Behind The Decline Of Evening Worship

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 have lost our doctrine of the Sabbath and 2) we have 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 pietism. 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 are 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 pietist 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 is not what pietism 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 a 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 is not easy. It is not popular. But it is Reformed, it is worth it, and it is the way of the Christian life.

A few more thoughts:

1) I discuss this at length in Recovering the Reformed Confession.

2) Some have written to suggest that the second service was a “Dutch” thing. Well, actually, it was not. As Visscher says, it was a universal, trans-cultural, Reformed practice until very recently.

3) There is strong exegetical, biblical warrant for the second service. It is not just a historical practice that we have outgrown.

4) It is true that many Reformed congregations are commuter churches. This presents real problems. I understand. We commute 23 miles one way to church in high-speed SoCal traffic. There were families in my congregation in Kansas City who commuted 45 minutes one way! When we had two services, they drove back and forth every Sabbath.

Cancelling the second service is not a solution. One solution is to hold a congregational lunch and then a second service. It might be that the catechism instruction has to be de-centralized. Better to do that than to de-centralize the second service in favor of cell groups.

5) The ugly truth, as I see it when I travel, is that congregations are abandoning the second service not because of the challenges posed by commuting members but because they no longer see the preaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments as a means of grace. This is a national phenomenon.

6) I know this is true because I myself encouraged our elders in Kansas City to cancel the second service. I did it because I did not appreciate the uniqueness of preaching and sacraments as the divinely instituted means of grace. We replaced the second service with Bible studies. These were edifying but they were not the means of grace. We watched videos. These were instructional and helpful, but they were not the means of grace. We prayed. This was edifying and the Westminster Standards do describe prayer as a means of grace, but, in context, the divines seemed to have prayer in the stated services in view and certainly not private gatherings.

Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.


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  1. Is there any evidence this was practiced in the early Church?

    Does advocating for the second service (by a minister) not run afoul of unduly binding conscience, elevating as it does , an application of the law to the same level as the law? Or to put it another way in the language of the wcf , making something that is beside the word as something that is of the word?

    • Richie,

      Yes, there is evidence that the early church met twice every Lord’s Day. It’s a truly ancient practice of the Christian church. As to conscience binding, the church has divine authority to convoke a worship service on the Christian Sabbath. They have authority to obligate members to attend to the means of grace. To absent oneself, without cause, from the means of grace is a cause for discipline. Should a consistory rush to judgment and discipline? Never. Are there real practical problems that must be recognized? Certainly. I discuss this in Recovering the Reformed Confession. Reformed churches in the USA are often commuter churches and thus they have to hold a second service after lunch/dinner (the noon meal). Young parents with small children are not always able to attend for obvious reasons and there are other cases to consider but the Synod of Dort was right about this.

  2. I agree entirely about the importance of the second service and that its demise is troubling. I have always felt that the two services had a somewhat different character about them. People who only go to one service miss the joy that God gives when we go the extra mile to please Him.

    In the incident of the widow’s mite the Lord teaches us that service is evaluated by how much it costs us. Sadly, it seems that our appetite for costly service is poor.

  3. We have some people driving 1,5 hrs. to our church. We spend the better part of the Lord’s Day together, including lunch. Then on to the second service in the afternoon. Doesn’t take rocket science to put your convictions into practice even today.

  4. But what is concerning is the very nature of worship, morning or evening, is changing. Instead of leadership by the minister with occasional elder participation we now have “Jack in the Box” services where a different individual, usually women, “pop up” to lead the prayers, read the Scripture etc. Similarly sermons are being replaced by “talks”, with little expectation of the presence of the Spirit in power working through the preached Word. The concept of unction is mocked, the presence of the glory of Christ in worship is lost, and reverence and awe is absent. Indeed, in some quarters the concept of worship is reduced to the horizontal – fellowship with other christians, a bit of bible explanation, and mutual encouragement. When the service of worship has such sub Reformed expectations it may as well be replaced by a casual biblestudy. We need to rediscover Reformed worship at all our serviced.

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