More and more faithful United Methodists are sleeping in on Sunday morning and not feeling a bit guilty. That’s because they went to church on Saturday night.
Erinn Howard and her busy family are looking forward to having that option very soon.
Her church, Shiloh United Methodist in Cincinnati, is adding a Saturday evening worship service beginning Sept. 8. Even though she and her husband, Bryan, and their three children plan to continue to attend some Sunday mornings, the new service will add a little flexibility to their packed weekend schedule.
“To have all day on Sunday to sleep in, take it easy and not do much of anything . . . it’s going to be great to have that option,” she said.
Shiloh is hardly alone among United Methodist churches in adding a Saturday evening worship service. Such churches are finding that a Saturday option opens another avenue for reaching the unchurched, as well as a more relaxed option—especially for families with young children—and an alternative for people who work on Sundays.
“With the Saturday option, I think many families will be able to get to church more often,” said Shiloh UMC’s senior pastor, the Rev. Rachel Billups. “We recognize that, in the 21st century, not everybody has Sunday morning available.”
While specific numbers are difficult to find, an uptick in Saturday night worship services fits the overall trend among mainline Protestant churches, according to Cynthia Woolever, research director for the U.S. Congregational Life Survey. Those churches are adding new worship services, and since many have already adopted contemporary worship on Sunday mornings, Dr. Woolever believes that Saturday evening might represent the next wave.
“People who attend church are consumers and they want more options,” she said. “They want 32 flavors of ice cream and they want to attend church when it fits their schedule. In a way, it’s surprising it hasn’t moved faster in this direction.”
Saturday evening worship also resolves a conflict that some families face—what to do about Sunday morning sports events that involve the kids.
“I hate that we have sporting events on Sunday, but this way, we don’t have to choose and feel guilty about missing one or the other,” Ms. Howard said.
And in places like Cincinnati—which has a large Catholic population—the notion of Saturday night worship isn’t a hard sell. Because most Catholic churches offer daily mass—including a Saturday night service—“that’s when a lot of families go to church here,” Ms. Billups adds.
Niceville UMC in Niceville, Fla., is near Destin, a popular tourist spot, so many church members must work Sunday mornings. But the church’s Saturday evening service, begun in early 2011, was designed mainly to attract folks who might not ever turn up in a church on Sunday morning.
Called “Exchange,” the service has allowed worship leaders a chance to experiment—adding elements like colorful lights, rappers, fog and edgier, guitar-driven music that’s a little louder than usual.
And people seem to like it.
“I’m not sure if it’s the style or the fact that it’s Saturday night, but it’s our most engaged crowd,” said the Rev. Jeremy Smith, teaching pastor.
Chuck Tidwell, a church member who plays guitar for Exchange, added: “People seem to feel a little less inhibited on Saturday night.”
Dress is relaxed too. Worshippers are encouraged to “come as you are,” even if that means arriving a bit grubby after a day at the beach, mowing the lawn or playing soccer.
The time slot also frees up Mr. Tidwell to serve. On Saturday nights, he focuses on worship, then turns his attention to his work in the children’s ministry on Sunday mornings.
“The Saturday night worship just brings up such a wonderful option for people,” he said. “It’s a less churchy approach to church.”
Before Niceville started its Saturday night service, Mr. Smith did some research, calling on other churches in the region that had successfully added Saturday night worship services. While many churches once offered their “extra” worship services on Sunday evenings, that doesn’t work anymore for most families.
“What we found was that people are much less likely to get out on a Sunday night,” Mr. Smith said. “They want to stay at home to catch up on homework or laundry and get ready for the week.”
City on a Hill, a United Methodist congregation in Woodstock, Ga., added a Saturday night service on Easter eve in 2011—partly because the church was outgrowing its space and partly to try something new.
“We wanted a service that had a ‘concert’ feel,” said the Rev. Chris Bryant, City on a Hill’s pastor. “We’ve experimented with lighting, with social media. We invite people to tweet during the sermon.” The Saturday night service has its own mobile website which works like an app for interactive discussion.
The new service, which now averages around 80 people each week, yielded some surprises. Mr. Bryant said the church initially targeted 20-somethings on Saturday nights, but as it turned out, demographics on Saturday night mirror those of Sunday mornings, with a range of ages. There’s one regular attendee, in his late 70s, who brings earplugs.
