Moving to Multiple Services
Starting a second service is a wise way to facilitate gospel growth in your church. What are the issues that come with this move and how can we implement it well?
In a previous post, I explained the five options we presented to the church when we were 80% full on a Sunday morning at Grace Community Church. Planting, revitalisation and multi-site were all considered but in the end, we chose to start a second morning service.
In this post, I will explain how we implemented it so that you can learn from our mistakes.
The advantage of a multi-service model was obvious: we could double the seating capacity at virtually no extra cost. Furthermore, our observation was that churches doing this hadn't become separate churches with different identities because they still met in the same building.
So, what's not to like?
Well, two major issues actually, which are both important to address; one principle, the other practical.
A principle issue
Membership made decisions
Our church comes from an Independent Baptist church background: the church is not a building but a people, the family of God. The family is a unity and demonstrates that by meeting together and eating together (the Lord's Supper, with its powerful symbolism of “one loaf and one cup” (1 Corinthians 10:16-17)). It should be one interconnected body, where each part does its work for the whole to grow up into maturity (1 Corinthians 12:12-27; Ephesians 4: 15-16).
This ecclesiology also surfaces in the way that decisions are made. For us, this is the members’ meeting where the body discerns ‘the mind of Christ’. Some churches are more elder-led or elder-ruled than others, but all stress the unity of the membership in a commonality of life. So important are these theological insights that some argue that if the church can't practically outwork them, it must be too large.
I love this heritage and feel the power of the arguments. Yet the New Testament itself doesn't show such a simple picture.
Membership in the New Testament
Pentecost took a ‘medium-size church’ of 120 believers (Acts 1:15) and broke through many size barriers in one big hit. The next week there was a congregation of over 3,000 (Acts 2:41-47). Exceptional I know, but Luke goes on to record the growth in numbers till he stops counting at over 5,000 men (Acts 4:5). The practical problems didn't seem to ultimately conflict with the theological emphases and the out-working of issues like baptisms, Lord's Supper, prayers, and decisions.
While many or most New Testament churches were, as today, quite small or medium-sized (eg. Colossians 4:15b), some in places such as Rome, Ephesus, Antioch, Corinth, and of course Jerusalem seem as though they were huge. In Acts 20, for example, when Paul calls for the elders from Ephesus and speaks to them, the tone doesn't seem to imply that he is speaking to a small number of leaders from one little church (Acts 20:30 - difficult to say to three or four men!).
Such large churches could still work out the ‘body’ metaphor. The ecclesiological emphases mentioned above were discussed in letters written to the Romans, Corinthians, and Ephesians - that is, they were written to some of the largest churches. So how did they do that? Probably a strong commitment to the principles combined with a recognition of practical reality.
A hierarchy of principles
When asked about this issue, the influential Baptist theologian Don Carson pointed out to me what I have described above, but also underscored the ‘hierarchy of principles’ involved. He explained that it may be necessary to take a principled pragmatic way forward, risking some ecclesiological issues for the sake of not inhibiting gospel effect.
It may take time to resolve one problem (for example, obtaining a bigger building where we can still meet together as one congregation) while maintaining progress in another (by, for example, forming two congregations meeting at separate times).
All of this had to be discussed with our members so they could appreciate the pros and cons of the various options and understand some of the theological implications of the final option we went for.
A practical issue
The next question was more obvious. How are we going to actually make this happen?
On the journey together
We took time to note what others had got right, and wrong. We then considered how to take everyone with us on the journey. We thought about how such a major change could have the best chance of working while at the same time ensuring that it took the work of the gospel forward.
Quite a lot to think about!
We resolved that this process could take time. It was no good issuing diktats – that wouldn't take us far. Remember Acts 6:2-5: the apostles engaged everyone in the decision and got ownership. “The proposal pleased everyone”.
So, over several months at members' meetings, members gathering around tables seating eight to ten discussed the initial options for change and then later the pros and cons of going to two services.
In these meetings, it was important to let people express their concerns. Nearly all changes have pros and cons. Sometimes this will be unintended consequences or scary pitfalls. Other times there will be surprising benefits.
