Evening Worship In The PCA: Did It Die Of Natural Causes, Neglect, or Euthanasia?

A startling new study and article by two young churchmen in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) suggests that around 12% of churches conduct evening worship services. Pastors from the founding generation have estimated that 50–75% of PCA churches had evening worship in the 70s. If that is so, the decline has been precipitous.

If the evening service has nearly died (or been killed) off in the PCA (and indeed in most of evangelicalism), we should at least do an autopsy or search for the perpetrator. Here are some possible factors:

  1. Television, and especially televised sports, were more attractive to many pew-sitters than a second service. This is not just true of televised sports, but also of actual sports and recreations in which church members participate.
  2. Suburban sprawl and the decline of rural communities made getting back for a second service a burden. (This seems doubtful since many of our ancestors walked or traveled to services in horse-drawn wagons or carriages—traveling twenty miles by car is quicker than going two miles on foot or horse.)
  3. Churches have discovered something previously unknown: There is something better than public worship and the ordinary means of grace.
  4. Modern life is so uniquely difficult that hunkering down at home for much of the Lord’s Day is best.
  5. The Westminster doctrines of the Christian Sabbath, worship, and the church have been lost or downgraded.
  6. The exigencies of modern commerce and employment mitigate against a second service. (This too is suspect since the fact that more people are required to work on some part of the Lord’s Day actually argues in favor of more than one service.)

Other things that might mitigate against second services include: longer morning services and/or weekly communion,1 rented/shared facilities, more elaborate/complex services that require a number of technicians and musicians to pull off, etc.

Did the second service tumble down a slippery slope of declension or was it left behind as PCA churches ascended to new heights of faithfulness and understanding to cast their eyes on a better country/philosophy of ministry? Or maybe it was curb-kicked as a vestige of fundamentalism? For whatever reasons, an essential feature of historic Reformed piety has been all but lost in the largest conservative Reformed denomination in the US.2 The best suspect in the hunt for what displaced the second service is found in the realm of increasingly relational piety. The indispensable feature of this new piety is the small group, some (but not all) of which meet on Sunday nights.

Only time will tell if the church dispersed after a single (usually) morning service on the Lord’s Day—to whatever activities or for whatever reason—will outstrip its ancestors in faithfulness and growth in grace.

NOTES

  1. If the Supper (rather than the preached Word) is the climax of the Lord’s Day, then an evening service (with more preaching but no sacrament) may seem superfluous.
  2. At the time of the Reformation, the custom of morning and evening worship continued as evidenced in the liturgies of the Reformed churches in the sixteenth century. Typically, the evening (or in many cases, afternoon) service was devoted to an exposition of Reformed doctrine and was more catechetical in nature. So important was this second service to the life of the Reformed churches, that when it was threatened by the protests of the Remonstrants (Arminians), the matter was brought to the Synod of Dort (1618–19) and discussed at great length. The overwhelming testimony at the Synod by the delegates from countries all over Europe was that the second service was something to be guarded and cherished in order that the Reformed faith might continue to flourish and Christians have greater opportunity to mature in their understanding.
  3. All of these issues were discussed on a recent Presbycast with Dr. Duncan Rankin and the author of the above-mentioned study Justin Andrusk.

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14 comments

  1. I am a member of Grace Fellowship PCA in Albertville, Alabama and we have Sunday night services 50 Sundays of the year starting at 6:00. The two nights we don’t meet for worship are Easter evening and at the end of our missions conference. We are a small church (80-100 in the morning service) and 20-30 in the evenings. Those of us present always receive a full-fledged sermon (35-45 minutes long) and it’s like the icing on the cake to me, with the morning sermon the cake. The evening sermon is streamed, vs the full morning service being streamed, but that hasn’t affected the number in attendance, so don’t think that has any impact on attendance. It is a sad testament to the seriousness with which we take our faith.

    • I will add that we have Sunday School for all ages. Two adult classes almost always taught by a ruling elder, that are on 12 week cycles. They are usually based on a book of the Bible. The youth have a class and there are classes for the different age groups of children. If one of the missionaries that we support is at church then the adult and youth SS classes are combined to that the missionary can give a much more detailed report on what they have been doing than they can give in the 15 minute Missions Moment during the worship service. My church’s website is http://www.gracefellowshippca.com if anyone is interested in more about my church. I like to look at a church’s website (mostly PCA churches) to see what it believes and teaches and how things are organized.

