Our family made plans to visit a friend out of town and in the planning process we told them we had church on Sunday night. They were not expecting that Christians went to church twice in a day. That turned into a conversation about the Lord’s Day and the Christian’s duty on that day. This conversation made me ask the question “What happened to the second service?” in churches? It’s no surprise that many Reformed congregations stopped having a second service long ago. It’s no wonder that many churches that do have a second service see it poorly attended compared to the morning service. I asked a pastor of a large Reformed congregation what his evening service attendance was in comparison to the morning, and he said it was an abysmal 10%. When attendance has been down that low, it is understandable why some churches would cease holding an evening service. Reformed pastors have been working on this problem of low attendance in the second service for a long time.
When the early Reformers established their liturgies and church orders, they prescribed a morning and afternoon/evening service. In the morning there was an exposition of Scripture and the second service was there was catechetical preaching. Preaching that would be aimed and centered on teaching the basics of the faith and by understanding doctrine, they would grow in an understanding of the Word. The intention was that the Christian would then receive a balanced spiritual diet. So they would be exposed to more of the Word and the day would be “book ended” by worshipping with God’s people. However, this was not popular with the members of the church. People didn’t quite know how to receive catechetical preaching and teaching first of all, but mainly they preferred to play on Sunday and didn’t care to go to church twice in a day. Eventually, some ministers decided to cease holding an evening service due to low attendance.
At the Synod of Dort (1618-19), it was decided to censure ministers who stopped holding a second public worship service. Ministers were exhorted to preach brief and understandable sermons and not to cancel the second service due to poor attendance. Even if only the minister’s family attended the service, the expectation was to have a second worship service. The second service would be the uniform practice of Reformed churches in the 1600s. The answer to what happened to the second service seems obvious; low attendance resulted in cancellation. But the next question arises and remains to be answered and explored, “Why the low attendance?” R. Scott Clark’s in, “Recovering the Reformed Confession” rightly states low attendance reflects two things. First, little appreciation of the means of grace in the life of the church and Christian and secondly, the doctrine of the Sabbath.
There is a strong consensus in Reformed churches that God works through means, and that the Sabbath looks forward to the consummation, is a day to rest from work, and for public worship. The difficulty seems to be more practical from this point of agreement. Instead of honoring God with our bodies, (1 Cor. 6:20) we pause for worship and then are consumed by the demands of culture and the secular. I hope to explore this and connected issues in coming articles. This series will be an opportunity to consider and remember why we believe what we believe and then we will know why we do what we do. Perhaps, when you have a friend surprised to hear you attend two services, you’ll be equipped to have a fruitful and challenging dialog.