Here are some suggestions to improve the meeting pattern for those churches that are basically traditional in their approach.
Our churches must regularly evaluate our meeting patterns. There is no guidance from the Word on what time of the day a church should meet on the Lord’s Day. A church is not more or less spiritual if its meetings begin at 9 a.m. or 3 p.m. All the considerations for the times of meeting are strictly practical in nature.
Why do you meet when you do? Is it, "Because we have always done it this way"? If you meet at 9:30 a.m. for Bible Study and 11:00 a.m. for worship, or something close to that, it is likely because 100 years ago the farmers had to milk their cows and gather their eggs before starting out for worship. But why do you do it now?
A second question is this one: Does your meeting pattern allow you to do what you believe really needs to be done in your meetings? For those who are just church attending and probably not believers among you, there is little concern to lengthen the time of meeting. If worship is too long for them, they fidget and complain. But for you who are true believers and godly leaders, there is often far too little time allowed to accomplish what you believe God wants you to do in worship. One side is saying, "Less is better," and the other, "More is better." I recommend that you listen to the godly and not the ungodly.
In a worship service, there are a number of practices regulated by Scripture that need to be included which are very difficult to accomplish in a short hour together. For instance, there should be meaningful prayer. A church gathering together on the Lord’s Day should not just have a breezy minute in prayer in a spot or two in the service, but at least one extended time for prayer, or perhaps two. Since the center of attention in the service is not man but God, surely praying a long time would be a reasonable exercise for the church. During such a time in our church, we prefer to have the people kneel or stand since the Bible often speaks of bowing down or standing in prayer.
God also prescribes that the Word be read and preached. Many churches will read from one to three chapters each Lord’s Day. And the sermon, if it is developed in any degree, will be at least forty-five minutes to over an hour in length. We must also have the singing of Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. There may be testimony and other contributions from the body. In addition to these items, we must also add the Lord’s table and baptism when appropriate.
It is easy to see that a mere hour in worship is not sufficient to do justice to what God wants from us, even if you insist that the pastors preach a bit less. Having preached in many places in the world and all over the United States, I think that I can say with some experience that an hour is pitifully shy of what we need. It is frankly nearly impossible to really worship the Lord well in less than an hour and a half to two hours.
What else should be done on the Lord’s Day? Most of us try to take advantage of the day to teach the Word in small groups. In most cases this plan is still a useful one. Perhaps the main reason small group Bible study is useful is because of the exercise of the gifts. It permits people to use their gift of teaching, or exhorting, or organizing. A Bible study time also permits the people to speak up about what they are learning in a forum that welcomes their input. But when should it be done? Must it always be before the worship time? In the early days of Sunday school, the young students came from across the neighborhood for a Sunday afternoon meeting to study the Word. I’ve seen this pattern in other parts of the world in our day also. At this time, the adults are free to be the teachers since the focus is on children. But how long should it last? Must there be an "opening assembly" and then the division into groups? Does the Bible have anything to say about this? Absolutely nothing.
Should there be an evening service? Does the Bible prescribe it? No, nothing is said concerning whether the early church met once or twice. It is an amoral issue. For this reason, we must not hesitate to change our meeting patterns if they can be improved, and we must not say that some other church is disobeying God by exchanging the normal meeting patterns for something they think is more useful.
Here is a suggested meeting pattern. It may not be useful for you, but it will at least serve to demonstrate that other patterns might meet our needs better.
11:45-12:00 Coffee/donut break
12:00-1:00 Bible Study in groups
1:00- ? Meal and "talk"
What are the benefits of this plan? There are several [NOTE – I wrote the following when I was part of a church that was more traditional in its approach]:
- It provides enough time to do what God requires. All of the elements of worship that we believe God expects of us can be included without our being rushed.
- Meeting one time on the Lord’s Day allows people to drive from a distance to worship with us. We have home group meetings during the week in the various locales, so that the people who are participating only drive a long distance once a week. Some of our people drive over an hour, and others forty-five minutes. I am convinced that we would either create frustration or would have far less people if we chose to have two services on Sunday. In my view, meeting once has practical benefits for most churches whether in the country or large city for this reason.
- Having the evening off gives the families time to prepare for the next day and have some rest, or it allows for some hospitality among members. Sometimes our elders and their families meet in the evening and have dessert together. At other times we invite friends over. Often we just relax and read together as a family.
- Having a covered dish meal (note: nobody coordinates it because we don’t want to make things difficult) allows us as a church to accelerate our relationships with each other. Usually the entire church stays for the meal. Crock pots are all around. We don’t even have a useable kitchen in our rented facilities, which, interestingly, might be better since the ladies don’t feel that they have to warm dishes up, etc. The ladies have learned to make simple dishes most of the time. If they wish to prepare something special, that is their prerogative. Guests are invited to stay because there is always enough food. The afternoon is spent in leisurely conversation, mostly of spiritual significance. The children enjoy their friends. The atmosphere is like a family reunion and "your kids are my kids." The afternoon often provides a convenient time for elders to have a brief meeting, or for ladies to plan activities, or for the elders to interview prospective members, etc. Most people do not leave until 3:00 or 4:00. I have seen them stay until 7:00! Because we eat so late, the donuts are important, by the way.
- Having our schedule run past noon says to the world and to other believers that we have given the day to the Lord. Nobody gets fidgety in our church because we have made the decision a long time ago that the day is the Lord’s. Because the meal follows, we don’t worry about getting to the restaurant or about the roast burning in the stove at home. We believe that the Lord’s Day gathering is not principally about church growth and evangelism, although we believe that churches ought to grow (we have) and ought to evangelize (we do). The worship gathering of the church is a time for believers and their families to seek the face of God. Therefore, we can take time to do that. We are not letting the likes or dislikes of those who are not believers determine how or how long we will give to adoring and learning from God. We’re not pleasing them; we are seeking to please God.
Is it right for you to make changes in your meeting pattern? I really don’t know, of course, because our situations are varied. I would suggest that you consider making changes similar to the ones I mentioned above as a short-term plan first, perhaps for three or six months, and then evaluate the pros and cons. Some of you might wish to use this plan or something similar as a summer pattern of meeting. In this way you will have time to see how well it works for you.
There are more important matters than meeting times for the church to deal with; however, freshness in this area is often helpful in providing the kind of time and atmosphere for truth to be taught and authentic worship to take place. Other churches have adopted our plan with great benefit. Some have modified it in various ways (for instance, our new church start meets in the evening and begins with a meal). Whatever you decide, you must remember to make time for the most important aspects of our life together. This is the Lord’s Day. Give it to Him!