It is becoming increasingly unusual for churches to hold two worship services on the Lord’s Day. In many churches that still do have two services, the second service is poorly attended. This has not always been the case. In the first 450 years after the Reformation, most churches would meet for worship twice each Lord’s Day and both services were considered important and were well attended. Over the last 50 years or so, the second service has dropped away until it is now the norm in evangelical churches to hold only a morning worship service on the Lord’s Day. The second service has all but disappeared.
Part of the reason for this is that the Bible does not explicitly require the church to gather for worship both in the morning and in the afternoon or evening on the Lord’s Day. In fact there is not a lot of detail in the Bible concerning the manner in which God’s people are to worship. We know that we are to gather and that we are to read Scripture, hear preaching, pray and sing together, and celebrate the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, but there is no detailed instruction concerning liturgy and there is no explicit requirement for two worship services.
That does not mean, however, that the traditional practice of holding two services is without any biblical basis and that the loss of the second service is not a significant loss. There are a number of biblical principles that support the practice of worshiping twice each Lord’s Day.
The first biblical principle that supports the desirability of believers coming together for worship twice each Lord’s Day is the meaning of the fourth commandment and the way in which the OT explains what Israel was to do on the Sabbath day. The fourth commandment is binding on the NT church because it is rooted in the rest of God on the seventh day at the time of creation and it is part of the moral law of God which is expressed in the Ten Commandments.
The fourth commandment requires that one day in seven be set apart for the worship of God. In OT times it was to be the seventh day of the week. The NT indicates that after the resurrection of Christ, the church gathered for worship on the first day of the week, suggesting that the Sabbath had been transferred to the first day of the week. The Sabbath command requires that the day be kept holy. “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God” (Exodus 20:8-10a). The Sabbath is to be kept holy and it is a Sabbath to the LORD our God. The word “holy” means “set apart for God.” The idea of holiness can also be expressed by the phrases “dedicated to me” or “belonging to me” (A Handbook on Exodus p. 476). The idea of the Sabbath being a day to the LORD our God is similar. It is a day of rest which is to be dedicated to the LORD.
The prohibition of work is to be understood in the light of the fact that the Sabbath is a holy day, a day dedicated to God. God’s people are to refrain from working on the Sabbath so that they have time to focus on the worship of God. The word “Sabbath” means literally “to stop or cease” and so to stop working and rest. But idea of rest is to be understood in light of the holiness of the day. At creation the LORD worked for 6 days and rested on the seventh day. Based on that pattern he made the seventh day a holy day. The rest is connected to the holiness of the day. What the rest entails is understood in the light of the fact that the day of rest is a holy day, a day dedicated to God.
When we look to see what it meant for Israel to keep the Sabbath day holy, we find a couple of very significant terms. They are both found in Leviticus 23:3, but they are also found in a number of other places. Leviticus 23:3 says “Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, a holy convocation.” The two terms that enlarge our understanding of what it meant for Israel to keep the Sabbath day holy are “solemn rest” and “a holy convocation.” The term “solemn rest” is used often in connection with the Sabbath as well as other holy days on Israel’s calendar. It connects the idea of rest with the idea of solemnity. The rest of the Sabbath therefore is not simply a rest of relaxing; it is a solemn, sacred and holy rest. Leviticus 23:3 also uses the term “holy convocation.” According to the Lexham Theological Wordbook, “This term primarily refers to an assembly of people for religious purposes.” So keeping the Sabbath holy involves solemn resting and gathering for worship.
There are those who teach that the rest of the Sabbath is a rest of relaxation. But this is not the way in which the Scriptures develop the idea of Sabbath rest. The Sabbath rest is associated with sacredness and worship. The people of Israel were to refrain from working on the Sabbath in order to enjoy a solemn rest in the worship of God. It was a day during which the people gathered together for the worship of God. The focus is not on rest in the sense of doing nothing or relaxing. The focus is on rest in the sense of resting in God in worship. “The seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, a holy convocation” (Leviticus 23:3; see also Exodus 16:23, 31:15; Numbers 28:25).
