Empty pews on Sunday night

At my home congregation in Oklahoma, our two Sunday morning assemblies drew 1,256 people on a recent weekend. That same Sunday, just 540 worshipers returned for the evening service. In a fellowship that traditionally has placed a high value on church attendance, that's a lot of people "forsaking the assembly."

Perhaps not surprisingly, one of our church elders made a special announcement on a recent Sunday morning -- I can't recall if it was the same one -- encouraging the congregation to return that night.

Of course, my congregation's Sunday evening attendance trend mirrors what many churches across the nation are experiencing.

I don't think I've ever read a mainstream news story about this trend, however, which is why I was so fascinated by a Religion News Service news feature published this week.

Here's the top of the RNS story by Grand Rapids Press writer Matt Vande Bunte (it's a revised version of a piece that first appeared in the Grand Rapids paper):

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (RNS) 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."

The story cites statistics backing up the trend and gives church leaders an opportunity to explain why they think it's happening:

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."

A later reference is made to the Heidelberg Catechism, but the story fails to explain clearly what it means by the "worrisome deviation from doctrine." In the context of the story, it's difficult to determine if tradition and doctrine are the same thing. I understand the tight space constraints of most wire reports (this one is 850 words, with an optional trim to 750 words), but I wish that reference had been developed a bit more.

The story doesn't specifically mention Sunday Night Football, youth soccer on Sunday or the demise of blue laws, but it does put the trend in the context of secular culture:

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."

A fellow GetReligionista also noticed that the piece doesn't reference the fact that many houses of worship have become "commuter congregations." Whereas Americans once walked down the street to worship, many now drive 30 to 45 minutes to church. That's more difficult to do -- even with gasoline prices stable for the moment -- twice on the same Sunday.

Also, I was surprised the story didn't at least mention Wednesday night. That's another traditional Bible study time for many evangelical churches, and I'm curious if it's faring better or worse than Sunday night.

But overall, RNS deserves kudos for a timely, newsworthy piece of reporting. I'd love to see more Godbeat reporters tackle this trend.

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