Alas, few churches heeded the exhortation Paul H. Alexander wrote a number of decades ago. If God graciously grants reformation and revival, will we see a revival of strong support of the Sunday evening service?
One of the small pleasures of my early childhood was playing with other children outside the church after Sunday evening worship. For a half hour or more, the adults seemed to forget their parental responsibilities and we ran wild and free in the soft summer air of a Kansas evening. While our parents pursued more mature interests, we captured lightning bugs, played tag, or chased girls with toads we had caught. It was one of the high points of the week. Life without Sunday evening worship would have been a drag!
Fewer and fewer children would think so today. Sunday evening worship is not a part of their lives because an increasing number of churches are not including it in their schedules. Sunday evening worship seems to be on the endangered species list, and there is a lot more at stake than a child’s game of tag. Sunday evening worship can meet important needs in the lives of God’s people.
True, Sunday evening worship is nowhere specifically prescribed by Scripture – but then, neither is Sunday morning worship. Both services are established at the discretion and on the authority of the elders of the church on the basis of such texts as Hebrews 10:25–26 and 13:17. The historic fact is that the practice of worshiping twice on Sunday is a firmly established tradition in evangelical and Reformed churches. What has changed that would warrant a departure from the wisdom of our godly forefathers, who established and maintained this practice for so many centuries?
Below are four reasons which, I hope, may persuade us to keep this tradition alive, or revive it, as the case may require.
- The Importance of Frequent Public Preaching
The need for the frequent preaching and teaching of God’s Word is the primary reason for maintaining both morning and evening worship services. The apostle Paul urges Timothy: “Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage – with great patience and careful instruction” (2 Tim. 4:2). In this concluding and climactic challenge of his apostolic ministry, Paul is following the example of Moses and all the prophets of the Old Testament, as well as that of our Lord Jesus Christ and his apostles. These great servants of God were pre-eminently preachers and teachers of God’s Word. Preaching was the key tool they used to advance the kingdom, and they were at it incessantly.
Since the Reformation of the sixteenth century, Reformed churches have led the way in emphasizing the necessity for the frequent public preaching of God’s Word. John Calvin exemplified this principle in his own practice of preaching nearly every day of the week, as well as on Sunday. First in Britain and then in the American colonies, our Puritan forefathers followed Calvin’s example by preaching twice nearly every Sunday and often at a weeknight service called “the lecture.” This pattern has characterized Reformed churches (and other evangelicals as well) until very recent times.
The preaching of God’s Word, therefore, in both morning and evening worship services on the Lord’s Day, has been regarded as an important application of this “frequent preaching” principle, crucial to the life of the church. Granted, this principle might be fulfilled at other times than Sunday evening, but experience has shown this to be the time that best suits most Christians. This practice has been regarded as axiomatic for Bible-believing churches and went almost unchallenged for nearly four centuries.
Not so today! “Church growth” experts are advising us that the evening service (and frequent preaching in general) is excess baggage, inhibiting evangelism and getting in the way of “small group” ministries now deemed more important than preaching. We are being advised that “the culture has changed,” that evening worship no longer meets the “felt needs” of our contemporaries, and that we need a great variety of programs to meet the needs of every age and interest in our world. If we do not change with the culture, it seems, we will be consigned to the trash heap of irrelevance, or, what may be even worse, to smallness, a fate worse than death to the “church growth” mind.
We should be asking if this is really the time to reduce our own efforts at preaching, the means God has ordained and blessed for communicating his Word. Our times have been called “the information age” because of the rapid growth of data in every field of knowledge. The mass media are propagandizing us intensively with amoral as well as immoral messages that are quite obviously impacting our church people as well as the world. Add to this the vast bulk of distracting trivia that the media peddle as important, and we have a seriously confused populace. To reduce our preaching either in quality or in quantity at this point in history appears to be a concession to the worst side of modernity. It is a dangerous experiment. The tried and true method of frequent preaching is being cast to one side for the sake of an unproven methodology – right when there is the most crying need for the preaching of God’s Word.
Writing in 1971, Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones spoke clearly to this issue when he said, “The most urgent need in the Christian church today is true preaching; and as it is the greatest and most urgent need in the church, it is obviously the greatest need of the world also.” A bit later in the same book, he said, “What is it that always heralds the dawn of a Reformation or of a Revival? It is renewed preaching. Not only a new interest in preaching but a new kind of preaching. A revival of true preaching has always heralded these great movements in the history of the church” (Preaching and Preachers, 1971, pp. 9, 24–25). This is the kind of guidance we need today.
- Greater Breadth in Our Preaching/Teaching Ministry
Sunday evening worship provides an appropriate opportunity for pastors to present a broader scope of teaching and preaching than is possible in the Sunday morning worship service. The Sunday morning worship service has long been regarded as the time for a quite formal sermonic style. Given the majesty and holiness of God, and the awesome significance of the gospel, this is most appropriate. God deserves a worship characterized by deep reverence and high dignity, and the gospel is the most weighty issue before mankind.
Without departing from due reverence, it is also appropriate to employ a somewhat more informal style in the preaching and teaching of God’s Word on such occasions as the evening service. Here the pastor may adopt a more conversational approach, such as our Saviour employed on occasion in teaching his disciples. An evening service may have somewhat the atmosphere of an adult Sunday school class, using a variety of teaching aids such as an overhead projector and even questions and answers from the congregation.
This also has roots in Puritan practice. Our colonial fathers often used the “lecture” method as their Sunday afternoon or evening style of preaching. This meant that they would address topics of timely and practical interest that might not seem appropriate to the Sunday morning worship.
Whether or not a more informal or more topical style is used on Sunday evening, the point should be obvious that we need a greater breadth of biblical and theological instruction than can be given within the confines of the Sunday morning sermon. Our Christian colleges and seminaries are reporting that an increasing percentage of young people applying for training lack the basic Bible knowledge that used to characterize applicants. Failure to maintain Sunday evening worship and preaching will only add to the growing ignorance of the Bible and our confessional standards prevalent among too many of our people. To feed God’s flock anything like an adequate diet of preaching and teaching, Sunday evening worship seems to be an absolute necessity. This is one of the things it takes to produce the kind of strong, well-rounded disciples needed to advance the kingdom.
- Keeping the Lord’s Day Holy
Morning and evening worship on Sunday is a valuable means of preserving the biblical observance of the Lord’s Day. Like the morning and evening sacrifice which Israel offered to God, morning and evening worship marks the whole day as holy, setting brackets around it to remind us of its special purpose in God’s plan. While we may differ on the details of Sabbath observance, some being more strict, others more lenient, surely we all agree that God requires us to keep this day holy.
This is my shortest point, but not the least important. The fourth commandment is of equal importance with the other nine. To treat it with contempt or indifference is to treat the whole of God’s law and God himself with contempt and indifference (James 2:10). Those who may not accept the full teaching of the Westminster standards at this point, are, nevertheless, under a compelling biblical mandate to discover and practice what Scripture teaches on the keeping of the Lord’s Day. To decry every other kind of moral decay without recognizing Sabbath desecration as a great evil is to betray our whole cause.
We must keep the Lord’s Day holy. God requires it and we need it. We were created with a need for the Sabbath, and Jesus reminds us of this need in Mark 2:27. Against a culture that seems bent on despising the Lord’s Day and all else that is holy, we need all the help we can get to hold our ground. The history of both ancient Israel (Ezek. 20) and the modern church provides sufficient evidence to convince us that to lose the Sabbath will eventually mean to lose all biblical distinctive and to lose our faith itself. The practice of morning and evening worship is conducive to preserving the sacred meaning of the day and, thus, the sacredness of all of life.
The ordained elders of Christ’s church have been calling his people to worship twice on the Lord’s Day for many centuries. If we will continue to hear that call, he will continue to bless us. This point leads naturally into the next. The preaching of the Word and the keeping of the Sabbath are keys to Christian culture, a whole way of life that blossoms and spreads through the faithful use of these means.
- Maintaining and Propagating Our Christian Culture
There is a quality of spiritual life that develops and thrives around the worship of God twice on the Lord’s Day. Something about being in church with God’s people twice every Sunday has a wonderfully positive effect, producing not only Christian individuals but a whole Christian culture, a community lifestyle distinguished by its caring, Christ-like quality, and a missionary zeal that reaches out to the whole world.