So the Sabbath is a day which God has set apart for the purpose of worship. Holding two worship services on the Lord’s Day, the Christian Sabbath, is an obvious way of fulfilling that purpose. It helps keep the day as a day which is focused on the worship of God. It helps us to “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.” If there is only one service, it is very difficult for the remainder of the day to be kept as a holy day set apart for the worship of God. With two services, there is time for eating, fellowship and physical rest as well as personal edification between services, but the day is organized around the worship services. The worship services are the focus of the day. So while the Bible does not specifically require two worship services on the Lord’s Day, the practice is a reasonable application of the purpose of the command to keep the Sabbath as a holy day, dedicated to the worship of God.
A further support for two services is the OT teaching on God’s requirement for the morning and evening sacrifices in the temple worship. In Numbers 28, we read of the Lord requiring that two lambs be sacrificed each day, one in the morning and the other at twilight. These sacrifices were acts of worship. They reminded the people of Israel of the way of forgiveness through sacrifice each morning and each evening. Understood in the light of Jesus Christ this practice suggests the suitability of the people of God having set times of worship at the beginning and at the end of each day. The same passage in Numbers commanded extra sacrifices and offerings morning and evening on the Sabbath day. On the holy day, the worship was intensified and it took place both morning and evening. Psalm 92, which has the title “A Song for the Sabbath,” reflects this practice when it speaks of morning and evening worship. “It is good to give thanks to the LORD, to sing praise to your name, O Most High; to declare your steadfast love in the morning and your faithfulness by night…” (Psalm 92:1-2).
Does this amount to a command for NT Christians to worship together twice each Lord’s day? Probably not. It does, however, show that the pattern of morning and evening worship on the Lord’s Day is not just an arbitrary tradition, but is a reflection of the way in which the Sabbath was celebrated in OT times.
A second theme that supports the practice of two worship services on the Lord’s Day is the importance the NT places on the people of God assembling together. The clearest example of this is Hebrews 10: 24-25, "And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near." The church is not to neglect to meet together. It is to do so “all the more” as we see the Day of the Lord coming near. Surely it is ironic to see the modern church meeting less often rather than more often as the day of the Lord draws near.
The practice of meeting together for worship and encouragement is central to the identity of the church. The church is many things. One of those things is that it is a group of people that regularly meets together. In the OT, the people of God are often called to assemble before the Lord. This was such an important part of their identity that they are sometimes called “the assembly of the LORD” (Numbers 20:4, 1 Chronicles 28:8, Micah 2:5). In the NT, the Greek word translated “church” also means assembly. It belongs to the essence of the people of God that they are a people who regularly meet together before the Lord. Of course, the church is also the church when it is not meeting. The church is the church when it is scattered, serving the Lord as individuals and as families. The church scattered evangelizes and does good works and fulfills daily responsibilities to the glory of God. But the church is not the church unless it meets together for worship. This belongs to the essence of what it means to be the church. We see this reflected in the importance that the NT places on the people of God meeting together.
The term, “come together,” which is one word in the Greek (sunerchomai), is often used in the NT with reference to the church. In 1 Corinthians 11:18 Paul writes to the Corinthians, “when you come together as a church.” In 1 Corinthians 14:23 he writes, “If therefore, the whole church comes together…” Another Greek word with a similar meaning (synago) is also often used of the church. Acts 4:31 “… the place in which they were gathered together was shaken….” Acts 14:27, “And when they arrived and gathered the church together….” Acts 20:7, “On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread….” 1 Corinthians 5:4, “When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus….” After listing these and similar passages Everett Ferguson writes, “The cumulative impression of these passage is to demonstrate how often the early Christians were together in meetings and consequently the importance of these meetings for them. Christianity was not a private religious experience” (The Church of Christ, p. 233).
Meeting together was a very significant part of the life of the NT church. This in itself does not require two meetings on the Lord’s Day. However, meeting morning and evening on the Lord’s Day is a good practice in the light of the importance that the NT places on meeting together. Meeting during the week for Bible study and mutual encouragement is also a natural application of this principle. If the NT places such importance on meeting together as the people of God and if we have a day which God has set apart for worship, it is certainly makes sense that we take the opportunity to meet together both morning and evening for worship.
