How many times and when to meet?
The traditions which influenced the Sunday meeting times of our churches.
(Is it necessary to have a Sunday evening worship service?)

The timing and frequency of church services in North America, indeed as with elsewhere, is largely a product of cultural influences. They become traditions established by common practice and long term acceptance. The problem arises when future generations no longer know the reasoning and motivation for the accepted routine. Aversion to change, combined with a comfort derived from pleasant memories of past practice, motivates enforcing the status quo on subsequent generations, often religiously so. While the established tradition may have had good reasoning behind it, at one time, it becomes wrong when church leadership begins to use it as test of orthodoxy. For example, in many churches, to propose that the only church service on Sunday be held at 3 pm in the afternoon is tantamount to heresy. Every church has to meet on Sunday morning becomes their claim. While changing somewhat in recent years, similar sentiments fell on anyone suggesting that an evening service was unnecessary, believing that a morning one would suffice. Likewise, try suggesting that the morning service be extended in duration, or perhaps that a Sunday School would be unnecessary, and a person often quickly incurs wrath and questioning disbelief over challenging cherished traditional practices.

Certainly the elders of a church have the right to establish a time and place for corporate worship - to ensure that all things are done orderly (i.e. 1 Corinthians 14:40; Colossians 2:5). Likewise they can establish as many times as they wish. What they cannot do is belittle or condemn anyone for contrary practice. If another church chooses a different time or place (i.e. 2:30 pm in a movie theater) it must be recognized that they have this freedom. Also, if a church chooses to have multiple gathering times, the individual who attends only one meeting is no less, or more, spiritual than anyone who attends all. The more spiritual individual may have missed church altogether that Sunday, perhaps because they had a neighbor in need of help. The only admonition of Scriptures is that we don't forsake assembling ourselves together with other believers. While this doesn't make it wrong to skip a church gathering, it does tell us that the norm will never be skipping gatherings for weeks on end. The church used the first day of the week (i.e. Acts 20:7), in honor of Jesus' resurrection, as its common practice for a weekly meeting. To go beyond the general requirement of gathering together, typically weekly, is to establish a new law - by definition legalism.

Hebrews 10:25 Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another - and all the more as you see the Day approaching. (NIV)

A historical reference regarding the early church, featuring observations of a well connected non-Christian, is sometimes cited as evidence that the early church had two services on Sundays.

They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food – but ordinary and innocent food. (from "Pliny the Younger's Letter to Trajan", written circa 112 A.D.)

In those early days of the church it is highly likely that such a format was quite typical. The early morning gathering on the first day of the week was specifically to remember and worship our risen Lord. Why then did they meet again in the evening? There was a good and specific reason: Sunday was not a day of rest, a Christian Sabbath as it has been made into being, by some, in the centuries which have followed. These ancient believers still had to work, whether free but especially if a slave, both in the Jewish and Roman worlds. Only when the business of the day was done could they resume their fellowship. This later gathering focused on coming together to eat and may have included the Lord's Supper. This became a practical way of having worship and fellowship each week.

For the record, where did our modern church meeting-time traditions come from? The agrarian and farm oriented nature of society, across North America, during the 18th and 19th centuries, came with time pressures for daily chores. Travel by horse and buggy, or perhaps walking, also took longer. The result was a Sunday morning church service that started about 11 am (and occasionally as early as 10 am), the earliest practical time to allow everyone to get there.

Some Protestant denominations have a relatively long-standing tradition of having two services on Sunday. The emphasis of the Protestant Reformation on preaching, enabling people to hear the word of God, led to some churches having multiple gatherings on Sundays. Again, this was often with specific purpose.

The Puritans held two Sunday meetings, typically making them mandatory. Holding to an austere view of what little could actually be done on "the Sabbath", forbidding recreations and entertainments, it served as a way of insuring that people only focused on God's word for the day. They appear to have used the afternoon service for more topical preaching, dealing with issues of the day. In the 1600's their second service was typically in the afternoon while it was still light out. Many other non-Puritan churches in the same time-frame typically did not have a second service and allowed recreations and entertainments for their day of rest. Puritan writings disparaging the laxity of these other churches are a primary source for knowing of their practices.

Calvin typically preached twice each Sunday (not to mention at a mid-week meeting). Following suit, Reformed Churches have a long time tradition of two Sunday services, with records showing that the first was considered the worship service, with regular preaching, and the second with an emphasis on teaching the catechism. The second service appears to have been an afternoon service for many centuries. Records show that North American Presbyterian churches were still holding two services in the late 1800's and early 1900's, though they had moved the second service to being an evening service. Many churches appear to have abandoned the catechetical nature of the second service in more recent times.

In the late 1800's and early 1900's, some Dutch Reform Churches (at least in Canada) went from holding two Dutch services, to having a third between them with the extra one being in English. Some attended two or three of these.

A second, afternoon service, could be found within records of the Church of England dating to the 1600's.

A Danish Lutheran Church in Maine, in the 1800's, went from having only afternoon services, to having a morning and evening, with the evening service alternating what language it was conducted in. Another Lutheran church in Indiana, during the same time-frame, was holding morning and afternoon services.

Simply put, post Reformation, there has been widespread variances in churches holding more than one Sunday service, almost as varied as the reason's for them.

Church was often one of the greater social times of the week as well. In some areas, particularly the southern USA, church-wide lunches would follow, with social activities extending well into the late afternoon, or perhaps early evening in summer months. Sometimes the afternoon social time was extended to include dinner on the grounds, followed by another time of prayer, singing or worship - as such, an evening service. In those days, rural churches did not necessarily meet every Sunday either, being dependant on the availability of a preacher or quite often affected by inclement weather. Some areas had circuit pastors who would alternate between 2 or 3 church venues, a different one each week.

