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Whatever happened to Sunday night?

Some churches have thriving services; others have taken alternative measures

By John W. Kennedy

Not long ago, most Pentecostal families didn’t have to ask what to do on Sunday evenings. Their automatic response? Go to church.

Increasingly that’s not an option, either because adherents have decided to stop attending or congregations no longer hold services.

Some pastors view discontinuing Sunday night meetings as liberation from rigid traditionalism. Others decry it as caving in to creeping secularization.

“Every situation is different,” says L. Alton Garrison, assistant general superintendent of the Assemblies of God. “Every church needs to be creative with what is perceived to be the purpose or activity of Sunday night. How and what is achieved is the issue.”

It’s not just new churches that have decided to eliminate the service. And it’s not just traditional pastors who have determined that keeping Sunday night services is a necessity.

Those on both sides of the spectrum agree on one point: They believe the decision to keep or drop Sunday night is in the best interest of keeping families together.

THE ROLE OF TRADITION

In Pentecostal circles, Garrison notes, Sunday nights historically have been the place to focus on seeking the baptism in the Holy Spirit as well as for protracted times of prayer, repentance and restoration. If those benefits aren’t achieved at other times, Christians miss out, says Garrison, who also is commissioner on discipleship for the AG.

“It’s the only service where there is time for people to enjoy extended worship and the manifestation of the Holy Spirit,” says M. Wayne Blackburn, pastor of Victory Church in Lakeland, Fla., since its founding 19 years ago.

Maury Davis, senior pastor of Cornerstone Church in Madison, Tenn., says the tradition of Sunday night services dates back 150 years to Charles Spurgeon, as not everyone who wanted to hear the British preacher’s sermons could fit into the building on Sunday morning.

Along with most faith groups, the Assemblies of God has seen a decline in Sunday evening attendance. According to AG Statistician Sherri Doty, average U.S. attendance has dropped 34.3 percent in the past decade, to 507,461 from 772,954. In the AG, 4,545 of 12,311 churches don’t report a Sunday night service.

Tradition isn’t necessarily the same as maintaining biblical standards.

“If a church is already on a path to apathy and passivity, having a Sunday night service won’t help,” Garrison says.

Few church planters opt to have Sunday evening meetings, largely because it’s difficult to find rental facilities for both morning and evening gatherings.

FAMILY DIVIDE

It’s hard to find a more conventional AG church than the 61-year-old Calvary Temple in Indianapolis, or a more traditional pastor than Jerry McCamey, 52. Yet last year, McCamey brought an end to Calvary Temple’s Sunday evening services, which had rotated for four years with “life groups” that meet in homes.

It’s not as though McCamey is bowing to cultural pressures. He began life groups at the church 24 years ago, three years after he became senior pastor. In 2003, the final year Calvary Temple had a full schedule of Sunday night services, attendance averaged 1,100. Still, McCamey sensed the model didn’t fit the times.

“I found myself pulling out of the parking lot after the Sunday morning service asking, ‘Why are we coming back tonight? What didn’t we get done?’ ” McCamey says. “The Bible doesn’t say you have to meet twice on Sunday. I felt we couldn’t keep going just for the sake of tradition.”

McCamey says those who attend Sunday morning (an average of 2,100), Wednesday evening church services, plus a home-based small group, don’t need yet another service, especially if they are involved in additional church activities on other nights such as men’s group or choir practice.

“If we say we’re all about family, we can’t be tearing the family apart,” McCamey says. “We’re overtaxing people.”

Rather than a third weekly worship service, McCamey says attendees need the accountability and relationships available through life groups, which meet 17 times a year. Around 1,250 people are actively involved in the home-based, laity-led get-togethers that focus on fellowship and Bible study.

Likewise, Cornerstone’s Davis, 52, says keeping the family refreshed figured prominently in his decision to end Sunday night services seven years ago. He says those who volunteered to help with ministry — ushers, parking lot attendants, choir members, nursery workers and others — routinely put in nine-hour days if working both morning and evening services.

“What was supposed to be a Sabbath day of rest was a day of church functions that left people worn out at the end of the day,” Davis says.