A third biblical theme that supports the practice of the church meeting twice for worship on the Lord’s Day is the centrality of preaching and teaching for the salvation of sinners and the spiritual growth of God’s people.
The Word of God is the most important instrument that the Lord uses to give spiritual life and to nurture that spiritual life once it is given. In 1 Peter 1:23, Peter shows that it is through the Word of God that people are born again. “[Y]ou have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God.” A few verses later he points to the same Word as the means by which God causes his people to grow. “Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation” (1 Peter 2:2). And while God uses his Word when we read it privately and as families, the NT teaches that it is especially through preaching and teaching that God saves sinners and nurtures his people in their walk as followers of Jesus Christ.
A key passage here is Romans 10:17 which says “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” Another important passage in this regard is Ephesians 4:11-14 which teaches that Christ gave “shepherds and teachers” to the church "to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes." To Timothy Paul writes in 1Timothy 4:2 “[P]reach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.”
In the light of these passages, and many others that stress the importance of preaching and teaching for the church, it is clear that the Westminster Shorter Catechism is accurately reflecting the teaching of Scripture when it teaches that “The Spirit of God causes the reading and especially the preaching of the word to convince and convert sinners and to build them up in holiness and comfort through faith to salvation” (Answer 89).
The importance that the Bible places on preaching and teaching for the salvation and spiritual growth of God’s people is another biblical support for the practice of the church meeting together twice on the Lord’s Day. If preaching is important for our spiritual growth more of it is better than less of it. God has given us a day in which he has released us from our daily responsibilities in order that we may focus our attention on him and our relationship with him. He has taught us that he uses preaching to save sinners and build up his people. A second service on the Lord’s Day provides an extra 52 opportunities a year to be built up through the preaching of the Word of God.
These 52 extra worship services make it possible for pastors to present a much greater breadth of biblical teaching. As Robert Rayburn has written,
[A second service] provides another opportunity for ministers to preach and teach the Word of God. All the more in our day, when the church is not as biblically literate as it once was, reducing the number of times Christians hear the Word read and taught is hardly a recipe for spiritual prosperity or renewal. I give my own testimony as a preacher that, were it not for the evening service – a well-attended evening service for which I am very grateful – there are a many parts of the Bible the congregation would never have had taught to it and many biblical themes that would never have been taught so comprehensively were I limited to a single sermon each week. A long series on the Bible’s doctrine of affliction, or biblical ethics, or nearly two years in Samuel would be impossible to justify were only the Sunday morning sermon available to the preacher. (“The Evening Service” by Robert Rayburn found on faithtacoma.org)
For centuries it has been the practice in reformed and evangelical churches to hold two worship services each Lord’s Day even though the Bible nowhere explicitly requires the church to do so. Generations of Christians have kept the Lord’s Day as a holy day by organizing it around two worship services. There was a common agreement that the preaching of the Word of God was God’s principle means of saving sinners and building up the people of God and that conviction helped maintain the practice of Lord’s Day worship, morning and evening, for centuries. While there are faithful churches and godly Christians who do not share this conviction, it seems fair to say that for the most part the decline of the second service is the result of spiritual decline rather than spiritual health.
In an article giving a number of reasons for holding two services on the Lord’s Day, Jon Payne reflects on the widespread loss of the second service.
“Why is this happening? Perhaps because we are more spiritually mature than our Reformed forebears, and have less need of the ministry of the Word and sacraments? Ahem ... I hardly think so! A better answer may be that, in general, we have become less spiritually knowledgeable and mature, more distracted, and ever increasingly more concerned about earthly comforts and leisure than the glory of God and the health/expansion of Christ's Church. In short, our values have changed” (“Seven Good Reasons to Attend Evening Worship” by Jon Payne, found on grace-pca.net)
The second service is a valuable tradition. It is a practice which is a reasonable application of the biblical teaching on the purpose of the Sabbath, the importance that the Bible places on meeting together as the people of God and the central role of biblical preaching in the salvation of sinners and the spiritual growth of God’s people. There are many good reasons therefore to make it a priority in our lives.