If leaders only want to hear the positives, members will wonder what they are hiding and will question if they are being manipulative to get their own way. It is much better to get the negatives, such as they are, out on the table so that leaders can maintain integrity, honestly acknowledge the difficulties, and begin to address them.
Then we had to drill down on the practical demands. We got all the team leaders that ‘make Sunday happen’ together. For us, that included set-up (we meet in a hired hall where everything needs putting out), welcome, coffee brewing and delivering, children's work, sound and vision, service leaders, musicians, preachers, and those doing children's talks.
All these teams gathered to discuss the possibility of going to two services. Then everyone was asked to go away and talk it through with their teams. We asked them to consider what it would take for their team to operate two separate morning meetings, how long would it take, how many extra people would be needed, and what problems they could see looming ahead of them. We gave plenty of time for this.
We came back together three months later. Most had worked hard at the challenges. They had operational requirements that had to be met, but all felt it could be done if they were addressed.
Service times and volunteers
One major issue for us was timings. The set-up team couldn't really be ready in time for a 9am start. "9am and 11am" would look great on publicity, but getting everything ready for those times, 52 Sundays a year, would put too much stress on our volunteers.
Some teams needed extra people, other teams realised they needed people with more appropriate training. We realised that this would give us an opportunity to approach fringe members of the church and offer them an opportunity to serve.
Armed with this, the teams set out to recruit people. Note that it wasn't church leaders who had to do this. They raised the issue but devolved as much as possible to the teams involved.
Finally, we had to decide on times. We were used to meeting at 10:30am but we weren't sure which service people would go to. So, we did a survey.
If we had met at 9am and 11am, most opted for 11am. At 9:30am and 11.30am, most opted for 9:30am. Those opting for 9:15am and 11:15am seemed to be fairly evenly spread, and that is what we went for. People were encouraged to go to whichever service suited them, and to change anytime they wanted to.
Across the summer months, we prepared to launch in mid-September – the time of year when historically we have seen the highest congregation numbers.
So, we went for it and reviewed it after six months.
Lessons to be learnt
What did we learn?
Hold your nerve
To start with it was weird. Our 80% full, bustling congregation was whittled down into two smaller ones, with plenty of empty space. There was no longer so much ‘buzz’. And preaching the same sermon twice, back-to-back, was odd at first.
But hold your nerve! It may feel a backward step because your eyes see a much less full hall so it feels a failure. Your head can't grasp that there is another congregation meeting - either earlier or later - because you only see one gathering at a time.
Give enough time
We learnt to give enough time for the building to empty out and fill up again. That means that planning to get everyone together between services to drink coffee and catch up isn’t always a good idea.
For us, we needed the car park to empty out so that it can fill up again. And people need to connect with new people they have just worshipped with so that they don’t get lost in the crowd.
The evening service
It also re-emphasised the usefulness of having an evening service.
With more people serving in the morning, the evening feels like an opportunity to engage in case you couldn't because you were busy in the morning. An evening service helps you engage with God’s word in case you missed it whilst serving on a Sunday School team or in the creche. It also means you can catch up with the people you have missed in the morning.
Mix your small groups
In addition, we ensured that our home groups were made up of people from both services. This really helped to keep the ‘one church’ feel.
Include the fringe
Fringe people did volunteer, too. They saw they were needed, and valued, and had a role to play.
Ten years of multiple services
We are nearly ten years into our multiple services now. Both morning meetings are beginning to get towards 75% full – so there will be more challenges to face soon. We have also been working towards a new venue that may enable us to meet once more as one whole congregation – something we look forward to.
Meanwhile, we have been able to re-plant a church and revitalise others by giving leaders away: a both/and solution to growth which we will need to keep working at.
My sense is that few feel the real unity of the church has been threatened. The main challenges come from the fact that the numbers overall are larger, more is happening, and it is busy. But I trust it is a gospel-driven busyness.
As far as we can see, the move to multiple services on a Sunday morning certainly seems to have unblocked a hold-up with the least hassle, compared to other options we had in front of us.
It is worth seriously thinking about, and properly planning for, if the ‘80% full’ problem is your bottleneck.