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

  • We have a Sunday evening service that is identical to our Sunday morning services. We market it as an additional opportunity to attend worship. We expect our members to attend worship at least once a week – no matter which service they choose. We have 7 worship services in 3 locations available. We have found that in our area, Sunday mornings are no longer “hands off” when it comes to different organizations scheduling events, youth sporting leagues and the like. We decided to offer it to people who have to work on Sunday mornings or rather it may just fit better with their schedules. We also use it as an evangelistic opportunity for our Sunday morning crowd. We often tell them if they know someone who needs to hear this message, bring them back on Sunday night!

  • Having been a part of churches that have Sunday night services and one that cancelled that Sunday night service while I was on staff, I would be very interested to know if your research told anything about the effects of transition from two services to one. Did it affect participation? Did it affect loyalty? Some anecdotal evidence has shown that participation for some went us, for some it went down. Also, I saw that, with the evenings free, some members visited other churches and we saw their loyalty begin to shift. Any insights?

    Thanks for all your blogs! I find them very helpful!

  • Lee Cooper says on

    I pastor just outside of Charlotte where the Sunday Evening Worship was in place when I came last Sept. Our typical attendance runs about 20% of Sunday morning attendance. I am presently casting the vision to shift our Traditional Sunday evening worship time and switch it to a discipleship format style. The initial plan would be to offer a Fall/Winter/Spring focused study time on discipleship/growth topics using materials such as “The Jesus Experiment” by Bill Perkins. I was able to use this same material shortly after the book was published in a prior church in the Sunday night context and was able to increase the attendance to about 50%.

    The main issue I have with the 2nd full service is the drain on resources and time preparing for it as I am the only full-time pastor on staff and have no others to preach that time-slot.

    Our plans are to also shift our Wed. structure to focus more on children/teens with one main class geared toward parents. This will provide a one night option for our families who already have too many things happening during the week…either Sunday or Wednesday night.

  • I like the idea of a Sunday evening service. I know of some people who need to work on Sunday and the evening service is the only one that they can attend. Also, I personally like Sunday evenings because it gives me a chance to serve with Sunday mornings being full with Sunday School and the worship service.

  • Hi Thom,
    Enjoy your blog.
    In scanning the replies to this post I did not see a reference to Hebrews 10:25.
    It may be there and I just missed it.
    Would love your thoughts on how this verse squares with the decline in Sunday evening services.
    Do you feel think the moral decline in our culture warrants more and not less assembling?
    Paul

  • Our Sunday evenings run at 20% of our morning services and I, as the associate pastor, have wanted to drop them for awhile. The energy cost on the leadership doesn’t seem to be worth it. However, it has been our best training ground for young musicians. They learn and play on Sunday nights before they get to lead on Sunday mornings. We are now beginning to use Sunday nights as a training ground for young preachers too. With those two benefits we’ll probably keep it even though some weeks it feels useless.

  • We have Sunday evening service the first 3 Sundays of the month. We have moved the service into the chapel (more intimate setting), begin with all the “regular” elements of worship, but also include a “prayer meeting” type time of prayer (has become a very special time) as well as adding a 15-minute fellowship time with food and drinks before my message.

    We spend the 4th Sunday evening of each month sending our people out into the community for ministry at Florida Baptist Children’s Home, Lighthouse (homeless shelter and much more), Noah’s Ark (center for mentally impaired), various nursing homes, even going to the lake downtown to pass out water bottles to runners, and more.

    We have AWANA’s at the same time which meets the needs for children’s ministry.

    While attendance certainly does not approach the Sunday morning attendance, it is working well and our people enjoy this time very much.

    Roll Tide, Brother Thom!

  • I like the one brother’s comment: “…I think what a church does on Sunday night should be determined by what best meets the needs of the congregation. Most people have already voted with their feet regarding what best serves them!”

    Although that is a sad reality, it is a fantastic statement and analysis of the situation. I don’t want to submit to defeatism, but as Pastors we are well served to determine what best meets the need of the people, and not be slaves to traditionalism. This article is well timed for me and my church as my vision team will be meeting in the next 2 weeks to discuss this very topic. I already have had some informal discussions with a couple of deacons about this. Our prayer is that we spend our time wisely and do the best to make disciples. And if that means something different from “the way we have always done things”, so be it. At the same time, I don’t want to “change for the sake of change”. To me it is not so much about exhaustion on my part. It is a matter of what is the best use of our time? It seems ineffective to work another 10-12 hours a week developing and preaching a message to about 20 people, who honestly, would show up if I was preaching on underwater basket weaving. 🙂

  • Our CrossRidge Church family does not have Sunday night worships. However, during this time, it’s encouraged that our church family members seek and attend an in-home small group, or what we call LifeTeams. Typically facilitated by a husband/spouse duo, they’re typically composed of other families of similar demographics where they can “experience life together”. This includes bible studies, book studies, socials, and both family and/or adult outings. My wife and I have the amazing blessing to facilitate what was the “Adult Sunday School”, that has now transitioned in to the “Sunday Morning Adult Life Group” – another interest of mine, the diminishing but yet important “Sunday School”.

    Our church family also does Spring/Fall Wednesday “Discipleship Classes”, of which have been a semester of worship/message time. If the attendance of a Sunday Night Worship were of any indication from the Wednesday nights – there’d be few there. Even on Wednesday nights, they start off booming and dwindle down to few after the completion of the 12 weeks.

    Blessings,
    Bryan

  • The explanation I’ve heard for the start of Sunday evening services is that is was an evangelism program. The morning service was for worship; the evening service was to be more like a seeker-service or rally. When I was a kid, some churches still referred to it as “the Sunday evening evangelistic service.” The decline came, in my experience, when that purpose was lost and it was just a second worship service. We don’t have one, and my church (started in 1994) never did. Interestingly, a church plant nearby began with only a Sunday evening service, which continues to be its main gathering. For most families, it’s the only block of time (including Sunday a.m.) that isn’t programmed with other activities.

  • Danny Davis says on

    OK. I have to interject a lighter story. A friend told me that back in February 1964 the pastor of his church railed against anyone who would dare skip the Sunday night service to stay home and watch the Beatles’ 1st appearance in America on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” (People not old enough to remember need to understand that this was before you had any way to record a TV show. If you did not view the event when it aired, you totally missed it. It would not be replayed.) So all the faithful parents forced their unhappy teenagers to be at church that Sunday night. But, interestingly, the pastor’s teenage daughter suddenly got “sick” at the last minute and “had” to stay home that night. Needless to say, this created quite a stir.

  • Our Sunday evening services are actually well-attended. I think it’s because of the rural way of life. However, we are thinking of changing it to a 2:00 PM service because young families struggle to get to church in the mornings. And families with children with disabilities or caring for elderly parents also find it more difficult to get to a morning service. We will still have the morning service as usual, just move the 7 PM service to 2 PM.

    As a young mother, I had a very difficult time with evening services because of school the next day. It was just a struggle to get the kids to bed on time. Mondays were always hard. I still struggle with mid-week services, too. I’m so tired by 7 PM and just want to rest! But these services, too, are well-attended by kids and youth, so we keep them.

    I always wondered whose bright idea it was to have evening services. Thanks for the history on it. I’ve never liked them. I’m hoping the 2 PM service on Sundays sticks for us!

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