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Whatever Happened to Evening Services?

The evening service may well be going the way of the dinosaur. What was once a staple of Christian worship, at least in some traditions, is increasingly being relegated to the past. Or so it would seem. I, for one, consider it a significant loss.

I grew up with an evening service—or an afternoon service, I guess. I spent a good bit of my childhood in the Dutch Reformed tradition which was wholly committed to a second service. Those Christians were very practical, so they worked around farmers’ schedules by having the second service at 3:30 or 4:00 in the afternoon. Regardless, there were always two services and very nearly every person in the church attended both. The first was dedicated to preaching God’s Word and the second to teaching through the catechisms and confessions. In my life, an evening service was as natural as breathing.

Not too long ago I wrote about Why I Love an Evening Service and said, “Of all the casualties the church has suffered in recent decades, I wonder if many will have longer-lasting consequences than the loss of the evening service.” While I shared why I love an evening service, I did not suggest why the evening service has fallen out of favor. Recently Thom Rainer speculated on it and offered six interesting ideas:

  • 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.

Each of those is intriguing in its own way and I suspect each of them, or a combination of them, is true in many churches. Rainer invited feedback, so I am going to suggest a few other ideas. I believe evening services may also have declined because of:

  • A diminished view of preaching. More than anything else, an evening service provides a second opportunity to sit under the preaching of the Word. When preaching goes into decline, and when people demand and expect more of a service than preaching, it stands to reason that the evening service will no longer prove a significant draw. Not only that, but a pastor is far less likely to dedicate himself to preparing a second sermon when preaching has fallen out of favor. Where the pastor’s job description used to have preaching at the very top of the list, today preaching tends to be just one of many important tasks that consume his time and energy.
  • The growth of amateur and professional sports. Sports dominate life in North America. Amateur sports have migrated to Sunday (a relatively new development) while professional sports are a Sunday afternoon and Sunday evening staple for many families. I sometimes wonder if Superbowl parties held at churches marked the beginning of the end, proving the ascendency of sport and the decline of church. Either way, unless you determine that you will not allow sports to interfere with church, sports will likely win at some point.
  • A diminished view of Sunday. Blue laws have been rescinded, and this is important, I’m sure. But I think we can dig a little deeper. There was a time in both Canada and America where Christian influence pushed a form of Sabbatarianism into the wider culture. Even though few people were convicted by Scripture, there was enough Christian influence to carry the day. As a result, sports, leagues, activities, and other entertainments tended to be held six days per week rather than seven. As Christian influence has waned, many of these activities have pushed their way into Sunday. Just about every league, every activity, every hobby, now has a Sunday component.
  • A diminished Reformed influence. While the number of Evangelicals may be increasing, the number of traditionally Reformed Evangelicals (by which I especially mean those forms that hold to a form of Sabbatarianism) has declined. The greater your commitment to a Christian Sabbath, the greater the likelihood that you will advocate an evening service as a means of redeeming the entire day. As Evangelicals have become less convinced about the Sabbath, many have become less convinced about making all of Sunday the Lord’s Day.
  • An amusement culture. Our culture is increasingly driven by a desire for entertainment. Evening services are not fun and, therefore, cannot compete with the growing entertainment options. If we measure what we do by entertainment value, an evening service will rarely win.

I want to add one more factor, separate from the others. I have seen that a lot of churches make their evening services drab. Coming to church a second time in a day is a significant commitment, and especially so for families with young children. The commitment only feels heightened when most other Christians have already stopped attending on Sunday evenings. While we should not measure our services by their entertainment value, there are things we can do to make those evening services interesting and applicable. A good evening service is a delight; a boring evening service is a chore. Many churches have undoubtedly had their evening service disappear because it did not receive enough love and care to keep it vibrant.

Is there anything you would add? What is your sense about the decline and the future of the evening service?