The Death of Sunday Night Church
August 14, 2016
Sunday night church was the most evangelistic of our weekly services at the Elmore Church of God in the 1950s. The hymns on Sunday night were more personal and convicting than those on Sunday morning. They spoke of sin, death, and man’s willfulness. The sermon on Sunday evening pointed directly to the altar, and there was a heartrending altar call at the end of each service. I myself was under conviction during several Sunday night services, fearing death as an unsaved sinner, possibly in a fiery crash on a curve beside the Portage River on the three-mile trip home from church. The darkness outside underscored the darkness of the world, and we could feel the need for protection against both.
The need for our sheltering sanctuary was brought home to us one dark and stormy Sunday night when our pastor issued an alarming prophecy. His voice rose in a nearly falsetto tremolo and he prophesied: “The day is coming when the doors of churches will be closed on Sunday night all over America! The doors will be locked, and the churches will be dark and cold. Many churches are dark already on Wednesday nights! How long will churches have services on Sunday night? I’m telling you, my friends, that dark time is drawing near.”
This was electrifying news to me. This was 1951, I was eleven years old, and I could envision the threat. Communists had raged across China, and their atheistic dogma was already bringing a living death on the Soviet Union. Hitler’s totalitarian fantasy was a fresh memory, and it might return. Could America be next? Hearing the preacher’s prophecy, I imagined a decree coming from some future tyrant, ordering that churches be locked up on Sunday nights. Wednesday night prayer meetings might be outlawed sooner. A cold, dark, and frightening image of the future came to my mind’s eye. I pictured our little congregation as a light in the coming darkness. We seemed to be heroic, meeting on Sunday night, even when the lights would soon be going out in churches all over America.
As a young, barely Christian boy, the thought of closing the church on Sunday night was both chilling and liberating. Canceling Sunday night church would be an offense against God, I thought, but wouldn’t I then have more time to play? Couldn’t I then do my homework on Sunday night, rather than on Saturday or on Sunday afternoon? I must have been hearing the enchanting voice of Satan, pointing out my gain in the face of the church’s loss.
Indeed, Sunday night church was often a challenge even for kids. If we were lucky, we would have played hard all afternoon, worked ourselves into a lather, and would require at least a change of shirts before leaving the house. For our parents it was an even greater challenge. They had to corral all their children, provide a stopgap supper, and herd them into the car. Parents’ chores could be especially hard in summertime when the sun hung temptingly in the sky until after time for church. In winter, the cold weather tried to intimidate the faithful, and cheery electric lights pleaded with them to stay at home and read, pop popcorn, or play table games. And these temptations were mild compared to the onslaught of television that would soon come with full force, later reinforced by Christian cable TV and even later by online church services. Sunday night church faced an array of Philistine armies.
Note: It came to pass, not suddenly but eventually, that Sunday night church was abandoned in at the Elmore Church of God and at similar churches across the land. The preacher’s prophecy in 1951 was fulfilled, but not in the way I expected. No dictator or legislature has ordered that churches be closed on Sunday evenings. Sunday night services in Elmore ceased while my back was turned sometime between 1957 and 1987. By then I barely noticed the absence of Sunday night church because the churches I attended during that time either had abandoned it or had never had Sunday evening services.
In fact, some churches remain open on Sunday evening, and as recently as 2014 there was a lively online discussion of Sunday night church instigated by Thom S. Rainer, president of Lifeway Christian Resources. Mr. Rainer lists reasons that might explain why churches ever had Sunday evening services, as well as reasons they have been so widely abandoned. He offered no conclusive explanation for why some churches still have Sunday night services, but he offered several forces that have contributed to their decline. This discussion is available at this link