  2. The Sunday School probably replaces the role of the evening catechism service. Most churches now have Sunday School and worship services in the morning. I know of a church that has only Sunday School classes in the morning, and the worship service in the evening.

    • Although I think there is much benefit in having an evening service, I do have some sympathy with the idea that its purpose has been replaced by all-age Sunday school.

      I’m curious as to whether URC churches typically have an evening service in addition to a morning Sunday School.

  3. Our church sounds much like Gwen’s. We have Sunday school, main service and evening. Small church but well attended all.

    I found your diagnosis sound, especially the small group thing or the complexities of musicians being layered on.
    Our church is simple – a piano and hymns, no small groups, and the Lord’s supper provided at the second service only, once a month. Todds Road Grace Church, Lexington, KY, is not the perfect church (as I attend), but it is a much needed change from my earlier church life.

    When the Law and Gospel are rightly divided; when Christ is found as the implication of OT narratives; when Christ is exalted from the NT (instead of funny personal commentaries or a ‘do more, better’ finger is pointed as I shrink in the pew), then these are the reasons I now so look forward to my Lord’s Day services – evenings especially. The beauty is irresistible.

  4. For elaboration on Brad’s post, be encouraged to listen to the Presbycast episode linked in Note 3, above; it’s worth your time!

  5. >> Pastors from the founding generation have estimated that 50–75% of PCA churches had evening worship in the 70s. <<
    Another possibility: that high number of Churches with 2nd service are now statistically smaller part of the PCA, given the growth of the PCA via the famed J&R with the RPCES, the attrition of churches from the OPC, and the planting of new churches. Does 50% to 75% of the original PCA (of the 1970s) represent the 12% of the current PCA?

    • Cris,

      I’ve been watching the decline of the evening service. It’s possible that it’s the result of the merger but I suspect it’s just a decline in a belief in the due us of the means of grace.

  6. I don’t want to cause a fire storm here, but just ask a couple questions.

    Brad, you wrote that the decline can be due to “Westminster doctrines of the Christian Sabbath, worship, and the church have been lost or downgraded.”

    I may be mistaken, but I don’t remember anywhere in our doctrine of the sabbath to confess that churches ought to have an evening service in order to faithfully keep the sabbath. Because of that, I think do you think it is a bit of an overreach to say that the evening worship service is “essential” to reformed piety?

    I could imagine a group of Christians criticizing those who have a morning and evening service as being less pious, because they only worship twice on the Lords day. Whereas, in the synagogue system, there were public prayers morning, noon, and night.

    So, my main question is, do you think that an evening service is in the realm of wisdom, left to the discretion of sessions? I asked this because you said an evening service is “essential” to reformed piety.

    I think the article gives the impression that if a church does not have an evening service, they are being impious and violating our standards.

    • The Westminster standards are all about the ordinary means of grace. The Reformed doctrine of worship emphasizes its priority. Historically, this has meant that more worship rather than less was a good thing. Christian prudence and the light of nature will shape how that plays out. HISTORICALLY (note – I nowhere asserted the standards require such a thing) this has meant more than one worship service on the Lord’s Day. We may have figured out something in the last 80-100 years that is better than an hour or 90 minutes of worship, but I doubt it.

      “For whatever reasons, an (historically) essential feature of historic Reformed piety has been all but lost in the largest conservative Reformed denomination in the US.”

      Neither my post or the article that inspired condemned anyone or questioned their piety.

    • Thanks for the clarification. It is definitely historically the practice of reformed churches.

      I am curious, you mentioned some of the possible reasons for the loss of evening services. What do you think is the primary reason for the loss?

  7. One thing to factor in to the 50-75% numbers in the early years is that these were majority Southern congregations. Whole different way of life down here back then. Not so much now.

  8. Daniel, I think churches that joined (or were planted in) the PCA from the second decade onward often did not have two services, and I wonder if the RPCES churches which joined the PCA in 1982 were also less likely to have two services. Different conceptions of the church and mission (like Schaefferian cultural engagment vs. ordinary means) blurred some lines which also undermined the primacy of Lord’s Day ministry. If all of life is worship and ministry is “every member,” then what’s the big deal with one service or two?

    • That definitely makes sense. I think that Shaefferian shift lead to significant confusion around the scope and nature of ministry and worship.

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