Whatever Happened to Sunday Evening Services?

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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?


photo credit: patrickfranzis via photopin cc

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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227 Comments

  • John Divito says on

    For a Reformed treatment of this question from a church historian, check out “Whatever Happened to the Second Service?” In R. Scott Clark’s book Recovering the Reformed Confession.

  • Mark Lindsay says on

    Dr. Rainer,

    I had this discussion twice this week! Since I am an associate of education, Sunday evening largely falls into my hands, as we focus on discipleship – preschool through adult. We have a large preschool/children’s program that is fairly successful, but our student and adult offerings are minimally attended, with the notable exception of our ladies study (usually a Beth Moore study). Here are my thoughts, for whatever they’re worth:

    1. Culture is certainly not our ally. People are busy and need a clear reason to choose a “second helping” of church over the many other things that are screaming to be done. Examples are the many local rec leagues that operate on Sunday afternoons. Family recreation and gathering opportunities take place on Sundays, as Saturdays are often filled with children’s athletics, yard work, and house work. Furthermore, high schools in the area start at 7 AM, rush hour starts earlier, and with the crazy schedules people keep, they strive to keep Sunday night as a time to rest – a sabbath, if you will. An interesting note in our experience is the group most absent on Sunday evenings is men.

    2. Still, our preschool/children’s program and our ladies studies have been very successful on Sunday evenings over the years. What’s the difference? We have honed in on three things that we believe may be driving this differential: quality, group identity, and fun. The preschool/children’s program is done with quality and it’s a lot of fun for them. The ladies studies again are high quality and they have been a consistent group for my entire eleven years at the church. They have a very strong group identity and they actively recruit other ladies to join that group. It is also possible that moms tend to be the ones to engage with their children in church, and may be at church for that reason on Sunday evening. Therefore, the Sunday night ladies study may also be impacted by a convenience factor.

    Our conclusion is, though Sunday night may be losing its former relevance for the broader Christian community, programs that are done with high quality and that offer fun for children and a strong group identity can still be successful – if church leadership wants them to be. That is a completely different question.

    Thank you once again, brother, for your very authentic and challenging thoughts.

    Blessings!

    Mark Lindsay

  • Kirk Holloway says on

    I have always wondered about the Sunday Evening service as well. As far as I can tell there is no example of Jesus worshipping twice on the Sabbath. I have assumed it came from churches having intinerant preachers. The Sunday they were in town, they made a day of it! They had morning service, dinner on the grounds, singing and then a second service. The other Sundays they just had one service.

    Our Evening service is held at 5:00 and is mostly attended ( 20-25) by Senior Adults who go home afterwards. It consists of four songs and our pastor basically doing a Bible study. At 6:00 we have Awana for children up through 6th grade, Youth Discipleship, Men’s Discipleship and Ladies Discipleship. We do this from September through May. For years we consistently ran 70-80% of our Sunday School attendance but, the last couple of years we have seen that attendance start a decline.

    Our pastor started the sermon series, “I Am A Church Member” last week. (We just finished taking a church-wide survey which was eye-opening.) Next, as a staff, we are going to start with a clean white board and take a hard look at EVERYTHING we do. Why we do it, should we continue to do it, etc..

  • Lottie Partridge says on

    Our church has Life Groups in homes on Sunday nights. We offer activities for children and youth on campus. Our people are truly learning to do life together through these groups. Each group studies the Word and fellowships together.

  • When asked why we don’t hold Sunday evening services, I will reply with one of the following depending on who’s asking:
    1. I figure that if you get it right in the morning there is really no need to try again in the evening.
    2. So long as the Super Bowl is played on Sunday night it is easier to cancel them all than just one.
    3. We encourage rest and recreation on Sundays rather than a day full of religious meetings. Wives and mothers are the ones who appreciate this most. Most men wouldn’t come anyway.

    • Point # 3 would have gotten a hollerin amen from me in the back pew.

      I can tell you why people are not at the Sunday evening service…they don’t want to be there…profound, I know.

