Friday, May 16, 2014

Sunday Nite Church Twice as Nice?

Have you ever been to a Sunday evening church service?

And if so, how long ago was the last time you went?

Here in Dallas, the Presbyterian Church in America has launched a new church that actually has its only corporate worship service of the week on Sunday nights.  That's because it's the best time they could get for the facility they're renting.  And because doing so creates a bit of a unique schedule, which might attract people who think church on Sunday mornings is boring.  And inconvenient, perhaps.

Tim Keller's Redeemer Church congregations in New York meet at various times across the city, including Sunday evenings, but again, that schedule is more a matter of facility availability - and Keller's personal availability - than anything else.  None of the Redeemer congregations have two corporate worship services on Sundays.

Indeed, apart from these two anomalies, and others that likely exist in a very small measure across North America, Sunday night church has pretty much disappeared from evangelicalism.  The last regularly-scheduled Sunday evening services I attended were at my beloved Calvary Baptist, in New York City, and from a quick check of their website, I see they still have them.  Only now, instead of "Sunday Evening Worship," they actually go by the name "Sanctuary," since, I guess, they're held in the church's sanctuary, and it sounds more urbane.

From what I can tell, Calvary is the extreme exception, having both morning and evening services.  But then, in my estimation, Calvary has always been exceptional!

Pantego Bible Church, where I used to work here in Texas, used to have one Sunday night worship service every month - lots of music, not much preaching - but that was almost twenty years ago.  The last bastion of Sunday night services that I know of among Arlington's larger churches was First Baptist, and they ended theirs a few years ago.

As a kid, always going to church with my family, Sunday evening services were just part of our weekends.  I didn't particularly like going, but I didn't hate going, either.  It was simply what my family did on Sundays.  It's what Christians seemed to do in churches all over the country.  Attendance was never as high as it was on Sunday mornings, but if you considered yourself religious, and you didn't have a really good excuse, you got yourself to church two different times every Sunday:  Morning, and evening.

But that was long ago and far away, wasn't it?

Christian blogger and pastor Tim Challies has mused online about the various factors contributing to the declining popularity - and eventually, the end - of Sunday night church services, and a couple of his observations seem particularly pertinent.  One is the rise of amateur and professional sports in the North American consciousness, and an abandonment of the concept of Sabbath rest, the now-provincial notion of setting Sundays aside to concentrate on one's spiritual development, not just personal fun.

Regular readers of mine know that I've never been interested in sports, but my brother has, and even though he was on a soccer team in his youth, he never had games or practices on Sundays.  Apparently, however, kids in sports today have no choice but to practice and compete on both Saturdays and Sundays.  I'm aware of many families that have simply given up trying to advocate for worship time on Sundays - they can barely get a Sunday morning service into their sports schedules, let alone a Sunday night service.  And professional sports?  Fugheddaboudit!  Once ESPN goes on after Sunday lunch, the day's new religion takes over until bedtime.

Regular readers of mine also probably know my views regarding Sundays and Sabbath rest, but to recap, suffice it to say that if mowing your lawn is your idea of rest and relaxation, and an ideal way to spend Sunday afternoons, you seriously need a real vacation.  Or you need to worry less about what your neighbors think about your lawn.

Challies also lists things like a decline in our respect for, and interest in, the preached Word, and how entertainment-driven our culture has become, which both comprise part of the same problem.  Sitting and listening to somebody drone on about the Gospel isn't an attractive activity for many people, not only because we like action and mirth, but because our society is less pretentious in everything it does these days, including church.  Time was, going to church was as much a social activity as a faith-building one.  Then too, back then, people wore suits to ballgames and while flying on airplanes.  Meanwhile, when was the last time you saw anybody wearing a suit on an airplane, let alone in your church worship services?

And speaking of airplanes, I suspect another key reason for the abandonment of Sunday night church stems from the workweek slowly bleeding into the weekend.  In my current church, attended by a lot of corporate professionals, Sunday evenings are travel times, when churchgoers head out to the airport to fly to wherever they need to be for an 8:00 meeting on Monday morning.  Then there are all the people who work on Sundays now, instead of having it as a day off.  Realtors, call center employees, healthcare staff, retailers, and even office workers with particularly demanding employers all consider Sundays a normal workday.  Have you noticed how many corporate announcements are now being made on both Saturdays and Sundays?  After Sunday evening church, the traditional Monday-through-Friday workweek has been the next to fall.

For his part, Challies laments the loss of Sunday night services, but how much of that is because he's a pastor?  Don't professional Christians have a different view of these topics than people like you and me?  While I attended Sunday evening church services as long as I had them in the churches I've attended, and while I admit to having missed them - at first, when they ended - I can't say I'd welcome them back with open arms.  As I've gotten older, and more cynical, I'm finding it harder and harder to defend the preached Word from preachers whose theology I've found I need to constantly monitor.  Sitting through some sermons can be tiring, and discouraging!  Just this week, a group of us from my church's choir was asked to sing at somebody's funeral at another church, pastored by somebody who used to be on staff at ours.  And during his funeral homily, this pastor, who I like and respect, said that Christ was curious about what being mortal is like, and that's one of the reasons He came to Earth.

It was like somebody had hit me in the gut.  "Where'd he come up with THAT?" I muttered to myself.  After the service, I politely asked him about it, and he admitted that he was wrong, and that Christ could not possibly have been curious, because curiosity involves a lack of knowledge.

But then, I'm not a normal person.  What do I know about how average churchgoers would react to being asked about attending Sunday night services again?  Actually, I have an idea that most would not favor such a return to the past, since most evangelicals have firmly deleted Sunday night church from their consciousness, their schedules, and their lists of pleasures and pursuits.  Besides, there are other ways of hearing Scripture preached, they'd say, like the Internet, which wasn't around when most churches met twice on Sundays.

Obviously, such a mindset points to an ambivalence about corporate worship itself, and the necessity of Christ followers meeting together in prayer, singing, instruction, and fellowship.  And on this point, I'm probably in agreement with those evangelicals who think they see about as much as they want to see of their fellow churchgoers on Sunday mornings.  Maybe I'm wrong, and maybe I'm not doing it right myself, but I don't get much of any "fellowship vibe" out of Sunday mornings at my church, so why would more time together make any difference?  Besides, I drive 40 minutes one-way to church; I don't really want to do that twice a day with any regularity.  My faith in Christ is the center of my life.  Church attendance?  Um, not so much.

As Challies may see it, I could be part of the problem about why churches don't seem eager to return to the two-service-a-Sunday tradition.

Meanwhile, for once in my life, I think I'm in the majority on something.  Wouldn't it be too ironic if all of us were wrong on this one?

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