Such a church is modelled for us in Acts 2:42–47. Here is a beautiful example of a “normal” Christian church community. Frequent preaching and teaching of God’s Word is obviously the very heart of this early church, and it was wonderfully productive of that first Christian culture, setting the pattern for healthy, self-propagating church life from that day to this. Churches that develop along these lines can expect God’s blessing for generations to come.
Os Guiness sees the opposite in the modern “church growth” movement – the movement that, more than any other influence, has contributed to the abandonment of Sunday evening worship. Guiness warns that such churches may have “no grandchildren” because “the tools of modernity are successful in one generation but cannot be sustained to the third generation” (No God but God, 1992, p. 157). We should stay with the established pattern. It has proven itself.
Evangelical and Reformed churches of recent history have come in for their share of just criticism. We have been far from perfect. At the same time, we should be reminded that it is those churches, with their “twice every Sunday” pattern of preaching and teaching, that have produced the many positive benefits of the Reformed and evangelical movement. These “twice every Sunday” churches were all we had until about twenty years ago. This older model may not have grown as fast as the new streamlined “once on Sunday” types, but they produced nearly all of our present pastors and denominational leaders, just about every Christian college and seminary professor you or I ever met, and the entire modern missionary movement. This is no small achievement.
Experience also supports this point. Please forgive me for being just a little autobiographical at this point, but thirty-seven years in one pastorate has given me a somewhat unusual perspective. I have been able to watch people in my congregation grow up, get married, raise children, and finish careers – in short, live out large parts of their lives – during that lengthy tenure. My generalizations about my parishioners may seem too narrow a database to satisfy all the demands of contemporary scholarship, and I am sure that I am lacking in total objectivity. At the same time, I am confident of one conclusion: Those who regularly participate in morning and evening worship over a period of years are the most stable and productive Christians. They are, furthermore, the most joyful and effective.
Our present membership is three hundred. Over the years, more than a thousand have come and gone, largely because of the nature of employment in Huntsville. Among those who have come to church twice on Sunday, there is a remarkable record of family stability and spiritual productivity. Of course there have been exceptions, but from these families has flowed a constant stream of children who have grown to maturity honoring the Lord, marrying in Christ, and following the Lord in their vocations. This is what it’s all about.
Another interesting fact is that in all those years there have been only three divorces among those who have been regular in our morning and evening worship. I have been reluctant in the past to tell such a statistic in public for fear the Devil would attack more of our marriages just to embarrass us. Confident that we can trust the Lord to protect our people, I tell it now in order to give praise to the Lord and to the means of grace he has given us to make us strong in him. Participation in Sunday morning and evening worship is a proven means of helping God’s people to be “strong in the Lord and in his mighty power” (Eph. 6:10). It certainly is not the only thing we need, but it is an important source of strength and blessing to those who have used it.
I have written this to encourage church members, officers, and pastors wondering about the present shift away from evening worship. I believe that we are seeing a major paradigm shift away from a tried, tested, and proven means of practicing our faith. Advocates for this change have not provided adequate reasons for us to follow them. Such changes in the past have proven disastrous. We have every reason to keep the course we have been following and to persuade those who might be wavering to return to this established pattern.
J.C. Ryle, a great evangelical leader of the last century, described a leader of the first Great Awakening in terms that should encourage us all in this direction. Ryle said, “The good old apostolical plan of incessant preaching, both publicly and from house to house, was nearly the only machine that he could use. He was forced to be pre-eminently a man of one thing, and a soldier with one weapon, a perpetual preacher of God’s word. Whether in the long run the minister of the last century did not do more good with his one weapon than many do in modern times [late nineteenth century] with an immense train of parochial machinery, is a question which admits of much doubt. My own private opinion is, that we have too much lost sight of the apostolical simplicity in our ministerial work. We want more men of ‘one thing’ and ‘one book,’ men who make everything secondary to preaching the Word. It is hard to have many irons in the fire at once, and keep them all hot. It is quite possible to make an idol of parochial machinery, and for the sake of it to slight the pulpit” (Christian Leaders of the 18th Century, pp. 269–70).
Let’s Keep Our Sunday Evening Worship!
We should reaffirm this practice and continue it. Last Sunday night, as I walked out of church, there were the children – out on the lawn catching lightning bugs, playing tag, and chasing girls with toads. I am praying it will still be that way until the Lord comes back. I am praying that all of you will join me in working to that end.
Mr. Alexander was a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). Reprinted from New Horizons, February 1996.