Churches adapt to make the most out of midweek worship.
By Jeff Brumley
The look and feel of the Wednesday night church service is beginning to change as congregations – at least the ones trying to survive – seek to become more intentional and relevant to the communities they serve, ministers and scholars say.
Those experts say they’re noticing the shift as Baptist and other churches want to ensure they’re putting that traditional gathering to best use for members who are increasingly crunched for time.
The result is a mish-mash of different formats, some designed to compensate for the dwindling Sunday school hour, and others seeking to give congregants a mid-week spiritual boost.
Either way, the solution is likely to be as different for each church, said Brent Beasley, leader of the “Transforming Wednesday Nights for Adults” seminars at the 2012 CBF General Assembly.
“I told the groups at the workshops there is no panacea,” said Beasley, senior pastor at Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas.
Beasley said he grew up attending Baptist churches where Wednesday nights were an unquestioned routine of corporate prayer and Bible reading that broke into smaller ministry meetings, such a choir and youth groups.
Churches can no longer afford to assume anything works, especially with families being pulled in different directions by competing, outside options, he said.
“It forces us to become a little more intentional about what we do with that time because people are really having to make an effort to be there,” Beasley said.
‘Back to the drawing board’
At Broadway, that meant a period of experimentation ranging from “Bible study to yoga” and finally settling on a contemplative prayer service. It was in keeping with the church’s formal, liturgical worship style but in a simpler format.
“It was a natural fit for our folks,” he said, adding it’s held in the chapel while other activities, such as choir practice, continue in other parts of the building.
But Beasley said that may not work for other churches. “They may need to go back to the drawing board” to learn what does.
Those who study and teach about worship said that’s just what congregations are doing.
‘All over the map’
“None of these things are monolithic,” said Jim Hart, president of the Robert E. Webber Institute of Worship Studies in Jacksonville, Fla.
Hart said a majority of the school’s students are Baptists — CBF, Southern Baptist and Independent — and the rest mostly from other evangelical Protestant traditions. Most of them are re-examining how they do Wednesday nights, Hart said.
“And it’s all over the map,” he said. “Some are doing more historical, traditional forms of worship and others are experimenting” with catechism programs or praise and worship to balance out Sunday worship.
“And many churches have rejected Wednesday nights altogether,” Hart said.
‘Dying on the vine’
One of those is Lake Oconee Community Church near Athens, Ga., said Becky Matheny, its pastor of spiritual development.
Matheny is a CBF-trained minister and the former campus minister at the University of Georgia, where she learned to be creative with Wednesday night services to keep students and faculty coming back.
At the multi-denominational church she now ministers, Matheny said its congregation of retirees weren’t as interested in an anchored Wednesday night service as they were having spiritually meaningful fun.
So they have a variety of activities — ranging from movie and game nights to guest lectures – on different days or nights of the week.
That model could work on Wednesday nights, too, Matheny said.
“The local churches, at least the ones I see, are dying on the vine, and one reason they’re dying is they are not keeping up with the needs of their parishioners,” she said.
“And what do they need? Probably not to go to church on Wednesdays and get the same thing that’s always been done.”
Origin of mid-week church
But the fact Wednesday nights are undergoing transformation is nothing new, said Bill Leonard, professor of church history and Baptist studies at the Wake Forest University School of Divinity.
Wednesday gatherings began in the late 19th century as lay-led, mid-week prayer services in frontier churches that had itinerant pastors.
“It was a kind of evangelical Protestant vespers service,” he said.
Denominational churches adopted the format in the early 20th century and added music programs, congregational meals and, sometimes, preaching. Within a few years, Wednesdays had become the time when different ministries within congregations would meet.
Now it’s changing again, he said, due in part to the well -documented decline in Sunday school attendance nationwide.
“Many churches have shifted their Bible teaching or general instruction to Wednesday nights,” he said. The demise of the Sunday-night service that began in the late 1900s also is “feeding this Wednesday night movement.”
Craig Nash said he’s convinced his congregation’s approach to Wednesday nights is sound after hearing Leonard speak about the changing sociology of Sunday mornings.
Nash is the community pastor at University Baptist Church in Waco,Texas, where Wednesdays are now spent in quiet reflection.
“It’s the practice of rituals that deepen our faith,” he said. “We recite the Lord’s Prayer, take communion and share and pray over requests from our community.”
For years the church tried to do what other churches did on Wednesday nights – which was to have a “Sunday worship lite” followed by breaking into small groups.
But that led to time when there were fewer people in the seats than on the stage, he said.
Now they consistently see 30 or more on Wednesday nights because it offers a chance to slow down, he said.
“Our Wednesday service looks nothing like what we do in our real lives,” he said. “We sit in a circle, sing old hymns and say corporate prayers.”