A Case for Evening Worship
Sacred Rest and the Public Means of Grace
The evening service has fallen on hard times, indeed. In fact, it is now unusual for churches to hold two worship services on the Lord’s Day. Even where two worship services are held, the second (or evening) service is poorly attended. This lack of an evening (or afternoon) service in Protestant churches is a new phenomenon. In the first four centuries after the Reformation, most churches met for worship twice on the Lord’s Day and both services were considered important. Only in the last fifty years has the evening service become so uncommon as to be a veritable oddity; in fact, it has all but disappeared.
Part of the reason for this—especially in churches that belong to broad evangelicalism—is the fact that there is no explicit biblical requirement to hold two services, though, as we shall see, there are several passages that are suggestive. That this explicit command is lacking does not mean that the traditional practice of holding two services is without any biblical basis, nor does it mean that the loss of an evening service is insignificant.
Some Suggestive Biblical Texts
Because we lack an explicit or direct command to have two services of worship on the Lord’s Day does not mean that the question is settled. As we see in our Confession of Faith, what is deduced from Scripture by good and necessary consequence is also binding. Thus, we will look at several texts that are certainly suggestive of properly holding two services, even if they do not immediately end the discussion with a resounding victory for the “two services position.”
“A Holy Assembly”
The Fourth Commandment is a key text for our understanding of what is permissible during the appointed day of worship. Overlooked, however, is how this moral law is applied and expounded in the Levitical case laws. Leviticus 23:3 is pertinent: “Work may be done on six days, but on the seventh day there must be a Sabbath of solemn rest, a holy assembly.” The Sabbath day is a day of rest for God’s people, but the idea of “rest” must be understood by considering the holiness of the day. The two terms that enlarge our understanding of this rest are found in Leviticus 23:3: “a…solemn rest” and “a holy assembly.” The term “solemn rest” (shabat shabaton) first points out that this rest is to be coupled with solemnity. Our Sabbath rest is not merely a rest of relaxation, but a rest that is sacred. The second term, “a holy assembly” (mikrah-kodesh), refers to the people’s assembly for religious purposes. The grammar of Lev. 23:3 is such that the first phrase (“a…solemn rest”) expands on the second (“a holy assembly”). Therefore, we can say that the people were to set apart the Sabbath as holy by enjoying a sacred rest in the worship of God. The Sabbath is a day that is supposed to be uniquely set apart for worshipping God. Whatever work we do during the other six days, our labor on the Lord’s Day—our focus—is worship.
Holding two worship services on the Lord’s Day is one conspicuous way of fulfilling the purpose of the Christian Sabbath; it helps us keep the day holy by beginning and ending the day with the worship of God. It is difficult to set apart the whole day as a day of sacred rest and worship when there is only one service. When there are two services, the whole day is organized around the worship services because the worship services are the focus of the day. This helps us make the Lord’s Day the Lord’s Day. Thus, the practice of holding two services on the Lord’s Day is a reasonable application of the command to make the Lord’s Day a day of sabbath rest and a holy assembly.
“Your Steadfast Love by Morning, Your Faithfulness by Night”
A further support for two services on the Lord’s Day is found in the pattern of morning and evening sacrifices in the temple worship commanded by God in the Old Testament. In Numbers 28:1–8, we read that the Lord required that two lambs be sacrificed each day, one in the morning and the second at twilight. I must emphasize that these sacrifices were acts of worship. They reminded the people of Israel of sacrifice as the way of forgiveness; understood through the lens of Christ’s first coming, this suggests the propriety of God’s people having times set apart for worship at the beginning and end of the day. The same passage commands additional sacrifices and offerings on the Sabbath. Worship on the Sabbath was intensified, and it took place morning and evening.
Psalm 92:1–2 reflects this practice when it speaks of morning and evening worship. “It is good to give thanks to the Lord, to sing praises to your name, O Sovereign One; to declare your steadfast love in the morning, and your faithfulness by night.” Does this amount to an explicit command to Christians that they worship together twice each Lord’s Day? It does not. But it does demonstrate that the pattern of morning and evening worship on the Lord’s Day is not an arbitrary tradition, but a reflection of how the Sabbath was kept in the Old Testament.
The Synod of Dort and the Evening Service
Best known as the international gathering brought together to deal with the issues arising from the Remonstrance and resulting in the Canons of Dort, there is a further, little-known history of the Synod of Dort that took place before the deliberations that produced the Canons. The Synod had to deal with a number of concerns; one of these was the state of the second service. Even in 1618–1619, attendance at the second service was a problem; one observer noted that part of the problem was “reclaiming the country people on the Sundayes from the sports or from their work.” Given the dispute over the second service because of the Arminian controversy in the years leading up to the Synod of Dort, it is plain why addressing this question was on their agenda.
After their deliberations, it was the decision of the Synod that the second service must not be neglected. In fact, the Synod of Dort took this so seriously that they directed the second service to be held even if the only people present were the minister’s own family! Moreover, this directive was to be carried out “under pain of severe ecclesiastical censure.”
If we hope to recover the evening service in our Reformed churches, we must first begin by recovering a Reformed view of the Christian Sabbath as a day of holy rest. Then we must seek to live up to what we confess regarding the importance of the public means of grace. Westminster Larger Catechism 154 reads: “The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to his church the benefits of his mediation, are all his ordinances; especially the Word, sacraments, and prayer.” Our union with Christ is worked by the Holy Spirit through the preaching of the gospel by which He produces faith; this faith is further strengthened, bringing about greater holiness, through the Word and sacraments.
The presence (or absence) of an evening service says something about what we actually believe about the place of the public means of grace. The absence of an evening service is a gauge that may signal that we are not as Reformed in practice as we are in theology. Consider the benefits of evening worship! God’s people are able to hear the Word preached and that Word will not return to Almighty God empty (Isa. 55:11). They get to lift up their voices together again in praise, commune together at the Lord’s Supper, and gather their petitions, intercessions, confessions, and adorations before the triune God once more. What inestimable benefits!
 In an admittedly unscientific survey, I called thirty churches in my area and asked if they had a second service on Sunday. I found only two that still had a second service. A few once did meet a second time, but stopped so that their small groups, etc. could meet then. Most have never had a second service at all.
 My translation.
 My translation.
 In the New Testament, Acts 20:7–8 is also a suggestive text. Addressing the believers in Troas, Paul “began to speak” (διελέγτο) and, because he intends to leave the next day, he “prolongs” (παρέτεινέν) his address until midnight. While this is also not a command, it is, however, an approved example of apostolic practice.
 Because of the historical differences between then and now, the second service in the seventeenth century was held in the afternoon rather than the evening.
 John Hales, Golden Remains of the Ever Memorable Mr. John Hales of Eton College (London : Printed for Tim. Garthwait, 1659), 4, http://archive.org/details/goldenremainsofe00hale.
 While there were difficulties related to the second service as early as 1597, by 1618 much of the controversy centered around the opposition of Arminian ministers to expounding the Heidelberg Catechism. See Donald Sinnema, “The Second Sunday Service in the Early Dutch Reformed Tradition,” Calvin Theological Journal 32:2 (November 1997): 318.
 Hales, Golden Remains, 4–5.
 Al Wolters, “How the Second Service Got Started,” The Banner (March 30, 1981), 10.