Sunday evening is the most underestimated and ignored opportunity of the church week. With drastically declining attendance, many congregations have simply given up on a Sunday evening ministry while others merely tolerate it. The major emphasis in most congregations is Sunday morning with everything else negligible.
It is a rare church, indeed, that has not succumbed to a deportment of defeat concerning this Sunday evening delima. A few courageous congregations have not given up. The results are some creative ministries that are blessing many and offering much to those willing to put earnest endeavor into it. The preeminent reason for this declining attendance is most congregations are guilty of sabotaging the evening service.
A contributing factor to the Sunday evening delima is the changing society around us. Our challenge is to meet needs. Before that can take place, however, we must define those needs and then devise the appropriate strategy. To do this it is essential that we get to know people in their environment. What was important a decade ago for many people, is no longer an issue.
There was a time in most communities when Sunday evening was dull with not much happening. In many areas "blue laws" restricted Sunday activity and forced businesses to close. Today few people know what "blue laws" are and most businesses operate seven days a week. Back then there was little to compete with the Sunday evening service at the local church. Today, for the average person who works all week, Sunday is a time for leisurely shopping and entertainment and amusement.
In many cases the church has failed to recognize that the American family has changed. Today's typical home is nothing short of a self-contained entertainment center equipped with TVS, VCR's, stereo's, and computers, to name a few. All of these keep people at home. There is even a home shopping network on television for people to purchase all sorts of items without ever leaving home.
The nice neat family package of a generation ago is fast disappearing while the church structure is still geared to that format. The church is usually a generation behind the times in recognizing the sociological changes in the community.
The average family is much more mobile than a generation ago. It is nothing for a family to move every three years. A spirit of restlessness pervades our society, even entering the Christian world. As a consequence, people are not becoming as involved in church as they normally would. It takes about two years to establish personal relationships.
Many congregations suffer from psychological burnout. The average church attendee has been on the roller coaster of one spectacular program followed by another to be followed by still another. The emotional letdown after a major program emphasis can devastate and drain a congregation with the dreadful effects lingering for years. Many are conditioned to respond only to some spectacular program or the performance of a religious superstar. Merchandising people rather than proclaiming Christ.
Possibly the largest contributor to the decline in the evening service is the low level of preaching these days. Many congregations are insisting on 20 minute sermons which shows just how poor contemporary preaching really is. There are other priorities and preaching is not really that significant of a thing.
Dr. A. W. Tozer, in his inimitable way, once observed, "Preachers today would rather give their congregations tranquilizers. . .I pray that I may be able to preach with such convicting power that my people will sweat! I do not want them to leave my services feeling good. The last thing I want to do is to give them some kind of religious tranquilizer--and let them go to hell in the relaxation."
Someone once stated at a writer's seminar that good evangelical writing would create an appetite for good evangelical writing. The same is true of the preaching ministry of the local church. The pastors are, in a sense, responsible for creating spiritual appetites among the congregation. This utter reliance of church leaders on methods and gimmicks has produced a generation that is erratic and restless. As a consequence many are unable to appreciate and enjoy the simple pleasures of the Christian life.
Sunday evening can be a significant part of the spiritual growth of the local assembly.
Perhaps the most innovated and difficult approach to the Sunday evening ministry is the small group. Small group ministries provide intimate relationships, interaction with other people and fellowship with other believers.
Traditionally the American church has three times when it comes together: Sunday morning, Sunday evening and Wednesday night. Some of the thinking has been that to develop a strong small group ministry one of those times must be forfeited.
There is a variety of directions to take with small groups. One is control from the pastor where he determines what the groups study. Usually the Bible study will focus on the previous week's sermon. Many churches do this with gratifying success.
The other is to let each group go on their own. Each group selects what they want to study. For the most part they will go to the Scripture, studying different books of the Bible. Current topics of interest out of books are also well received.
In time certain patterns develop, as far as the mechanics. Many groups meet Sunday night but take the last Sunday night of the month off. That is helpful because they know there is one Sunday off so the people are not leaving all through the month and can correlate their attendance. Many take the entire summer off.
Occasionally a small group ministry does well at the beginning but after a while dies down. Commenting on this one pastor said, "We simply leave them die."
"Our small group ministry," said one, "is geared very much to fellowship among believers as opposed to outreach oriented. The ministry that we strive for is one of encouragement and building up the individual believer."
Among some successful Sunday evening ministries is what some refer to as the Sunday Evening Family School. Instead of a traditional Sunday morning Sunday School ministry some churches are moving the Sunday School from morning to evening.
Realizing that the unsaved person will more likely attend Sunday morning this service is carefully developed and directed toward evangelism. The service may begin at 10:30 which allows people to sleep in on Sunday morning. Beginning with the invocation everything is geared for Sanctuary Evangelism Worship.
With that in place, the Sunday evening service is converted into a Family Bible School geared for Bible teaching and discipleship. This seems to be a more
appropriate use of time, energy, and personnel in the often overtaxed and understaffed local church.
In some areas the traditional Sunday evening service is still thriving. Some would have us believe that the traditional service is long dead and buried. Such is not the case.
The traditional Sunday evening services that are prospering are doing so primarily because of the commitment of the pastor. It is not an easy thing to keep the Sunday evening service alive and interesting. The key lies with a pastor who knows and understands, not only the needs of the people in his church, but also what God wants to do in the lives of those Christians, and is willing to spend the necessary time to develop an effective ministry addressing those concerns.
In order for the Sunday evening ministry to be successful a detailed strategy is essential. By that I mean a statement of purpose for each service of the church should be meticulously drawn. This will take considerable time but the benefits of such effort will be evident in short time.
The average church attendee sees little difference between the morning and evening service. The reason may be that the leadership of the church does not recognize any difference. Clearly the objectives of each service should be understood by the leadership and effectively communicated to the congregation.
Some pastors are doing a excellent job on Sunday nights. Sure the crowds are smaller but that does not infer that the ministry is appreciably less significant. Jesus spent many hours alone with his twelve disciples. In fact, Jesus considered time spent with His Twelve to be a priority in his ministry. His teaching among the Twelve differed distinctly from his public ministry to the masses.
There are things that can be communicated on Sunday evening that would be out of place Sunday morning. For example. In many evangelical churches the Sunday morning congregation is composed of a variety of people. There are people attending who have been Christians for many years as well as people who only attend sporadically. Many are not converted to Christ, plus, there is the first time visitor. To meet all of these needs in one service is impossible. The older Christians probably are the ones coming out Sunday evening, while the others only attend in the morning. It would be disastrous to concentrate Sunday morning solely on the Christian and leave the rest alone. Those with successful Sunday evening services lean heavily toward evangelism in the morning service and deal with discipleship themes in the evening service.
If the pastor is not committed to a Sunday evening service, his attitude will be communicated to the congregation. The pastor usually puts his best time in the
Sunday morning worship service which is usually better attended. What he is really saying is that numbers matter. If the crowd is large the service is important, hence, little effort is put into the "leftover" service on Sunday.
The morning crowd might be there largely from consuetude, the evening handful are more likely to be seeking God, and must be helped and heartened. The challenge of the contemporary pastor is to develop a spiritual ministry that will benefit his people and draw them out to a service. The church must get out of the entertainment business and get back to developing spiritual ministries. This is the sacred responsibility as pastor of the flock.
Rev. James L. Snyder