When the Borderline and Sideline Converge: Sunday Evenings

Conservative sideline Presbyterian and Reformed folk like to think of themselves as distinctly different from the liberal mainline Presbyterians and even borderline denominations such as the Christian Reformed Church but the Christian Century (HT: Aquila Report) describes a study done in the CRC that could well be describing many sideline congregations. According the study, attendance to Sunday evening services has dropped from 56% in the early 90s to about 24%. My perception is that conservative congregations, when they have evening services, may have a higher percentage of members attending but they’re on the same trajectory. In other words, the conservative churches are behind the borderline and mainline churches but it’s a matter of degree, not a matter of kind. The article notes that attendance to evening services is also down in other traditions, e.g., the Assemblies of God (Pentecostal).  The basic presenting symptom, as physicians sometimes say, is that fewer people are coming. Why? Could it be that they’re picking up on the signals that pastors and elders are sending? Consider some of the responses described in the article. Some are canceling the poorly attended second service under the justification that it’s inefficient to spend time planning a service that few attend. Others have shifted their energies toward small groups. What happens, however, when attendance to small groups begins to flag?

The Synod of Dort faced this problem in 1618-19. They addressed it not by giving in to the cultural pressure to give families  more time or to go to small groups (the Westminster Divines actually took a hardline against substituting small groups for public worship) but rather by charging pastors to set an example for their flocks by attending to the second service even if it was that only the pastor and his family appeared for worship? Why on earth would the the Synod say such a thing?

They said it because they believed that, as useful as small groups and family time might be, the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments are the divinely ordained means to which God has attached promises and through which he has promised to work to achieve his promises. At bottom the problem of the second service is really a problem of the Lordship of the church. To whom does the visible church belong? To Jesus or to us? What is the purpose of the visible church? To glorify God and enjoy him forever. One suspects that the predominant answer to that question today is not the 1st answer of the Westminster Shorter Catechism and the decline of the second service, even in sideline churches, is a symptom of that the shifting priorities and commitments of the churches.

All is not lost, however. The article goes on to note that Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church is trying an experiment. They are holding a brief second service combined with a fellowship meal and small groups. This experiment is as interesting as it is promising. It seems obvious from Scripture that God is interested in combining the ministry of the Word with feasts and community. I would rather have an abbreviated service of the Word and (canonical) songs than none at all. Most second services are already more instructional and casual. The small group aspect is a compromise with which I could live. Gathering in elder-led small groups to discuss the sermon is a beneficial activity that could foster greater fellowship and community.

I hope that the sideline churches will decide that they are not just conserving what others are doing (i.e., doing the same thing but more slowly) but that they are genuinely committed to being Reformed in principle and practice. I hope they will decide that they want to conserve the Reformed confession (theology, piety, and practice) and it would be great to see them do so in thoughtful, creative ways.

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