One of my favorite parts of traveling the country and meeting so many pastors and churches is seeing creative new approaches to church taking off. One such approach that’s been catching my attention lately is non-traditional service times. There are churches out there getting creative with services to help people connect with Jesus and with each other.
One such church is The Vineyard Church in Syracuse, NY. I caught up with Pastor John Elmer to ask him how trying different service times has made an impact in his church. The Vineyard Church averages about 1,450 people in attendance each weekend at four different sites. At the original site, they’ve had a Saturday 5 p.m. service for eight years now. Attendance has grown from 60 to 225. For them, starting a Saturday service was an easy shift, as many people in their area are from Catholic backgrounds where Saturday evening Mass was commonly attended. Not too long ago, they introduced a Thursday night “Early Weekend Service.” Here’s what John had to say about it:
TONY: What prompted you to start a service on a day other than Sunday?
JOHN: I started our Early Weekend Service (Thursday, 6:30 p.m.) because I realized what a huge need there was for it. A third of the American workforce works on the weekend. At least 60% of families with children between the ages of 6 – 17 participate in organized sports, with many of those having weekend events. We are located in an area where a large number of people have camps/vacation homes that affect their attendance during the summer. Throw in both parents working and chores to be done, lawns to be mowed and families just wanting to spend time together, and church on the weekend wasn’t always making it on the calendar.
TONY: How did you implement the change?
JOHN: I had been sitting on this idea for awhile. I prayed about the change and listened to people’s stories. Whenever I ran into someone I hadn’t seen at church in awhile I would ask for reasons why. Oftentimes, it was a work issue or the weekend busyness that I spoke about earlier. Once I was sure God was in this, I cast vision to our staff. We set a date and started recruiting volunteer teams. I beat the drum hard for weeks at church, did a postcard mailing to residents in the area, and used email and social media to get the word out.
TONY: What was the biggest obstacle to overcome?
JOHN: Surprisingly, the congregation seemed to love the idea from the beginning. The biggest obstacle was structuring it so my staff and their spouses caught the vision and wouldn’t get stretched too thin. I had a conversation with them and said I wanted three things for the pastoral staff: to have a great family life, to have a loving and fresh relationship with Jesus and to work hard for 45-50 hours per week. With that in mind, we talked about how they could do that while starting this new service. (We already had a Saturday evening service and three services on Sunday.)
Each pastor is able to work a schedule that fits best for their family. (i.e. taking a half day off during the week, coming to either the Thursday or Saturday evening service.)
TONY: How many are attending your “Early Weekend” service? What percentage is that of your overall attendance?
JOHN: After launching only seven weeks ago, we are averaging 153 on Thursday nights out of our overall attendance of 1,450. This is 11% of our total attendance, 14% of this site.
TONY: Who attends these services? Is it previously connected people who used to attend a Sunday service? Is it people who would not normally attend a service on a Sunday?
JOHN: Since we haven’t even reached two months yet, I am still getting my arms around it. But, here’s what it seems like so far:
- 30% are regular attendees who like the time and style better (we specifically are doing acoustic worship) and have made this their main service.
- 30% are people who were on the fringe at this church (attended once a month or less,) but are now attending regularly.
- 20% were previously unchurched and recently started attending. (The first week we had four salvations.)
- 20% are people who normally would attend a Saturday or Sunday service but had a conflict that particular weekend.
TONY: What encouragement or caution would you share with other churches considering this move?
JOHN: I would strongly encourage other churches to consider this concept. It opens up a new group of people to whom we can reach with the Gospel. (The attendance at our other services has not been affected.) It is building greater consistency in attendance which gives us more opportunity to disciple people. If a move to Thursday is good enough for the NFL, blockbuster movie openings and sales at Macy’s, why not the church? Let’s not make the tradition of services on Sunday the barrier to opening up our services to others.
My cautions are:
- Make it seem out of the box. That’s why we decided to call it the “Early Weekend Service.” We want people to catch the idea that it is the Sunday service, just on a Thursday. It’s not just a mid-week service to fill their time.
- If you’re going to do it, go all out! We have full children’s ministry, quality worship and an attentive host team. As quickly as you are able, build your serving teams with people who want it to be their main service so that a sense of community and connection can happen.
- Figure out how you and your staff can live with this extra service. It changes the flow of the work week. Your finish line was just moved up by at least a day. Think through all that will need to be done and if you can do it well for the long term. Be willing to adjust responsibilities to keep the long term health of the team.