Risky Business: Changing the Sunday Morning Schedule

December 26th, 2011

A few days before our mid-summer Administrative Board meeting, several church members came to my office to share their concerns about the prospect of changing our worship times. One determined member had investigated other churches in the area and revealed that none of them had a Sunday morning schedule anywhere similar to what was being proposed. Another just simply said that it was a bad idea.

 Six months earlier 150 participants of our 1500-member congregation joined me in working through Rob Weber's seven-week ReConnecting program. This video-enhanced study is designed to help congregations rekindle the flame for ministry and mission. The program generated valuable dialogue among our members as to our church's future direction.

Our church began forty-eight years ago in a small town on the outskirts of Dallas. Within a few years the town became a suburb. Today it is an exurb, an extended urban area located in the center of Dallas County's commercial district.

During the late 1990s the church formed a study committee to look at future options for the church. In a rapidly changing neighborhood the question was seriously discussed, should the church move or stay? Looking at our community demographics and realizing how closely tied the congregation was to the community, the church made the decision to stay and serve the neighborhood out of which it was planted. The church launched a $1.5 million renovation and expansion program that added new office, education, and music rehearsal space into the existing facility as well as renovating the sanctuary and our children's education area.

For over ten years the church had two worship hours: a traditional service at 10:50 a.m. and an informal service at 9:30 a.m. The Sunday school hour was at 9:30 a.m. Traditional for us means dressing the sanctuary and clergy in formal vestments, following a formalized liturgy, and singing traditional hymns out of the hymnal led by a choir. Our informal service included revivalist singing, a participatory congregational prayer time, and no vestments.

As a result of the ReConnecting study and the newly completed expansion, conversations began regarding what to do about Sunday morning. ReConnecting ignited an interest in starting a contemporary service.

Experimenting and Exploring

We experimented with contemporary worship during the spring by conducting bimonthly Saturday night services. These services were promoted as worship/concert events and featured contemporary praise bands from area churches. Most of these bands were more than willing to come and share their talents and knowledge with us. Doing this allowed us to experience various styles and formats in contemporary worship. We were able to hone our own contemporary worship style that fit our talents and capabilities.

While the Saturday night worship experiment was a great learning experience, it became clear that we would not be able to sustain a weekly Saturday night service on our own. We would not be able to maintain quality music support on Saturday night, but we would on Sunday morning.

Decisions regarding the Sunday morning schedule are unique to every church. There are so many variables to consider. In our case the limited parking was an issue. Our parking lot was full from 9:20 a.m. until noon. Our church shares an intersection with a Roman Catholic Church, an Episcopal Church, an Indian Orthodox Church, a Korean nondenominational church, and a Hispanic Assembly of God church. The Sunday morning holy hour at this corner is blessed chaos. Not only are parking lots full but also our streets are lined with vehicles. During service transition times parishioners can lose whatever spiritual blessing they have just received trying to exit our parking lot into a congested street.

Another issue was how best to utilize the musical talent in our church. In this area, interests, expectations, capabilities, and temperament all played a role. Suffice it to say, in our case, the interests and talents of our music leadership were critical in determining the proposed new schedule. In working with the music leadership of the church, considering personalities and interests, it was determined that we could potentially increase participation in the chancel choir by moving the traditional service to an earlier time. Since the traditional service drew our largest attendance and included most of our longest tenured members, making that change was not going to happen without resistance.

The decision was made that we would ask the congregation to change their Sunday morning worship habits. The proposed schedule would move our traditional service to 9 a.m., move the informal service forward forty-five minutes and start the new contemporary service at 11:30 a.m. With the informal service moving to 10:15 a.m., the Sunday school hour would also move to that time. Everyone was going to have to rethink how he or she did Sunday.

In a letter two weeks prior to the mid-summer Administrative Board meeting, I revealed to the members the schedule that would be proposed and discussed. For the next two weeks the church was “abuzz” in conversation over this topic.

The Board Meeting

On the night of the Board meeting the sanctuary was full. If the proposed Sunday morning schedule were adopted, it would begin the first Sunday in September. Our Administrative Board chair opened the meeting with the tone that suggested the evening would be more like a hearing rather than a legislative debate. But some people came to debate.

At the Administrative Board meeting, the Chair and I began with a presentation to introduce and explain the schedule proposal. We responded to the question, “why are we thinking about changing Sunday morning in the first place?” There is a desire among many in our congregation to grow and reach out to young families. Other than building a larger sanctuary and parking lot, adding a new worship service on Sunday morning has the greatest potential for impacting the future growth of our church. We proposed that adding the new service would allow us to alleviate some of the parking pressure on Sunday morning and provide room for growth. We also reported that the staff was on board with this proposal and were feeling that the innovation would be energizing.

The primary concern expressed that night was that starting a contemporary service would pull the youth out of the traditional service and we would lose the intergenerational ethos of that service. Others commented that the median age of our congregation is growing older and there is a need to provide a worship setting that would attract young families.

After about an hour of discussion, I engaged the Board in an exercise I learned from Richard Blackburn of the Lombard Peace Center.

I placed a chair at the far right side of the sanctuary and another chair on the far-left side and a chair in the middle. I designated the far-left chair as “I'll leave the church if this proposal doesn't pass” chair. I labeled the far-right chair as the “I'll leave the church if the proposal passes” chair. And the middle chair as the “I could go either way” chair. I then asked the Board members to get up and move to the area of the spectrum where they felt most comfortable regarding this proposal. As expected, no one positioned themselves at the extremes, although a few were close. Most everyone gathered in the middle with a significant skew leaning toward accepting the proposal. It was clear from this exercise that most people were willing to try the new schedule with a majority ready for the change.

We continue to maintain our new schedule after a year. Many of our expectations have been realized. Our chancel choir has grown significantly which has brought about a new vitality to the traditional service. We did not lose any members because of the time changes and we relieved some of the parking issues.

Our traditional service is still the largest attended of the three. The informal and the contemporary service average close to the same number. The assumption about our youth preferring the contemporary service has proven true.

The unexpected surprise as a result of this schedule change has been that by moving the Sunday school hour forward by forty-five minutes, our Sunday school attendance—children, youth, and adults—increased immediately by more than a third and continues to grow.

Making significant changes within long established churches is always challenging. Prayer and patience are essential. In this case, change was facilitated through reconnecting with our heritage, taking the time to articulate our need for change, thinking through the obstacles to that change, providing a forum for participatory inquiry, then moving ahead with boldness.

Victor Casad is Senior Pastor of Christ United Methodist Church in Farmers Branch, Texas. This article originally appeared in Circuit Rider magazine.

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