While some churches struggle to maintain attendance levels, an FIEC church in Hampshire has been experiencing a different kind of issue. Rachel Dalby has been finding out.
Cowplain Evangelical Church, part of FIEC for 80 years, has quadrupled in size over the past decade, challenging its leaders to fit everyone into the building.
Senior Pastor Phill Brown, who arrived in 2006, was thrilled with the growth but the church had no options to expand its current site or move to another. So, Phill and his team decided to completely rethink the structure of the church week.
He said: “There were times when the building wasn’t being used at all, so it made sense to provide worshippers with a bigger choice of services to attend.”
The team settled on moving to a three-service model on Sundays, each with a distinct feel and purpose. Two morning services, renamed The Discovery Service, designed to be ‘seeker-sensitive’, and an evening service, renamed The Discipleship Service, were launched.
Phill said: “To be seeker-sensitive is to be mindful that unchurched people will be among us and that we need to be respectful of that. We don’t call new people ‘visitors’, we call them ‘guests’. That means we treat them as guests, and do everything possible to help them feel comfortable because we want them to come back.
“We don’t compromise the biblical message in those morning services, but we do explain everything we’re doing. My welcome is always the same, because I am primarily addressing our guests.”
Phill admits that having such a mix of people in church makes preaching more challenging.
“But it’s great to know we have non-Christians sitting with us, and it encourages me to make what I say accessible, for example by avoiding jargon.”
The church serves refreshments after each morning service to provide quality time for fellowship, and that also gives opportunities to invite guests to other things.
Phill said: “The ongoing issue is how we better connect people to each other. In our Newcomers course we tell people that they can’t know everyone, but they must know someone. From there we encourage people to join a small group.”
Evening services at Cowplain provide detailed biblical teaching, and are very much geared towards building discipleship.
Phill said: “When I took up my role here, evening service attendance was very low. It was tempting to drop that service altogether.
“I said that if we were going to keep doing it, we needed to do it well. I know a lot of churches run evening services, but the main emphasis generally seems to be on the morning – relegating Sunday evenings to second position.
“I understand that some pastors may think they’ll run evening services just because they have to. But if we can’t really put in the effort, our congregation won’t either!”
After a great deal of consideration, Phill and the Elders decided to keep evening services but only on the basis that their quality matched the morning services.
“Some pastors mess around with their evening service and try something different each week, but we felt that people wanted to know what was going to happen,” said Phill.
“We settled on a simple format that would allow a focus on expository Bible teaching, so we spend the evening sessions going very slowly through a book of the Bible. In fact, it took us more than three years to go through Luke!”
Having observed people’s behaviour, the leaders knew that the congregation just wanted to go home after an evening service, so refreshments were moved to the beginning to ensure there was time for fellowship.
“This new format has been working well for us,” said Phill. “And, crucially, we now see our evening service as vital!”
But while the evenings attract a good level of attendance, Phill would like to see more people going along.
He said: “We’re constantly reminding people of the importance of attending in the evening. It’s something we have to keep on top of.”
The church, formed in 1885, now has over 250 people attending across the three services, with a good number of seekers in the morning.
Phill added: “The changes we’ve made mean that, at least for now, we’re able to accommodate everyone who comes through our door.”