I received a phone call from a pastor I have known for many years. Indeed, I consider him a leader and friend. His question was quick and to the point: “What can I do about our Sunday evening services?” Despite numerous valiant efforts, attendance continued to struggle. The church he serves is, by most standards, a healthy church. But the attendance on Sunday evening is going counter to all the other positive indicators in the church.
This pastor is not alone. Other church leaders are concerned as well. Some have given up on Sunday evening services out of frustration. Others have discontinued the services without much lament. And a few leaders have fairly good reports about these services.
The feelings tend to run strongly one way or another about these services, particularly among those whose traditions have affirmed them in past years. Perhaps a quick overview of the Sunday evening services would be helpful.
An Uncertain History
There will be a number of church leaders reading this article who will hardly give it a second glance. Their church traditions have never, or at least not in recent decades, had Sunday evening services. But there are many other traditions for which these services have been staples. Frankly, the decline in the Sunday evening services among these churches is both noticeable and getting worse.
For years, I have attempted to understand the history of these services. My efforts have not been conclusive. I’ve heard many times, for example, that the evening services began with the advent of the electric light in America. But that explanation seems unlikely since I have found examples of the services in both the 1600s and the 1700s.
Here are some other historical tidbits I have found, all unverifiable at this point:
- The services grew during the agricultural phase of our history. Farmers had to work their land six days a week. But, on Sunday, they would have come to a morning service, then have dinner on the grounds, and then have a second later afternoon services before returning home.
- During World War II, many men and women worked seven-day weeks to meet the production needs of the war. The Sunday evening service allowed them to attend worship since they couldn’t come on Sunday morning. Thus the service time grew in popularity.
- Some denominations and other church traditions focused one service on equipping the believers, and another one on reaching the lost. Thus the Sunday evening service became distinctively different than the Sunday morning service.
- As a reminder, some church traditions have little to no familiarity with Sunday evening services; their leaders often wonder why there is so much discussion about the issue outside their traditions.
Possible Reasons for the Decline in Sunday Evening Services
While the history of this service is largely unverifiable, the decline in its attendance, and the reduction in the number of churches offering are clearly evident. Let’s look at six possible reasons for its decline or demise.
- 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.
- The disappearance of blue laws (mandatory Sunday closings) allowed many alternatives to Sunday evening worship, and many church members chose those options.
- 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.
- 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.
- When many churches began offering services on alternative days, such as Fridays or Saturdays, there was neither the desire nor the resources to keep Sunday evening services going.
- A number of churches, particularly new church starts, are in leased facilities. They do not have the option of returning on Sunday evenings.
Trying to Be Objective
In my previous post on changes in church worship services, I stated my desire to be the objective researcher and not inject my own opinions on the issue. That remains my goal in this article as well. But the previous article engendered many comments and not a little emotion. I see that possibility in this endeavor as well.
I do want to hear from you. I continue to be impressed with the acumen and the insightfulness of the readers of this blog. It will be a joy to hear your comments and opinions on Sunday evening services.
Does your church have a Sunday evening service? If you do, is it thriving? Surviving? Struggling?
Posted on May 10, 2014
With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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