The following is from the Sept. 21, 2007, edition of The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. SMU Professor William J. Bryan, Director of the Intern Program and Professional Formation at Perkins School of Theology, was a source for this story.
BY CHRISTIE STORM
Sunday night worship services have been a tradition at First Baptist Church in Siloam Springs for as long as anyone could remember. But, attendance had fallen abysmally low.
Sunday morning services were drawing more than 450 worshippers, while only a fraction returned for evening worship.
“If we had 50 people that was a big crowd,” said the Rev. Steve Abbott.
So, this spring, the church stopped offering Sunday night worship services. It’s a decision other churches are making throughout the country.
The Rev. W.J. Bryan III of Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology said the decline in Sunday evening worship services is due in part to less emphasis in American society on keeping the Sabbath.
For many, Bryan said, Sunday is no longer a mandatory day of worship. It’s an optional hour of worship — if it doesn’t conflict with a trip to the lake or soccer practice.
Busy lifestyles and dual-income households have also contributed to low attendance on Sunday evenings as families struggle to find time to spend with one another.
“It’s difficult to recruit people to things that go on forever now,” said Bryan, the Dallas seminary’s director of professional formation. “Sunday night, for those who enjoyed it, went on forever. Until the Lord called them home they’d be there on Sunday night. People don’t make that kind of commitment anymore.”
Bryan said that’s a message churches are beginning to heed.
Many mainline Protestant churches, including United Methodists and Presbyterians, stopped offering Sunday evening worship services decades ago.
But now, evangelical churches are dropping the service, too.
Southern Baptists and even Pentecostals are now abandoning Sunday night worship in some towns.
At First Baptist Church in Siloam Springs, church leaders tried various ways to increase participation, from offering children’s programs to focusing on discipleship and growth, but nothing worked. Finally, Abbott said, they decided to try something new. Instead of scheduling Sunday night for a sparsely attended worship service, church members could use that time to reach out to the community.
“We decided to turn it around and go out rather than come in,” Abbott said.
Now, small groups select one Sunday a month and spend time visiting newcomers, writing letters or cards to visitors or absent friends and checking on fellow members in need.
Sometimes short-term Bible studies or classes are offered, but a regular Sunday night worship service is a thing of the past. Abbott said some of the older members miss the evening service, but he believes the new program is working well.
“I feel very good about it because I see the time is being much more effectively used in reaching out and making contacts with people who visit our church, rather than just one more meeting,” Abbott said.
In some ways, the church’s Wednesday evening program is the new Sunday night. Where Sunday night drew small crowds, the Wednesday program draws hundreds, including more than 200 children. It’s a trend other churches are also following. Many offer a meal that gives families a night off from cooking and time to dine together. After the meal a variety of programs and classes are offered for all ages, and for First Baptist Church it’s working.
“It used to be churches had Sunday morning, Sunday evening and Wednesday worship, but if people are only going to give us so much time what do we want to emphasize? We’ve chosen Wednesday over Sunday night,” Abbott said.
The Assemblies of God reports a 12 percent decrease in Sunday evening attendance from 2004 to 2006. Some of the decline was caused by churches canceling the service altogether.
Bella Vista Assembly of God, however, is holding on to its Sunday evening worship service. It’s a part of the Pentecostal tradition and one that the Rev. Jonathan Watson believes is important.
“It still has use for us and is fairly well attended,” he said.
Sunday morning worshippers total about 300, while the evening service attracts an average of 150.
Watson said not everyone sees the need for worshipping twice on Sunday, and younger families with both spouses working see Sunday evening as time to reconnect with one another.
“In many cases to come to church three or four services a week would be a little much to ask or be counterproductive for family life,” Watson said. “They need time to be together.”
Watson attributes the decline in Sunday evening worship services to a change in the culture, but also realizes some worshippers do want a second service on Sunday.
“It’s a part of their Christian experience and if the church can provide it they should, even if only 40 [percent] or 50 percent attend,” Watson said. “For us, 50 percent of our morning attendees like to come back for another spiritual experience.”
Bryan, of Perkins School of Theology, said that despite the demise of Sunday evening worship services in many denominations, the spirit of those services can be found elsewhere in the church. Bryan said hallmarks of Sunday evening worship included small group warmth, as well as the style of singing and preaching and the altar call. Many of the same elements are now seen in contemporary worship services and in small group meetings.
“The grandchildren of Sunday night worship are alive and well,” Bryan said. “I see the blessings of Sunday night re-emerging in worship that happens at other times and also in small group life in our churches.”
As for United Methodist churches, Bryan said some are offering short-term programs on Sunday night — opportunities to come together and grapple with the word of God in the smallgroup spirit of Sunday evening services.
Evening though Sunday night services are generally poorly attended, it can cause an uproar when they are canceled.
“For some of our senior members it’s beyond comprehension to not show up at the building [on Sunday evenings],” said Windsong Church of Christ minister Bobby Boaldin.
The North Little Rock congregation has jettisoned its traditional Sunday night service, but offers small group ministry instead.
Seven groups are scattered around the greater Little Rock area. Despite meeting in different locations the groups study the same material.
One group meets at the church. It’s a way for members to hold on to the Sunday evening tradition.
# # #