Is Sunday Night Church Optional?

Sunday evening assemblies have grown rare.  If you can find one, there will be a fraction of the Sunday morning attendance.  Church members declare Sunday night optional for them.  Baptizing their decision in the name of “family time” is more likely football time, movie time, pool time, or get-ready-for-work time.  Since Scripture nowhere prescribes a Sunday night service there is no biblical injunction to participate.  It’s legalistic to expect folks to come back Sunday night.

Pastors will often label their Sunday night crowd the “core” group of mature believers in the church.  For that reason, pastors often enjoy the Sunday night gathering more (but you didn’t hear that from me).  The usually smaller, more intimate, less formal Sunday night assembly often feels more like a New Testament assembly than the Sunday morning production.

We can certainly argue the pragmatic merits of Sunday night assemblies.  It won’t be that edifying, though.  If we understand the grace of congregational worship and nature of pastoral authority then it’s not a matter of individual taste.  It’s a matter of humble submission.

I’m not arguing churches should or are required to have a Sunday night assembly.  This isn’t a discussion about a Christian “sabbath.”  But if a church does have a Sunday night assembly then every member should be there unless otherwise providentially hindered.  While a Sunday night gathering might not be a technical biblical injunction, it is not optional for any members of churches who have one.

1.  If congregational worship becomes dutiful then Sunday night attendance is the least of our concerns.  The New Testament does not give many specific details about how the early church ordered its worship.  We don’t know how long they sang, preached, prophesied, or ate together.  However, it does seem longer than shorter.  We do know they gathered often and joyfully (Acts 2.43-7).  While there is the eventual reference to a “first day” or “Lord’s Day” meeting (1 Cor 16.2; Acts 20.7), we cannot say that was the only meeting (Acts 2.46).

We also know the meetings were orderly (1 Cor 14), but not choreographed.

“On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul began talking to them, intending to leave the next day, and he prolonged his message until midnight” (Acts 20.7).

The church gathered and ate together in a way that prioritized the apostolic word.  They met for as long as they could without much fuss about the time.  Obviously, not all church meetings did or should last through midnight (otherwise, Luke wouldn’t consider it noteworthy).  And some would nod off after a while (v9).  Be careful, though, sleeping during church might kill you!

Nevertheless, we should accommodate our schedules around the church’s main assemblies (i.e. where there is primarily singing, reading, preaching, praying, and sacraments).  These Christians made sure they did not have anywhere else to be.  The church’s worship gathering was their priority, however long that was.

Morning came just as early for the blacksmiths, farmers, doctors, and seamstresses as it does for the 21st-century professions.  Yet they could stay past midnight because they loved feasting together around the ministry of the word.  They could lose a little sleep for the sake of more grace.  How flexible is our Sunday schedule that we can defer to the church if/when need be?  Why wouldn’t we want all the grace God has invested in congregational worship?

2.  If our pastors reasonably consider a Sunday night assembly good for us then we are obliged to obey them (Heb 13.17).  We do not have the liberty of overruling their counsel in the name of personal preference.  They are not explicitly commanded to hold a Sunday night assembly.  But if they deem it helpful for our souls then we submit and receive their ministry with all eagerness.

Obviously, they don’t hold unrestrained authority.  We certainly don’t obey if they organize a poker game on Sunday night in the name of discipleship.  However, insofar as they prioritize our spiritual care and that care is reasonably and biblically provided then we obey.

This also is not necessarily true for all church meetings (a Thursday night home Bible study, for example).  We do gather when and where our pastors offer the primary congregational elements of singing, reading, preaching, praying and ordinances.  We need not be at church every time the doors are open, but should be with the church every time the Word is opened, prayers are lifted, and the cup and bread are shared.

3.  Christians organize their lives for the edification of and service to the church (Phil 2.3-4).  The fact that we debate Sunday night meetings might well indicate something a deeper spiritual problem.  We organize our lives around, well, our lives, reserving only small slice of it for the church’s use.  Mind you, when I say “church” I don’t mean spending every night at a building cleaning cabinets, mowing grass or polishing stained glass.  I mean making our lives readily available for the encouragement of and service to brothers and sisters (and evangelism of unbelievers).  We don’t wait for a need to arise that we try to fit in our schedule.  We anticipate needs and make sure we’re free enough to meet them.

If we have a sister in need for and with whom we should devote an evening in prayer, she shouldn’t have to wait two weeks when our kids’ soccer team has a bye.  She is our priority.  We might not be able to drop everything right this second, but we should be able to soon set aside some things for her sake.

If we have a brother in dire need of encouragement or exhortation, he shouldn’t have to wait until softball season is over.  We build into our lives the flexibility to serve and sympathize with a brother in need.

If we live with this availability for our brothers and sisters then we’ll have very little issue with a Sunday night assembly.  It will simply be a natural by-product of gospel living.  That is not legalism.  It’s grace.  There is no “core” group in the church.  There is one body and one Spirit (Eph 4.4).

I have no idea if your church has a Sunday night assembly or not.  If not, there is no need to necessarily campaign for one.  Perhaps you meet with smaller groups or provide service ministries on Sunday nights.  If your pastors have considered those ministries beneficial then gladly participate in them.  Although, if your church has nothing on Sunday night and most folks just do their own thing then maybe you could encourage one.  Conversely, pastors shouldn’t feel obligated to “trick up” some service to coax people to return.

But if your church does have a corporate assembly,  not only can you not opt out of it, you cannot afford not to enjoy it.  “It is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace” (Heb 13.9).  And you want what’s good for you.

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