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Wednesday, September 09, 2015

In Need of Analysis: Saving Sunday Evening

This post is over a year old, but it is carefully written and a study in neutrality. Its subject is the declining interest among evangelicals in attending traditional Sunday evening church services. Thom S. Rainer explores the history of Sunday evening meetings and hazards a cautious speculation or three as to why almost nobody cares about them anymore.

It’s a topic worth discussing, but before we invest too much energy in debating how we might salvage Sunday night, we ought to ask ourselves another, more pressing question first:

Do we really want to?

Some Soul Searching

That’s a question we can read a couple of ways, and I’m curious about both its potential interpretations:

First, are we up to the job? Are we invested in gathering on Sunday nights and committed to making that meeting of the church work for the long-term? Because if we aren’t, let’s not even start.

Every time a traditional avenue of service for Christ reaches a crisis point — be it an underfunded parachurch organization, a Christian magazine with declining circulation or decreasing interest in a particular type of meeting traditional to a number of local churches — the inevitable die-hards surface insisting that we ought to straggle on for the foreseeable future no matter what because … oh, I don’t know … faithfulness, tradition, or someone’s dad started it. Or a friend was saved through it. Or something. This generally just prolongs the death throes of the ministry rather than infusing it with new life.

So if all we’re doing is having a quick flap before reconciling ourselves to giving up on the Sunday night meeting, let’s save ourselves the bother. Put bluntly, those who raise their voices in favour of keeping something ought to be willing and ready to do the donkey work involved in saving it.

Second, are we sure we should? When something is not working, it may certainly be because Christians are not as committed or spiritual as we ought to be. We ought to recognize that the problem may be us.

Then again, the problem may be something else entirely. Rainer theorizes that:
 “The advent of Sunday evening services in many churches was a cultural adaptation for its time. Its decline or demise is thus a cultural response.”
Fair enough. If the Sunday evening service has served its purpose and no longer works in our culture, why not let it go?

Another very sensible reasoning for not having a Sunday evening meeting is less cultural than practical. Rainer again:
“A number of churches, particularly new church starts, are in leased facilities. They do not have the option of returning on Sunday evenings.”
After all, we have no biblical command to meet on Sunday nights. It is not an article of faith. It’s simply a tradition many churches have grown accustomed to; one that some people are reluctant to abandon for fear that doing so means we no longer love the Lord like we used to.

Fundamentally then, the question of whether any body of believers ought to meet on Sunday evenings is a local one to be decided on the merits by the leadership of each church, preferably in consultation with the Head of the Church, since his opinion about our service is ultimately the only one that matters.

Reasons NOT to Stop Meeting

One appalling possibility thrown out by Thom Rainer for the decline is this one:
“Many pastors simply do not have the desire, energy, or commitment to prepare a second and different sermon. Their lack of emphasis was thus reflected in the congregation’s lack of interest.”
I can well imagine sloppy, lackadaisical sermonizing — or worse, a repeat performance of a pastor’s Sunday morning tour de force — could speedily destroy any interest from a congregation in a second Sunday meeting. This would be yet another rather compelling argument against hiring a pastor in the first place.

But truly, if we are at the point where we only have a single man capable of teaching the flock, AND we have to pay him to do it, AND it turns out that man is only willing or able to produce a single 30 minute sermon per week, the question is not whether we should have a Sunday night meeting.

The question is whether we ought to close our doors entirely.

Assuming we decide that the Lord would like us to explore ways to revitalize our Sunday night meeting, we need to be clear on whether people aren’t coming the way they used to … and if not, why not.

Measuring the Problem

And they aren’t coming, generally speaking. In the comments to Rainer’s post, Mark Dance says attendance on Sunday evenings at his church is “approximately 10% of Sunday morning worship attendance”. Jon Wellman says, “Attendance between Sunday morning and evening takes a definitive drop”. Timothy says, “We run about 40% of our morning attendance”.

On the more formally documented statistical side, data from the Christian Reformed denomination indicates Sunday night attendance has dropped by half in the past fifteen years. The Assembly of God reports a 6 percent drop in the past year alone.

Apparently if we build it, they no longer come.

Where Are They All?

Thom Rainer thinks they are home with their families:
“There has been an increasing emphasis on family time. Families with children at home particularly viewed one worship service on Sundays to be sufficient for them.”
Jeff Meyer of Crosswind Community Church in Holland, Michigan goes further in explaining why his congregation doesn’t bother with a Sunday evening service:
“People who are exploring Christianity are not typically accustomed even to weekly worship a single time. So to put forth some kind of community-based expectation that you do this twice a Sunday would be extraordinary.”
This is instructive, because it tells us that people like Jeff incorrectly view church meetings as primarily for “people who are exploring” rather than for building up existing members of the body of Christ.

If the problem is a misunderstanding of the church’s purpose, more evangelistic meetings will not help. Baby Christians cannot develop to maturity on a steady diet of milk. And if the problem is merely that the existing congregation views other things as more important than meeting with other Christians, the specific content of a Sunday evening meeting will not matter to them since they already have the claim of a higher priority.

Right or wrong as that thinking may be, it may be necessary to concede the impossibility of attracting large numbers of Christians to attend a second meeting on Sunday. If we are going to have one, it will be for smaller numbers.

Making It Work

Small numbers are not, contrary to popular opinion, a bad thing. The Lord taught disciples in big groups and small. The interested ones were obviously there more than the dilettantes and hangers-on, and therefore got way more out of his teaching than those who came around occasionally.

The key, in my humble opinion, is making an effort to actually work with those who are genuinely interested rather than going through the ho-hum pro forma exercise of “having a service” for the sake of tradition. Attendance for attendance’s sake is a complete waste of time.

To that end, a few brief suggestions:

1.    Gear the meeting to the needs of those who actually attend, rather than to the perceived needs of those you hope may attend.

2.    Ask yourself what the other meetings of the church are accomplishing, and do not simply replicate another existing meeting. The early church devoted itself to “the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers”. Ask which of these is getting the shortest shrift at your church, and aim to fill up what is missing in the faith of those willing to come out.

3.    If the other meetings of the church give no opportunity for interactive ministry, Sunday night may be the time for it. Meetings in which members participated verbally rather than merely listening to a speaker were a significant factor in the fellowship of the early church.

4.    Three churches I am aware of have recently become conscious of a need among believers for an overview of scripture; a framework into which new Christians and serious students of scripture alike may be able to plug their various levels of incomplete knowledge and view it against and in the context of the whole revelation of God. Given that these three groups are spread far and wide across Ontario, I suspect the needs of other churches may be similar. This is the sort of thing that might be done on a Sunday night, accomplishing the building up of those who need it without intruding on the regular meetings of the church.

Do you want to save Sunday evening? Spiritual teaching will attract spiritual people in a way that mere box-checking and pew-sitting will not. The numbers may initially be small, but if the Holy Spirit is working, much can still be accomplished.

And if what you’re doing right now is not working, why not try something different?

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