I often joke at conferences that the Episcopal Church is the only church in the world where people call us up and ask, “What time is your 8’o’clock service?”
For some churches the answer may be 8 o’clock, and for others it could be 7:30 or 7:45, but we know what they mean. Why we have 8 o’clock services and the problem they create for many of our churches is an important topic that I will address in a moment. First, it makes for a great introduction to the subject of service times. I was pulled into this topic recently when a friend asked if I had ever done a blog on service times. I had not, but I do have a number of things to say on the topic.
First, let’s establish the norm for our Pastoral Size (ASA 75 to 150) congregations. These churches, the norm from the American Revolution till around 2000, tended after World War I to have a two service format. First, the main service was usually at 10 or 10:30am. This varied by region and the time was based on how long it took farmers to take care of the livestock and then load their families onto wagons and get to church. In the West where we have larger spreads, it was normally 10:30 to allow for the wider distances. Of course, almost no Episcopalians work on farms now, but this long-standing pattern established the principle that “Prime Time” for most churches was between 9am and noon. I will return to the issue of Prime Time in a moment, but what about 8 o’clock services.
When I ask clergy why we have an eight o’clock tradition, most respond with either “People like a quieter more traditional service without music” or “Some people prefer the earlier time to allow them to get off to the golf course or wherever.” These are some of the reasons we have these services NOW, but they are not why we have an 8 o'clock tradition. The origin lies in a historical fact that almost no current Episcopal Clergy would ever understand.
You see before the liturgical revisions brought about by the Oxford Movement, the typical service on a Sunday in TEC was Morning Prayer. The two most common patterns were Communion once a month for higher church folks and Communion four times a year for broad church folks. When more clergy and laity wanted to have more frequent opportunity to receive Holy Communion (they never would have called it the Eucharist) then a good alternative was to institute an 8 o’clock alternative. It was an effective strategy because it meant change without having to disrupt the tradition of most members. By the way, attendance was always lower on Communion Sundays because non-confirmed people could not receive communion (a fact that most Episcopalians have completely forgotten!)
Once the radical idea emerged in Prayer Book Revision that Holy Communion or the Eucharist was the standard for churches on Sundays, the Oxford Movement had reached one of its most profound influences in TEC. With the 79 Prayer Book, we moved on to this now normative formula, but alas the 8 o’clock remained and became for most folks the refuge for those who love traditional English. Now, of course, it is about golf, breakfast, shopping or whatever. I say “alas” because this eight o’clock tradition (what time is your 8 o’clock service?) often gets in the way of growing congregations.
This brings me back to the issue of ideal service times. Given that this depends some on geographical locations and time zones, the NFL plays on Sunday mornings on the West Coast, here are some important points to ponder.
For most churches, Prime Time remains between 9am and 10:45. Starting before 9am is just too early for families with younger children and impossible for families with teenagers. 10:45 is the earliest you can start a main service and end near noon. This isn’t so much for the popular idea that if you go beyond noon, the Baptist will beat us to the restaurants, but rather that noon marks a significant shift in the day and families with younger children will find it much harder to keep the hungry critters quiet.
Most Pastoral Size congregations, as I pointed out above, have a 10/10:30 main service and an 8 o’clock format. It would be far better for them to have a 9 or 9:30 service aimed at families with younger children. It is not, of course, simply to have it for these families, but to find creative ways to keep all generations engaged in the service.
Imagine you are planting a new Episcopal Church that will start by sending a church planter to a community. One would start with one service at say 10am and when the congregation gets large enough than shift to a two service format say 9 and 10:30 and largely use the same liturgy, music, and sermon for both. This is the typical pattern used by Lutheran and many Methodist plants and it works well in allowing the congregation to grow to over 150 ASA. Remember Lutherans and Methodists don’t have an 8 o’clock tradition!
Now even though this works and many Episcopal Churches of Pastoral Size would greatly benefit from such a Sunday morning schedule, two problems immediately arise.
First, what to do with the already existing 8’oclock service? This is sensitive because in many churches the early attenders give a much higher percentage than their later service time attenders. One church I worked with recently told me that 70% of the income comes from 12 regularly attending members at the 8’oclock service. All this makes creating space for the newer Family Service very hard. Warning, do not try to combine both into an 8:30 service, neither group will be happy!
Second, what do we do with Christian Education? If you have a 10 or 10:30 service, chances are that you have Church School just before the main service and you cannot figure out how to fit Christian Education between two major services on Sunday without moving the later service into starting too late. 11am is too late!
The answer to this second issue is a bit complex, but let’s turns to our Baptist friends for the clue. Most Baptists have a Bible School at 10am (for all ages based on age, gender, or school grades) followed by a 1 hour service with hymns, sermon, offering, and altar call set to 16 verses of “Just as I am” but ending by noon. Why do they do this? Because Baptists give Prime Time (10am) to what is most important for them, the class format study of the Bible. For Episcopalians, it is simple. Our Prime Time should be given to Liturgy. It is our “thing” after all!
The more important issue for churches wanting to appeal to younger families at an earlier service is not what time the Church School will be, but rather can we get volunteers to cook up a breakfast before the 9 o’clock service. This takes a tremendous burden off parents and especially single parents. At the Cathedral in Dallas, we found that kids can even help prepare and serve the breakfast.
So, here is the consultant question. You can send me a check if you use it. “If we could start from scratch, how would we structure our Sunday morning, especially in Prime Time, to appeal to a wider group of individuals and families?”
What about Christian Education and the present 8’oclock service? See my next blog!