“He likes the music, the atmosphere and the time slot, but the volume is just a little too loud for him,” Mr. Bryant said.
Another surprise: A fair number of folks who visit for the first time on Saturday nights later end up attending regularly—but on Sunday mornings. Mr. Bryant believes there’s something about Saturday evening worship that’s a little more approachable for new visitors. First-time visitors often tell him they saw the signs for the service, had already been thinking of attending the church, and weren’t busy that particular Saturday night.
“There’s just not a lot of pressure on Saturday night,” he said. “It starts at 6:30, late enough for people to get their Saturday errands done, and early enough that there’s still time if they want to go to dinner or a movie afterward.”
Saturday nights also open a venue for trying something a bit different.
St. John’s UMC in Albuquerque, N.M., has had some success with its monthly “Jazz Vespers” services at 5 p.m. on Saturdays, started two years ago. The church contracted with a local jazz pianist who enlisted other musicians and vocalists.
“We have a significant percentage who come for the music, but are then exposed to hymns, prayers and Word,” said the Rev. Craig Cockrell, senior pastor. Attendance initially averaged around 40-50, and has since doubled. About 10-15 percent who attend each month are first-timers. The church recently tried its first bluegrass Saturday service, which attracted 80 people.
When Hope Community UMC in Pasadena, Texas, near Houston, began in early 2011, the church scheduled its worship services for Saturday nights—only. The church was started with the intention of reaching people who are in recovery.
“As a recovering alcoholic, it has been my sense that recovering folk tend to struggle on Saturday evenings,” said the Rev. Jack Womack, pastor of Hope Community. With the workweek over—and Monday still a day away—it’s a time when temptation abounds for people struggling with addictions. Many had social lives centered on bars when they drank.
“Recovery is a lifestyle change,” he said. “You have to change your play places, your play mates and your playthings. In this case, church offers an alternative.”
The church, which now also offers a traditional Sunday morning service, hosts Alcoholics Anonymous and other recovery groups on Saturday afternoons and evenings, before and after the worship hour. The service is loosely-structured and informal. Mr. Womack works 12-step concepts, along with biblical teaching, into his sermons. Some weeks, attendees go out together for dinner.
Mr. Womack says he’s seeing lives changed.
“It’s exciting to watch people profess their faith and become active in their Christian lives,” he said. “It’s just a blast.”
Adding Saturday night worship offers a number of practical benefits: reducing Sunday morning parking pressure, multiplying a building’s usage with little extra cost, and increasing overall attendance.
But there are also challenges. A Saturday night service can place an additional stress on church staff members, who might normally take Saturdays off. To handle that, Niceville set up a rotation to make sure worship leaders weren’t working seven-day weeks. Similarly, City on a Hill now has one worship team dedicated just to Saturday night, to avoid burnout.
But some pastors report that, having delivered the weekend’s sermon, it’s easier to relax afterward on Saturday evening.
“This was an unintended benefit,” Mr. Bryant says. “It’s wonderful to preach on Saturday night and then go home and sleep on it.” If a sermon goes over well on Saturday, he can go in Sunday morning with confidence; if parts of the sermon didn’t quite hit the mark, he has a chance to tweak.
“Sunday mornings are so much better for me now,” he said.
Do’s and don’ts
Veterans of Saturday night worship have some tips to offer. Ms. Billups, who helped launch Saturday worship at her previous church, Evangelical UMC in Greenwood, Ohio, thinks the first weekend after Labor Day is a good time to start. That gives the new service time to build enough momentum to carry through the rocky summer months.
“Attendance always goes down in the summer anyway, so if your attendance dwindles to 20 or 25 people, it gets real hard,” she said. “It takes about two years for a Saturday worship to ‘stick.’”
Some experts say that churches should start an additional service only when average attendance exceeds 150-200, and only if the new service has something different to offer, so as to appeal to new people.
That’s what happened at Niceville UMC.
“The people who are showing up for Exchange are not your typical churchgoers,” said Mr. Smith. “It’s a little more of your people on the margin.”
Added Mr. Tidwell: “It’s yet another bridge to bring the unchurched into the kingdom. We create the space, and the Holy Spirit does the work.”