By Debra McKinney Banks
Visit a Seventh-day Adventist church these days, and it is no longer guaranteed that the service will start at 11 a.m. No one really knows the history of when or where the 11 o’clock Sabbath worship time began. Plausible theories from pastors and historians posit that during more agrarian times, farming families needed to tend to the livestock and finish the chores before attending church. Whatever the reason, most people don’t maintain that farming lifestyle anymore. Today some pastors have discovered that holding Sabbath services at non-traditional times—either before or after 11—are becoming more of a necessity to meet the missional needs of their flocks.
Potomac Conference’s Beltsville (Md.) church is a multi-site congregation where services are held at two facilities—one in Beltsville and another on Tech Road in nearby Silver Spring, Md. Tim Madding, lead pastor, shuttles between the two each Sabbath. He starts the day preaching at the 9:30 a.m. worship service in Beltsville, drives to the Tech Road campus to preach at 10:45 a.m., and hops back in his car to preach for the second Beltsville service at noon. With a church membership of around 1,000, the three services are seen as a necessity. “Both campuses are very active, and the choice in doing the schedule this way is more convenient,” Madding says. However convenience was never the driving force. “Any change needs to be mission driven,” he adds. “When a church decides to make a change for convenience, it undermines people’s traditional culture. It’s not an easy sell. It has to be for a purpose of fulfilling the church’s mission.”
Chesapeake Conference’s New Hope church in Fulton, Md., experienced a parking issue that prompted them to consider implementing a second service. Kumar Dixit was a pastor at New Hope during this change several years ago. The leadership team worked with the elders and church board on a solution. Moving up the main worship service to 10:30 a.m. and adding a second service at 12:30 p.m. seemed to be the answer, and is maintained today.
Mountain View Conference’s Ripley (W.Va.) church regularly starts Sabbath School at noon and holds divine worship at 1 p.m. Jason Johnson pastors both the Ripley and Charleston (W.Va.) churches. A previous pastor who wanted to worship with both congregations each Sabbath changed the schedule. Johnson no longer holds two services, but instead alternates Sabbaths between the churches. Surprisingly, the Ripley congregation wanted to keep the later service time. “We actually had some tension when we discussed moving it back to [the traditional] time. Frankly, it was working for them. Some people drive more than an hour to get to the church. They liked not having to rush around in the morning,” Johnson says. “It also frees me up as a pastor in case I have to be at both churches for special services.”
In 2015 Potomac Conference’s Restoration Praise Center (RPC) in Bowie, Md., decided to move the formal service on the first Sabbath of each month for an entirely different reason other than pastoral or crowd logistics. RPC is a church brimming with new, young families and more than 110 children.
The leadership team, led by Pastor Paul Graham, surveyed the congregation and learned that many would welcome more time to spend their mornings in personal worship, family time or service ministries. After much dialogue, the church designated the first Saturday of each month as “Great Commission Sabbath,” with services beginning at 2:30 p.m. During the free time before the church service, members were encouraged to participate in Grow Groups—family units organized by locality around the metro area to fellowship together, nurture each other, engage in evangelism, encourage spiritual growth and development and spend time ministering in the community. “Having two services to accommodate people was not an option,” says Graham. “Instead, we looked at setting a later time for service so people would feel more rested before coming to worship and open an additional opportunity for ministry.”
Like any change, the move was met with opposition. “More conservative members had a tough time. It was difficult for me, too,” says Graham. “However, if you state why, especially if it’s an edifying reason, more people will be on board.”
In addition to needing buy-in from members, there are other factors to consider when changing up the worship schedule.
Managing multiple church services depends on committed individuals to keep things flowing and requires people to participate in numerous roles, so finding enough volunteers to participate can be a challenge. “We basically had team captains for various areas like the greeter ministry, children’s story, etc., and relied on them to take on the task of filling the morning and afternoon services,” says Dixit.
The time shift also impacts would-be guests who are unaware of the shift. “Visitors were lost because they would come at the typical times. Members had no problem, but for visitors, we had to explain what was going on,” says Kermit Netteburg, current Beltsville member and retired pastor of the church, who was instrumental in establishing the time changes to accommodate the growing congregation.
How has it Worked?
Netteburg reports positive results from Beltsville’s change. “Many members really liked a Sabbath School starting at 10:45. A Sabbath day of rest became more enjoyable. People could get up at a more leisurely pace and eat breakfast together as a family,” he says.
New Hope continues to hold two services. The services are identical, but the family supplements aren’t, says Mike Speegle, lead pastor. The church hosts Kids Church and Kids Care every week during first service, but not during second. “The benefits, besides the option of timing, are that it allows us to meet the needs of more people. Our first service is normally packed, some weeks with overflow. By having a second service [averaging around 130 people, a majority of which don’t have school-age children] we’re able to provide more space and a different feel for those [who] attend,” Speegle says.
New Hope leaders are also considering adding an additional Saturday evening service that would target a specific segment of the community. “We recognize our responsibility as a church, and a people, is to meet people where they are,” he adds.
After experimenting with an afternoon service, RPC leadership re-evaluated and decided not to hold a formal worship service on the first Sabbath of the month. Instead, members are encouraged to worship and actively engage in ministry with their Grow Groups. Graham adds, “We wanted to send a message that when you are engaged in ministry, when you are out in the community doing God’s work, that is church.”