Before making the decision, Davis surveyed Cornerstone families in which both husbands and wives worked. Only about 40 percent of them had a day off together, typically Sunday. So, despite an average Sunday evening attendance of 1,300, Davis pulled the plug. Cornerstone, which also has a Saturday night service, averages 3,360 attendees Sunday morning.

“With the cultural shift in America and a divorce rate the same as the world’s, the church has to become supportive of families,” Davis says. “We don’t give families any time together because we’re so busy doing church.” Cornerstone has small groups, but none of them meets on Sunday night.

Both McCamey and Davis say tithing, missions giving, water baptism numbers, Spirit baptism numbers and salvation decisions haven’t decreased as a result of eliminating Sunday night services.

While some ministers and laity say Sunday night church is disruptive in today’s busy society, Blackburn, 58, believes it’s important for the spiritual growth of the family. Victory has 3,000 worshippers on Sunday mornings and 1,125 on Sunday evenings.

“The reality is we had stronger families 25 years ago when we had more Sunday evening services,” Blackburn says. “If you are a Sunday morning believer only, your children probably won’t go to church at all when they get on their own.”

STILL VITAL

One church bucking the cultural trend is First Assembly of God in North Little Rock, Ark., which has a Sunday evening service — in addition to three Sunday morning services and a Saturday night service geared to young adults.

Rod Loy, who has been senior pastor for seven years, says Sunday evening fills a vital role. Many of the churchgoers work on Sunday morning; others go to a mainline denominational church on Sunday morning; some young people attend only Sunday night because the worship is more expressive; and it’s an opportunity for volunteers who are serving elsewhere in ministry on Sunday morning to be a part of a service.

Loy, 42, calls Sunday evening services the most high-energy, informal and flexible at First AG, although each service is different from the previous week.

“We have more time in worship, baptisms, sharing testimonies, crying at the altar and prayer,” says Loy, who only preaches about a dozen Sunday evening services annually. “We hear from other staff members and missionaries. It’s almost like a variety show.”

The church averages 2,270 on Sunday mornings and 730 on Sunday evenings. Loy makes sure there is no thematic connection between the morning and evening messages.

“It’s important that Sunday night is a stand-alone service,” he says. “We don’t treat it as an afterthought.”

Loy and Blackburn say they never have difficulty finding volunteers to fill ministry slots on Sunday nights.

“When people understand their ministry is a contributing factor to the overall growth of church families, they don’t mind serving,” Blackburn says. His Victory Church features a full choir and full orchestra on Sunday evenings.

Blackburn believes the increased demise of Sunday night services in the long run will do irreparable harm to missions.

“If we cut out the Sunday night venue for missionaries, how long will it be before we have to change the way they raise their support?” Blackburn asks.

Blackburn also is concerned about attendees in the Fellowship drifting from biblical truths if evening services atrophy.

“Historically, if you look at major denominations, one of the things that contributed to their decline and loss of constituents is that they started reducing the amount of services in which people could meet and fellowship together,” Blackburn says. “Many went to small groups that turned into social functions.”

McCamey in Indianapolis says the lack of Sunday night services hasn’t resulted in any compromise on doctrine.

“If you’re going to be a good Pentecostal church, you can’t be afraid to preach about the baptism in the Holy Spirit on Sunday morning,” McCamey says.

Both Davis and McCamey say the switch has worked for their churches, and follow-up surveys of staff and laypeople show virtually no one wants to revert. But they realize Sunday night services are still relevant.

Some churches have learned that similar results can be achieved without Sunday night by holding events at other times, Garrison says. For instance, weekend retreats, special evangelism outreach services and a concentrated weekly teaching for a specified number of weeks on a certain topic (such as gifts of the Holy Spirit) on an alternative night all have been effective.

“We live in a time of cultural change,” Garrison says. “We need to adapt to that change or deal with it.”


JOHN W. KENNEDY is news editor of Today’s Pentecostal Evangel and blogs at Midlife Musings (jkennedy.agblogger.org).

E-mail your comments to tpe@ag.org.

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