  • Thom, I am the founding Pastor of Grace Baptist and we do have an evening Worship service. We have since our inception over 23 years ago. We currently have about 600 on campus Sunday morning and about 250 on Sunday night. Our services are very similar. The Choir sings and we do offer activities for the children. We are one of just few Churches in our community that offers Sunday evening services. My concern is, as many of the comments posted confirm, that “the Church” is once again allowing the culture to define us. I, too, would love to have definitive documentation on the origins of the Sunday evening service. At what point did “the Church” cease to meet “daily and from house to house,” as Acts records, and start meeting on Sundays and Wednesdays? My belief is that as darkness gains a stronger hold on our world the Church has an even greater responsibility to be “the light.” In order to do that in a hostile environment we need more and more encouragement and instruction. That should be occurring every time we meet. Sadly, the world has precious little influence in the world today and I don’ t believe that is coincidental. This is just one of many areas of “compromise” that has crept in over the past 50 to 60 years. And lets be honest and admit that Pastoring is a much easier job with just one sermon to prepare per week. The truth is, a bi-vocational Pastor should be able to accomplish that with very little strain. In your “Predictions” for the Church, you mentioned the trend of more Churches using bi-vocational Pastors. Our willingness to “cave in to societal demands” is driving that trend. Leadership is key in everything The Church does. If preaching and teaching and fellowship is a priority to the leaders it will be a priority to the followers. Sadly, the converse is also true, and that’s where we live in 21st century America. I can’t imagine that God sees less frequent meetings and less Bible preaching as an indication of a greater commitment to Him and His glory, Can you?

    • Gerald Wolfe says on

      The nail has been hit, right on the head.

    • Richard says on

      Less frequent corporate meetings on church grounds could result in a more biblical pursuit of keeping the Sabbath. How many lay people are serving Sunday morning and serving again on Sunday night foregoing a meaningful and refreshing Sabbath rest? What’s healthy and effective in one context may not be in another. Let each church hear from God on the matter- in faith. Let form follow purpose instead of tradition.

      • In this culture, the younger generations are less Biblically literate. If our fellowship is not rooted in the Gospel and congregations are not being taught the Bible, how are our meetings different from social clubs? Leadership in churches need to understand that many people are not raised in church and that preaching and teaching need to be central. In some churches, the desire to reach the younger generation has made churches conform more to the world than the world has become acquainted with the Gospel. I understand families need time together to be strengthened, but Friday and Saturday nights can be opportunities for those times. We need to mature in our faith. I’m not sure that in today’s culture one sermon a week that can be relatively short is sufficient, and not every person who goes to church even reads the Bible consistently, especially in the younger generations. Think about the challenges that we have every day because we are believers. If churches make the decision not to have Sunday evening services, then the Sunday morning sermons should be longer, and churches should have a time of solid teaching on Wednesday nights so that people are Biblically literate.

    • I agree that doing less is not the answer to combat the darkness. This conversation is one of relativism though. What works in one church may not in another. The resolution must be that we survey the context of our ministries, and prayerfully determine what is the best course of action and the best use of time? It is not so much (at least for me) elimination of time/hours/messages. It is what we doing and how we are using the time/hours/messages to impact the area God has given us. Great words, brother!

    • So, are you saying that bivocational ministers like myself are a cultural construct and, by association, unscriptural?

  • At 42, I recall growing up in a small country church with Sun AM & PM, Wed night, and also two Sat nights per month.
    I now serve two rural churches. One has Sun AM and Tues evening. The other meets Sun AM, PM, & Wed night.
    Midweek is quite a significant drop for both places. I find the one Sun night meeting garners 40-50% of avg AM attendance, which has been my experience since I was a child.
    Whether that’s good or bad is relative, I guess. In my mind it’s good; because I have heard of others who drop off even more than we do. Thankfully we’ve had a resurgence of interest in the last couple of months.

