I led the church I currently pastor to make a significant change in our ministry programming: canceling our Sunday evening services. This happened back in January, but I decided it was best to see how things go before I posted anything about it.
Allow me to share a little more about my own background before going any further:
I jokingly tell people that I started attending a Southern Baptist church nine months before I was born. I was raised in a family that pretty much attended church meetings whenever the doors were open. This means my weekly schedule consisted of Sunday School, Sunday morning worship (or “children’s church” when it was available), a Sunday evening Bible class (called “church training” back in the day, then later called “discipleship training”), Sunday evening worship, and Wednesday night worship or Bible study (or RA’s, or whatever else we did as kids). Just in case you’re counting, that’s five “meetings” per week, four of which happened on Sunday.
I’m deeply grateful that I grew up in a family that prioritized involvement in the church. I would not be the man I am without it. Having said that, at some point, I no longer felt the need to attend multiple services/meetings on Sunday. I’ve generally attended only one Sunday worship service for the past 20 years or so (this does not include prayer meetings, small group Bible studies, etc.).
I do eagerly look forward to assembling with fellow believers every Sunday morning–especially now that I’m a pastor. But I don’t really have that same enthusiasm for Sunday evenings, and I haven’t in a long time. Maybe I’ve been influenced by my time in the Philippines, where attending multiple Sunday services was just not practical for most church members (due to the cost of transportation, traffic, etc.).
I believe the Sunday evening service is a tradition that has outlived its usefulness in many (though not all) contexts. It seems the vast majority of Protestant churches have reached a similar conclusion. My current church was the only Southern Baptist congregation in Northeast El Paso still offering an evening service when I first arrived. There are only a handful of other churches in the entire city that still do (based on my research, anyway). This seems to represent a national trend. Thom Rainer predicted (in 2015) that fewer than 5% of American churches would have a Sunday evening service in the coming years, making the practice “almost extinct.” I also assume many of the churches that still do an evening service are mega churches that simply repeat the same service/sermon for those who can’t attend in the mornings.
I realize that not all pastors agree with my assessment (or the trend). Kevin DeYoung has acknowledged that Sunday evening services are not a biblical mandate but believes churches should keep doing them. I’ve heard John MacArthur say that preaching twice per Sunday has “doubled his life” as a pastor. He’s gone so far as to criticize church members who set apart Sunday afternoons/evenings for “family time.” Paul Chappell has given ten reasons why he considers Sunday evening worship/preaching a crucial part of his church’s ministry, and Tim Challies has expressed similar thoughts. Last but not least, Bart Barber shared about his commitment to the Sunday evening service here on SBC Voices. I’m sharing this so readers will see both sides of the story–every pastor and church has to decide what is most effective for making disciples in their respective communities.
That leads us to my current church. We are a multiethnic, friendly, generous, mission-minded group of believers. These strengths were present in the church long before I arrived. I consider it a great honor to be their pastor, and I’m grateful for the solid foundation that was already here before we showed up.
But we needed to make some adjustments in ministry programming in order to more effectively reach our community–especially the younger demographic. And we needed to do so sooner rather than later.
I presented the new vision for the church back in January. As I mentioned, it involved canceling our Sunday night services so we could begin a new small group ministry. It was a significant change, especially considering that I had only been the pastor for about 90 days when we voted on it.
Here’s what has happened since we made the change:
My sermon preparation and preaching is more focused. I really enjoy being able to spend all my sermon preparation time on a single message for our largest weekly gathering. I also spend a few hours on our Wednesday night Bible study (we have continued our Wednesday night prayer meeting), but most of my weekly study time is focused on the Sunday morning sermon.
We have the option of doing evangelism, outreach, and fellowship on Sunday afternoons/evenings. Sunday is a great day to mingle with lost and unchurched people here in our community–they are out playing sports, walking their dogs, and finding all sorts of ways to take advantage of the warm, sunny weather. We have done some outreach and fellowship activities on Sunday afternoon and plan to do more in the future.
We are more prepared to expand our Sunday morning ministry. We are praying to outgrow our current seating capacity in the morning service. This would mean starting an additional Sunday morning service to handle the volume of people. A second morning service would be a huge breakthrough, but it would also require more work and resources (audio/visual team, etc.). An additional evening service would have been even less practical in this scenario–we would likely be stretched too thin.
We now have the option of doing some of our small groups on Sunday afternoons/evenings. We are currently in the process of developing small group Bible studies that meet in homes and other locations. The group my wife and I lead meets on Friday nights, but we already have another group that meets on Sunday afternoons on the church campus.
I realize I haven’t shared anything original or groundbreaking here. And I hope it doesn’t sound like I’m presenting some kind of “magic bullet” for church revitalization. I’ve written this in the hopes that it will help others who are leading their churches through changes (or considering it).