the congregation took their place in the worship center, everyone noticed a bass boat on the stage. A couple men in fishing gear boarded the boat and pretended to be fishing. They had a dialogue as follows:
“Bill, how long have we been fishing in this spot on Sunday evenings?”
“Joe, we’ve been coming here to fish on Sunday nights as long as I can remember.”
“When was the last time we caught anything?” Joe asked.
Bill said, “I’m ashamed to say that I don’t think we’ve caught anything out of these waters on Sunday night in at least five to ten years.”
The fishermen looked at each other and reeled their lines in and got out of the boat.
The pastor then proceeded to explain the analogy to the congregation that several of the laymen and leaders of the church wanted to cancel the Sunday evening service since it did not appear to be effective at saving people for Christ. The plan worked as the church canceled Sunday evening services.
ASKING THE WRONG QUESTIONS
Several years later the church I pastored was still enjoying very good attendance on Sunday evening. In fact we had two thirds of the attendance we had in the morning service and we had a significant number in the evening that did not attend the morning service. However, our church decided to remodel the worship center which took about three months. As pastor, I was concerned about losing our momentum so plans were made for continuing the services in another location. Then plan failed. After the remodeling was completed, we could never get our Sunday evening crowds back again. We eventually cancelled the Sunday evening service.
Since then I have moved on to another church that also cancelled Sunday evening services. I have been revisiting the issue after I learned of another church that started a Sunday evening service and has very good attendance. Perhaps the pastor presenter had asked the wrong questions. Question 1 is reasonable but did not go far enough. Question 2 is a nonstarter as it really speaks to the issue of commitment. Here is another question: What is the function of Sunday evening services? Evangelism is not the only function of a healthy church. When my church cancelled the service I noticed a decline in the overall commitment of the congregation. There also seemed to be a decline in the closeness of fellowship. We had not been using Sunday evening for direct evangelistic preaching as most attending were already Christians but the service did provide a major time for discipleship.
When my church cancelled the Sunday evening service I noticed a decline in the overall commitment of the congregation. There also seemed to be a decline in the closeness of fellowship. We had not been using Sunday evening for direct evangelistic preaching as most attending were already Christians but the service did provide a major time for discipleship.
ALL SERVICES SHOULD HAVE A DEFINED PURPOSE
If the church of the pastor presenter in this article had a defined purpose for the Sunday evening service, they may have chosen to continue it. All services need to have a well-defined purpose. Sunday evening services should not simply be a “dumbed down version of Sunday morning.” (That’s how some describe them.) Here are several possible needs that a Sunday evening service may fill:
- An alternate worship time for those who cannot attend the morning service. These people may be hospital and shift workers.
- A service designed for discipleship of the congregation.
- A service to increase the quality of fellowship of the participants.
- A service to increase the motivation and commitment of the attendees.
- A service to call the congregation to prayer and a deeper relationship with Christ and one another.
- Does your church offer a Sunday evening service? Why or why not?
- Make a list of all regular services of your church and label each with a purpose, i.e. evangelism, fellowship, discipleship, worship, prayer, etc.
- If your church offers a Sunday evening service, do you attend? Why or why not?
- In the comments section, share some of ideas related to the article and the issues addressed.
Dr. Tom Cocklereece
Dr. Tom Cocklereece is CEO of RENOVA Coaching and Consulting, LLC. He is a pastor, author, professional coach, leadership specialist, and is a member Coach/Teacher/Speaker for the John Maxwell Team
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