  • Most all theses responses seem to be from churches who see Sunday nights as a second time at church on Sunday, as in they have it structured for people to go to church twice on Sundays. Therefore the responses regarding lack of family time, home small groups, targeted topics for members etc all make sense.

    I would like to see research done on churches who are bucking the traditional Sunday morning church model. What about churches seeing success at reaching NEW people (unchurched or dechurched) at a different time like Sunday nights?

    I heard of a church in Denver who only has Sunday nights because they found people are too busy Saturday and Sunday at the lake house or in the mountains hiking or skiing.

    Could it be possible to see wide spread success on Sunday nights if we were to have a strategy which included reaching families by saying “go, have a full weekend with family, traveling sports teams, at the lake house. We will see you Sunday night.” Then have preschool program, children’s program, student programs, small groups at say 5 PM. Then come together at 6-6:15 PM for worship.

    Should we dare to change with the culture?

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Great questions and observations, Eric.

    • This is precisely what I’m seeing around the country. Emerging and church plants seem to be thriving on Sunday nights, largely out of necessity of space and focus on the unchurched as an alternative.

      The other model I’ve seen is given to Student Ministry, which enables the family to “serve” together…which is an awesome model of community.

      Another factor is childcare. If you want families in their 20’s and 30’s to come back for yet another service, this financial commitment must be made. If not, they won’t come.

      In the end, the American church seems reduced to three hours of challenge today: worship, serve, and community groups. If you serve or gain a change in culture beyond that scope, it is vital to have a diverse fellowship in age. Otherwise, your guest services group will experience burnout and not be able to maintain the quality of welcome you desire.

  • Our church had a somewhat consistent attendance in Sunday night services up until a year ago, when we began toying with the idea of replacing it with a service identical to the morning service to free up space in the two morning services or reach those who might not come on Sunday mornings. When word of that possibility spread through the congregation, we experienced a dramatic drop in attendance at our 6:30 p.m. service. The younger generations were noticeably absent. Also, we realized that Sunday night had become an afterthought. Preparation was far below what it was for Sunday morning. Our senior pastor tasked me, along with my wife, in leading a team that would transform Sunday nights into a gathering that offered more variety in teaching and music, and one that offered more opportunities for members to participate. We observe the Lord’s Supper once a month on Sunday nights, and this is more frequent than before. We have been doing this new format for several months, and attendance has increased some. We’ve received positive feedback from those who are coming. However, we also have noticed that attendance varies based on the theme or elements of participation. If the kids are involved, more young families are there. But those same families may not come to services that don’t include elements for children.

    We plan to continue this effort through June, then break for July-August (when evening services will be more traditional) and resume in September. The jury is still out; we will simply have to wait and see if the Sunday evening service will thrive again.

  • This is antidotal, but in my family Disney at 7:00 PM on Sunday night was the “competition,” and I wonder how much that was true for other 50’s families also. The kids begging to stay home to watch Disney pre-VCR was certainly a factor in my tribe!

    • Kirk Holloway says on

      I was 32 before I ever got to see “The Wizard of Oz” from beginning to end! As a child I couldn’t wait to be sick on Sunday so I could watch “The Wonderful World of Disney”!

      • Bonnie says on

        Me, too, on The Wizard of Oz. As an adult I realized I had seen certain parts over and over and other parts not at all. And I always wondered why The Wonderful World of Disney was scheduled when people were at church (because I assumed everyone was!).

  • When I reads scripture, I see God telling us to rest on the one day in seven. I surely understand why we get together early in the morning on the first day of the week, in our regular commemoration service of what happened on the first “Easter Sunday”. But I never did understand why we had to duplicate it again on Sunday evening. And I remember the first pastor I ever heard bring that up … at our church in Muncie, Indiana, who said he saw no reason to come back again and do the same thing in the evening, when God Himself told us to rest. We could just stay an extra hour in the morning, if we needed to spend 2 hours instead one 1.

    I’d never been in a church that had evening services up until then, but he’s the first one that ever mentioned it. And I still agree with him.

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