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 the forthcoming volume, 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.
- Subscribe To The Heidelblog!
- The Heidelblog Resource Page
- Heidelmedia Resources
- The Ecumenical Creeds
- The Reformed Confessions
- The Heidelberg Catechism
- Recovering the Reformed Confession (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2008)
- Why I Am A Christian
- What Must A Christian Believe?
- Heidelblog Contributors
- Recovering The Lost Treasure Of The Second Service
- Why Your Congregation Should Have An Evening Service
- The Forgotten Gift Of Evening Worship
- Resources on the Means of Grace
- Support Heidelmedia: use the donate button or send a check to
Heidelberg Reformation Association
1637 E. Valley Parkway #391
Escondido CA 92027
The HRA is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization.