Churches Find Empty Pews at Sunday Evening Services

Matt Vande Bunte, Religion News Service


GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. -- Doug De Vries describes Sunday evening worship as "a lot less formal" than the morning service at Plymouth Heights Christian Reformed Church.

It's also a lot less crowded.

Plymouth Heights is in step with a larger trend of declining evening attendance in evangelical denominations that long have cherished a heritage of worshiping twice on Sunday. Some evening services are more intimate; others have been cancelled or replaced by an alternative.

"It's a business question that has been asked," said De Vries, the church's minister of music. "People are spending time with their family (on Sunday nights) or using that time to get together in small groups.

We were concerned that we were squandering resources to put the evening service together."

Plymouth Heights' 5 p.m. worship service continues, with about 25 percent of the people who attend the weekly Sunday morning service.

That mirrors data from across the CRC, based on survey results presented this summer to the church's annual Synod. The survey found evening worship attendance is "plummeting," down from 56 percent of members in 1992 to 24 percent in 2007.

Researchers wrote that the data "seems to suggest evening service attendance has become optional."

It's not just the CRC. Officials at the Assemblies of God reported a 6 percent drop in Sunday evening attendance, to 416,751, in 2009 even as the overall size of the denomination grew by 1.2 percent, to 2.86 million.

There are different ways to interpret the trend: Some see it as harmless, while others see worrisome deviation away from doctrine. For others, the decline is a natural outcome of the historically Dutch church's aspirations to evangelize a broader demographic.

"Many churches are substituting evening worship and putting their energies into other things," said Jeff Meyer, pastor of Crosswinds Community Church, a 4-year-old CRC congregation in Holland, Mich., that, like many new churches, does not conduct evening worship.

"The people who are exploring Christianity are not typically accustomed even to weekly worship a single time. So to put forward some kind of a community-based expectation that you do this twice a Sunday would be extraordinary."

At Roosevelt Park Community Church in Grand Rapids, attendance at Sunday evening services fell from as many as 175 people in the mid-1990s to about 40 when the service was discontinued five years ago, said the Rev. Reginald Smith.

Ending the service has enabled the church to put more energy into the morning service, children's programs and ministry during the week.

The result has been a bigger focus on evangelism and relational ministries, Smith said.

"We just saw incremental diminishing returns (in attendance)," Smith said. "Younger families were much busier with all the humming and bumming of life and they found other ways to refresh themselves.

"The evening service was a wonderful thing back in its heyday, but it cannot continue to function in the same form that it has historically. For a lot of churches, that's really a harsh reality."

The harsh reality, in the Rev. David Engelsma's view, is that churches that drop evening worship are ignoring their spiritual inheritance. The retired seminary professor calls the trend "plain evidence of the great apostasy that Christ has predicted."

Engelsma said evening worship in the Dutch Reformed tradition dates to the 16th century, when ministers taught from the Heidelberg Catechism. Engelsma's Protestant Reformed Church, which split from the CRC in 1925, still turns out en masse for Sunday night services, he said.

"Basically, it's the same today with us as it was back in The Netherlands in the 1500s," said Engelsma. "When a parishioner sits year after year under the regular instruction of the Heidelberg Catechism, he is going to be knowledgeable of and grounded in the truths, the doctrines and the teachings of the Christian faith."

Others, including Ron Rienstra, a professor at the Reformed Church in America-affiliated Western Theological Seminary, are concerned that Christians may be chipping away on the one day a week that God commanded to be set aside and kept holy.

"The two services is a way to frame the whole day as belonging to Lord," Rienstra said. "The decline of Sunday evening worship is a marker alongside many that our culture is becoming more popularly secular.

We've lost a sense of sacred time that is being offered back to God."

Some churches have dropped the evening worship but offered an alternative. Grand Rapids' Eastern Avenue CRC now meets every other Sunday night for a half-hour of worship, a half-hour of eating and an hour of small-sized "covenant groups."

More than 200 people took part in the groups last year, a significant increase from evening attendance that "literally became a bit embarrassing," said Fred Sterenberg, church administrator.

"The decision (to end the service) almost made itself because very few people were coming," he said. "If we're talking tradeoff, (the covenant group alternative) is a pretty good tradeoff."

Matt Vande Bunte writes for The Grand Rapids Press in Grand Rapids, Mich. Whitney Jones contributed to this report.
c. 2010 Religion News Service. Used with permission.

Publication date: September 28, 2010

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