One Service or Two? Rethinking Our Multi-Service Model
written by Neal Thornton, Senior Pastor (October 30, 2022)
Many of the blog posts I write address matters of church leadership and conversations around philosophies of ministry. To the best of my ability, I try to craft the content (and time the date of its publication) to address relevant issues in our church, Coats Baptist. From heavier matters of polity to lighter topics of Wednesday night dinners, all is fair game if done so with intentionality. I encourage our staff to write with the same approach.
For this post I want to tackle a timely issue for our church, yet one that has remained on my mind for much of my ministry: the number of Sunday morning services. There is no chapter and verse on this issue. However, we do need to think biblically about such matters. To do so I have admittedly written a longer-than-usual post, which I believe this topic merits. For your convenience, however, I have supplied a concise abstract in the paragraph below. As time allows, please give a careful read to the post in full. I trust it will help us wrestle with such an issue at the intersection of church and mission and frame out a more full conversation to be considered.
God’s people are called to gather. They are to be in covenant with other believers as members of a local church. Therefore, a philosophy of worship gatherings matters, both in their nature but also in number. This post is aimed at the latter. What the church is and how the church grows are both expressed in the number of worship services a church chooses to hold.
For at least the last 15 years, Coats Baptist Church has offered two Sunday morning services. This post seeks to trace the reasons and repercussions for such a model of ministry in order to address our current state. As of today, there is cause to evaluate the number of our services, which could affect our Sunday morning schedule. While there are pragmatic aspects to determining the number of our services, we must first consider how the number reflects our philosophy of ministry and impacts our mission. (I am not interested in Sunday evening services in this post. I have written elsewhere on the topic.)
Our current state does not necessitate multiples services. Neither space nor social distancing is driving our current model. We have, therefore, an opportunity to evaluate our Sunday structure in light of a ministry philosophy instead of mere pragmatic pressures. How we move forward from here should be based upon the former, not the latter. In sum, given the consideration of multiple factors, our church should consider moving to a single-service model.
It is commonplace today for most growing churches to offer more than one Sunday morning service. This practice is so widespread that many may see multiple services as a sign of church health.
However, prior to the late 20th century most churches only held a single morning service. Therefore church growth was typified not by adding more services, but by building bigger buildings. Enter the megachurch movement. Space fails to trace the mid-20th century movement that swept across much of the United States. But those born prior to 1980 can easily think of the evangelical juggernauts of the Southern Baptist Convention, from Bellevue to Prestonwood along with the famed First Baptist Churches of Atlanta, Jacksonville, Dallas, Woodstock and many others that characterized this movement. God used and is still using these churches. But we must see them as the product of a modern church growth movement that, in truth was tied more to a philosophy of ministry than anyone may have realized. Hold that thought.
Philosophies of ministry became even more apparent with the “seeker sensitive” movement coming into full bloom by the 1990’s. With a slight anti-establishment mentality, this movement promoted a “come and see” mindset fueled by attractional, programmatic platforms all wired to get people on campus and in the door. And it worked. People came by the droves to attend churches that ditched tradition and simply called people to “come as they are.” Coffee in the lobby, jeans instead of ties, and a whole lot of fun. All seemed good on the surface, but left in the wake was something akin to “church light.” Fast forward into the early 2000’s and the landscape was riddled with churches holding a low view of just about everything that is not immediately measurable. A low view of the Bible, theology, discipleship and ecclesiology were discovered to not only be the product of the movement, but perhaps the foundation of it. Space fails again to trace the cause and effect of such movements to current reality, but churches such as North Point Ministries, New Spring Church and Elevation are examples close to home that surely tell the story. However, to their credit, the seeker sensitive folks of Gen-X were more clever than their fathers. Instead of building bigger buildings, they launched more services. It worked, and it saved money.
Hindsight is 20/20. Many evangelicals have now learned from the faults, albeit well intentioned, of their fathers. The last 20 years have seen an observable return to robust theology and intentional discipleship in many churches. It would be naïve to fail to notice a similar, correlating revitalization of SBC seminaries. We have lived through the repercussions of bloated and pragmatic ministry, and it is not pretty. We came to learn that “what you win them with is what you win them to.” If you win them with fun, you have to keep them with fun. And that is no fun at all.
However, much of the seeker sensitive pragmatic culture crept into churches who never confessed themselves as such. As a result, one pesky point of seeker sensitive residue became standard fare in many churches: the notion of multiple morning worship services. Intended to accommodate church growth, such culture was unfortunately accepted without any biblical basis for support. What is more, many churches have been guilty of launching multiple services out of stylistic preference instead of true numerical growth. Multiple services provided a clever camouflage to cloak divisions of worship styles. New services launched as a means of reaching new people were in truth a means of accommodating carnal preferences. All that to say, multiple services is the culture of many churches for a variety of reasons. Whatever the reason, the idea of multiple services is baked into the mind of many Christians as a merely pragmatic move—without much thought given to a philosophy of ministry. Such a disconnect could explain how some churches arrived at multiple services without any real ability to articulate their intention for doing so. That point is worthy of our attention and remedy.
[Note: The multi-site model does articulate an intentional philosophy of ministry, and though correlated to the multi-service model, it should not be equated as such. Although the multi-site model is within the scope of the post, I have opted not to discuss such matters here. Space fails, and the content does not directly apply to the current context and situation of Coats Baptist. However, as a point of reference, the reader should note that the multi-site model is: 1) a construct of historical Episcopalian (Methodist) church government, 2) a network of satellite campuses who share leadership and resources; or 3) the most modern trend of live-streaming services from the main campus to its off-site venues. Whichever the explanation, the multi-site by its own definition is not a collection of autonomous churches regardless of how they may be perceived by those who attend. Thus, I see them as putting forward a less than biblical ecclesiology. This trend has sparked no little conversation among those who see the autonomy of the local church expressed in neither multiple services nor multiple sites. For more information on the multi-site movement in Baptist life, a helpful start would be to see content provided by the Summit Church and the model defended therein.]
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