Whatever Happened to Sunday Evening Services?

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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  • Our Sunday evening services are doing well. We have about 50 percent (about 140) of our Sunday morning crowd (about 280 to 300). Our church service begins at 6PM and is completed, for the most part by 7PM. Our Senior Pastor preaches the Sunday morning services and Associate Pastor preaches the Sunday evening services. Our choir sings on Sunday nights along with our children’s choir once as month. Our crowd is a mixture of seniors and younger folks.

  • Michael Seabaugh says on

    The lack of focus and strategy is what kills Sunday night. I was brought up with the teaching that Sunday night was not an echo of Sunday morning. It was the discipleship time of the church body, followed by the fellowship time of the church. We have turned that around and found success. We offer a free family meal on Sunday nights followed by our discipleship time. During the summer we don’t do the full program but offer stand alone fellowships and services relevant to the community. Sunday nights are about making disciples at our church, making friends is a big part of that process.

    • Michael, I would like more specific information on what your church is doing, please. I am a pastor (all by myself) of a church of around 100 and we struggle to get 20 or 30 in the evenings. Our evenings are much the same as our mornings and people are just tired. I’ve thought about a meal and group studies or something. I know we need to change, but I don’t know what to do and I’m looking for ideas.

  • Reginald Gabel says on

    And He said unto them, The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath… Mark 2:27

    I believe too many focus on the fact that “we must” have service at night or we are not good Christians. In every church I have served in I had families that came only for the a.m. service that were strong and more active believers than many of those that came for both services on Sunday and the Wednesday services. When we would have mission events in the community, outreach events most of our volunteers were from the group that came only for the a.m. Sunday service. Many of those who came for all the services told me that couldn’t. I have seen so many that come because they want to see their friends. I see this even more with the older senior adults. I have heard so often, “I don’t have anything else to do”… “I want to see my friends”… and “I have to come, that is what God would want”…
    So many of the churches have pushed the idea “we are made for the church”… If we would focus on what the needs are of our members, our community, our church and build from that I believe that we would find the answer. I truly believe each church needs will be different and depends on location, travel time, needs of members and ministry opportunities. We are a small church and room 60 in worship on Sunday morning and on Sunday nights we average 30. Mostly at this time adults and teenagers. I do a discipleship style study and are planning more family events during the summer which will allow more opportunities to invite neighbors and friends for a cook-out style event. Activities that the entire family can be apart of. My pray is that we ask “why” are we doing it… is it to grow the kingdom or is it just to check the box that we went to church on Sunday night?

  • We average about 340 in two morning worship services, but only about 30-40 attend the Sunday evening worship service, and most of those are at least over 60 years of age. Since we are not able to support two nights of youth and children’s programming (we have an active AWANA program on Wednesday night and student ministry on Wednesday night), we do not have children’s programming on Sunday night. This may affect attendance, but in my experience, the younger families are not coming back on Sunday night no matter what we do.

    I admit, the sermon is not as well developed as the Sunday morning sermon. There is only so much time to go around, and with teaching three other times during the week in addition to Sunday morning, there is just not much to give to these secondary sermons.

    Most likely, our attendance will simply decline and decline until this generation is called home to the Lord. I see no interest in those who are under 60 in attending an evening service on Sunday nights.


  • As a leader of a recent church plant in an openly anti-Christian college town, our team noticed how active our neighbors were during the late Sunday morning hours – a time when most of us are in our church buildings, worshipping. We also noted the active nature of most Montanans – often engaged in weekend activities such as hiking trips, fishing, boating at the lake, etc – and how sacred the weekend appears to be to the UnChristian. As such, we opted to have our worship gathering take place on Sunday evenings, at 6pm. This would provide a unique opportunity to engage the culture, and would also respect the active “weekender” by creating a space for worship at the end of the weekend.

    The results have been amazing. Our newest converts often comment about how they love sleeping in on Sundays, and some have mentioned that our evening service provides the perfect jump-start to the work week. Also, we have at least nine other denominations represented by those who attend other church services, but who long for the evening service as well.

    I would challenge all churches with this philosophy: If the paradigm is not working – why insist on making it work? In many ways, the two-service model is failing. It doesn’t mean the original structure or intent was faulty – just that, as Rainer states, the past 10 years have seen dramatic change.

    God bless all of you in your work!

  • This is a good history on the advent of Sunday evening services:


  • Steve H says on

    I tried to read all the comments but found the task a bit difficult. I don’t want to come off as hostile here but have any of you considered that the Evening Service may be gone because the people in these churches are uncommitted and weak in their love for the Lord?

    Seriously folks…our church is full of young children…we would have a riot if we cancelled the Evening Service. At our church attendance for the evening service runs about 90% of the morning.

    • Mark Newberry says on

      90% of morning worship is pretty incredible, but it makes me think…. perhaps what is going on in your morning worship is that the Word is not being watered down, the truth is being preached without regard to people’s preferences and tastes, but for what it is – tough love that requires responsibility on the part of the believer – and in the process it weeds out weak and fragile Christians and you are left with a fervent, strong body of believers?… and that leads to a committed bunch of folk that is eager to return for Sunday night?

  • Andy Chance says on

    I pastor a new church (about 2 years old). We attempted an evening service dedicated to a short sermon and prayer. I would have wanted to continue it, but both pastors are bivocational, and we were exhausted. So we scaled back. We still meet monthly on Sunday evening for prayer.

  • G. Engstrom says on

    Our church has life groups on the first three Sunday evenings and church services on the fourth (and fifth when there is a fifth). Life groups meet in members homes.

  • Dr. R. Scott Clark has done some interesting research into the decline of the Sunday evening service that can be found in his book Recovering the Reformed Confession: Our Theology, Piety, and Practice. One of the more interesting aspects of his research is the reality that the evening service has always struggled. One of the issues that faced the Synod of Dordt was the low attendance at the second service, which was typically when the Heidelberg Catechism was explained; the Synod’s solution: “The reformed churches shall hold a second service, even if it only be the minister and his family who are present.”

    As far as my own church is concerned, our congregation has a very well attended evening service; my best estimate is that 85% or more return. Part of the reason for this is the strong emphasis within both our church and denomination (the Orthodox Presbyterian Church) that “the sabbath is to be sanctified by a holy resting all that day, even from such worldly employments and recreations as are lawful on other days; and spending the whole time in the public and private exercises of God’s worship, except so much as is to be taken up in the works of necessity and mercy” (Westminster Shorter Catechism 60). Another reason for the high attendance is that we are a church that recognizes the importance of being present for the public means of grace.

    My own suspicion is that the decline of the evening service has a significant cultural component: namely, our culture no longer honors the preaching of the Word, and this has crept into our churches.

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