How might we approach the question of Sundays and church attendance? Well the first thing we have to do is to recognise the dangers that exist for pastors and elders when it comes to the issue. It seems that Sunday attendance is so obviously a good and right thing to do that there can’t possibly be wrong reasons for worrying about.
Yet, the truth is that there is temptation present even as I’m encouraging people to gather. My worry is that if people are not at church every Sunday, then it looks bad for me, that low attendance on Sunday evening reduces value and enjoyment and that some people are skiving off adding to the workload of others. By the way, a packed room of excited people does create a more enjoyable environment than a few people turning up reluctantly to cold, empty hall and it is frustrating when you feel that you are carrying the burden. However, we need to set aside those issues from our minds if we are going to avoid legalism.
First of all, in terms of encouraging regular church attendance in general, rather than starting with some peculiar interpretation of the OT Law, I would want to focus on the following.
- It’s about our relationship with God. We are called to love him with our whole hearts. This is not a burden, it’s a joy because we are responding to his love poured out to us. Therefore, we will see the purpose of gathering together on the Lord’s Day as part of our desire to enjoy God and glorify him for ever. Yes, there is a command and a duty but it is a gloriously joyful duty.
- It’s about God’s love and care for us. Jesus said that the sabbath was made for man and not vice versa. Whether or not you see Sunday church attendance as Sabbath observance, the principle carries through into the command to keep meeting together. It is primarily for our benefit and good.
- It’s about our relationship to each other. We are part of the body, members that are connected to one another. We want to spend time together to encourage each other and be accountable to each other. There is a giving and receiving dynamic at play here.
Secondly, in terms of Sunday evening attendance, I think we need to ask a few questions about why we want people to attend twice. What is the purpose of the second gathering? What would happen if we didn’t have it? You see, there is no Biblical command which says “you must have a second service in the evening” but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have one. It just means we need to think carefully about its purpose. It seems to me that there are two primary reasons for holding an evening service
- To help people to observe the whole of the Lord’s Day as a sabbath rest.
- To help people to gather and to fully benefit from all aspects of gathering.
Now, if we are thinking about the first reason, then we need to ask ourselves whether or not our Sunday evening services do help people to observe the whole day. Some people may find that they do. However, for others, all we have done is created a further burden. The evening gathering is not a way of bringing a day of rest and devotion to an end but rather another duty to attend to. The result of which is that they will be trying to squeeze other activities into their afternoons or the late evening.
Furthermore, I’m not convinced that people returning to the building for a later service having spent the afternoon shopping, playing sports, watching TV or doing some DIY have anymore observed a full Lord’s Day than the people who do exactly the same but don’t make it back in the evening.
Perhaps if we see being together in worship, spiritual rest and enjoyment as being crucial for the Lord’s Day then we should be looking at the whole day. What if we were to specifically encourage people to plan the day as one where they will be together with God’s people as much as possible. This might include organising meals, afternoon activities and events etc. This would not need to be legalistic or burdensome if you went down this route.
If you do think that the evening meeting is a crucial and fitting way to end the Lord’s Day then look at the messages you send out about it. You see, if the timing and the type of provision means that at least half of the adults in a family can’t make it then you can’t claim its essentially. Make sure that the gathering is at a time and in a format that enables the whole family to join in again.
However, our focus may be less on using the meeting as a means to help people observe the Lord’s Day and more on how we help people to gather. This involves two things.
- Some people are not able to attend Sunday morning services for various reasons.
- There are aspects to gathering which we may not have time to cover in one Sunday morning service. We therefore use evening meetings, midweek home groups, blogs, articles, special events, WhatsApp groups etc to supplement in those areas.
At Bearwood, this was our primary focus for having a Sunday evening gathering. We recognised two things. First, there were people who we were reaching at that particular time of day. Rather than insisting that they had to progress by joining a Sunday morning gathering, we in effect took the church gathering to them.
Secondly, we recognised that people were hungry for more Bible teaching. They wanted to dig deeper into God’s Word and Sunday night over pizza and chips gave us a format in which to do that. We also found that as we did those things that appetite for other things, more singing, more prayer, more encouraging and counselling each other, more witnessing all grew out of that.
The result was a Sunday evening format that was specific to those needs and that context. We sat round tables, we used YouTube instead of a live music group, there was interactive Bible study instead of a traditional sermon. It meant that we sought to be welcoming to all ages. We didn’t run Sunday School at night but there was a group for teenagers and we supplied toys, craft, colouring and puzzles for smaller children. We included children in the discussions too.
That approach was helpful for a time but because we are not under legalistic duty I would not have necessarily continued with that approach and format for ever nor would I necessarily try to do it elsewhere. I would look at the context and needs at that time and in that place.
My point is this. Start from the principle that we are invited to gather and that this is a good thing. Then look at what will be helpful in your context.