Some evening services did not arise until the advent of gas lamps, which readily allowed lighting of night meetings. Even those who had traditionally had a second, afternoon, service found it easy to move that service into the evening due to this innovation. The trend began primarily in cities, first in England (late 1700's), then spreading to America (early 1800's).

With the gas lamp it became easy for businesses and entertainments to be open in the evening, certainly a draw for people on a leisurely Sunday evening. For some evangelical and independent churches, the evening service's chief purpose was to provide a beneficial alternative to these other secular Sunday evening activities. Many considered it a prime opportunity for evangelism. While it cannot be determined with any certainty, some of the churches who moved their longstanding afternoon gatherings into the evening may have also been trying to counter the trend toward secular evening activities. By the late 19th century, still primarily in cities, the focus of these evening meetings was sometimes narrowed to young people in particular. For example, the Bible studies and discipleship training of some these meetings grew into the Baptist Young People's Union (subsequently the Training Union and Baptist Student Union).

Widespread use of electricity, especially combined with the automobile as an easier and faster form of transportation, provided the catalyst for bringing the evening service to most rural churches. In fact, some isolated circuit pastors now started holding a morning service in one church and then an evening service in another. Evening meetings, in rural settings, tended to be for the whole church, without the evangelism or the youth emphasis sometimes found in metropolitan areas. As such they echoed another unspoken aspect of the popularity of these services, regardless of where they were held, namely their alternative social aspects. Prior to our era of modern media, commuting, day cares, children's programs, dual income parents, etc., families tended to have a lot more "together" time. An excuse to have social interaction outside of the common daily circle was another compelling motive for an extra church service.

A survey of historical references and news reports, in quick summary, show the following trend for second services: the number of references to the churches holding them increased from occasional references in the 1700s and earlier, to a steady increase through the 1800s, peaking in the 1930s and 40s, with a gradual decline into the 1980s. Second services after the 1980s are more likely to be a second morning service than one in the afternoon or evening.

In summary, the purposes for which the evening or afternoon service appear to have developed include:

  1. Catechetical Instruction

  2. Evangelism
  3. Alternative Christian Activity
  4. Youth Discipleship
  5. Availability of a preacher
  6. Social Interaction
  7. Alternate Language Service

All these are good reasons, but not necessarily valid reasons for today. For example: Today's family usually has little "together" time, or for that matter "down" time. Many lives have become programmed and stressed. Interaction with those outside of the family is often the greatest portion of the week. In today's culture, the need to have a set-apart time for your husband, or wife, or family, to merely stop and rest, is a greater need than the desire for outside social interaction of yesteryear. Not only does this impact point 6 in the purposes list, it also directly affects point 3 and indirectly point 2. One reason some evening services were started or focused, as an alternative Christian activity, held that people were searching for an external social gathering, one that they would find in a secular setting if the church had no alternative. Evangelism merely built on this foundation. If you are going to evangelize, you do so where the people are. Their evening service was made for evangelism not the other way around. If the people aren't coming, it's time to take the evangelism again to where the people are.

If your church has a second service for catechetical instruction, and you actually have people coming, then it's a great idea. If people are looking for more family time on their day of rest though, perhaps moving that instruction to a weeknight may be more beneficial. There is no command in Scriptures that it has to be on Sunday.

By this century, circuit pastors have become virtually extinct in America. Most rural churches usually have their own pastor, occasionally bi-vocational, but more often full time. Many others have more than one. The greatest question regarding an evening service is where the efforts of these pastor-teachers are best spent. If the evening service is only being maintained due to tradition, that's not wise use of time and effort. For example, point 4 in the list, youth discipleship is still one of the valid reasons for have an evening meeting on Sunday. Youth still want to get out of the house and certainly need discipleship. Sunday evening has remained a good time for this, something that many youth pastors have capitalized on. While not a traditional evening service, it is closer to one of the prior reasons for such gatherings, and it certainly is a wise use of time.

Ephesians 5:15-16 Therefore be careful how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, making the most of your time, because the days are evil. (NASU)

I believe that the church should gather for more than a mere hour each week, though admittedly there is no command saying so in Scriptures. (There are examples of the church doing so though. See Acts 20:9). Adding, or keeping, an evening service was one way that the church tried to increase the amount of teaching time. Even the addition of Sunday School was an attempt to increase this (another modern sacred cow for many). Perhaps, considering commute times and the like, it would be more efficient use of time to merely increase the amount of time allocated for the morning (or primary, regardless of when held,) service. Alternatively, if a church is so blessed with a number of people capable of teaching, small group meetings (perhaps in homes) is certainly another way to augment what is being taught. It's important to remember that the elders of the church are responsible for maintaining doctrinal purity for all meetings of the church, something that is harder to do when the small group format is adopted, unless an elder attends each meeting. The same should be said for those continuing an evening service. It's easy for the decision makers in the church to decide to have an evening service, no matter how unattended, and then leave it to the pastor to make sure it happens. If it's a formal meeting of the church, it is the responsibility of the elders to be there too.

Sunday evening is an opportunity, one that can be used for discipleship, preaching, fellowship, a focus on youth, or even strengthening the family through time together at home. One choice is not, by default, more spiritual than another. For that matter, if your church has an opportunity for outreach, or to help someone, on a Sunday morning, the church should consider doing so. Perhaps that would be a great opportunity to have an evening service, as the only worship gathering that day. Make the most of every opportunity!

(c) 20072009 Brent MacDonald/LTM. Duplication is permitted as long as the source is cited.