Here is a link to an excellent piece by G. H. Visscher. One of the most disturbing trends of modern Reformed church life is the disappearance of the second service. What does it mean? It means at least two things: 1) we’ve lost our doctrine of the Sabbath and 2) we’ve lost our sense that the preaching of the Word is a means of grace.
Bible studies (under the right circumstances and with the right leadership) are great and useful. Home groups can be useful and edifying (with some qualifications) but they are no substitute for the preaching of the gospel.
There are promises attached to the preaching of the gospel that are not attached to other beneficial Christian gatherings. We confess in Heidelberg Catechism 65 that God the Spirit “works faith in our hearts through the preaching of the Holy Gospel and confirms it by the use of the Holy Sacraments.”
Two forces have always worked against the second service: sloth and pieitism. From the moment the second service was instituted in the 16th century the Reformed Churches had to struggle to get folk to attend. The temptation to steal part of the Lord’s Day for ourselves is great and has only grown as the opportunities have grown in the modern period.
The pietists have never really cared as much for the stated services and official preaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments as much as they have favored “small groups.” Originally they were known as “conventicles.” Today they’re known as “cell groups” and “home groups” and the like. In the 18th and 19th centuries they were called Holy Clubs. These are the groups that Wesley and Whitefield attended in Oxford. For a time, even C.F.W. Walther, in Saxony, before he emigrated to the USA, attended a Holy Club where he found himself under a new law. When he re-discovered the Reformation faith he was delivered from legalism. The small group was essential to the pieitist quest to make sure that everyone in the congregation was really and truly converted and had the right sort of religious experience. Nothing wrong with healthy, Christ-centered religious experience oriented around Word and Spirit but that isn’t what pieitism is about. What moves pietism, what makes it what it is, is the quest to experience the risen Christ without the mediation of the preaching of the Word and Sacraments.
In a sense, then, the second service is a counter-cultural act. It is an act of defiance to the antinomian spirit of the age. It is also statement about the centrality of Word and sacrament to the Christian life. It is a testimony that Christ’s people have been redeemed in a community and to a community. It is a confession of faith that God the Spirit uses the divinely ordained means to save and to sanctify.
The early Reformed understood all this. The Synod of Dort was so committed to these notions that they instructed ministers to hold the second service even if they were they and their families were the only ones present. Synod counseled the ministers to trust the promises of Christ and to set an example for the congregation.
It’s not easy, it’s not popular, but it’s Reformed, it’s worth it and it’s the way of the Christian life.