Churches find empty pews Sunday evening
Matt Vande Bunte, Religion News Service
September 29, 2010

Churches find empty pews Sunday evening

Churches find empty pews Sunday evening
Matt Vande Bunte, Religion News Service
September 29, 2010

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 (CRC).

It’s also a lot less


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


RNS photo by Emily Zoladz/The Grand Rapids Press

The Christian Reformed Church and other denominations have seen “plunging” attendance at Sunday evening services.

“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 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 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


“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



writes for The Grand Rapids Press in Grand Rapids,

Mich. Whitney Jones contributed to this report.)