(405) 425-5070
Walnut Street minister Chris McCurley, center, prays during a small-group meeting at his Tennessee home.
National
Photo by Bobby Ross Jr.

A new Sunday night tradition

Tennessee church launches a small-group ministry ‘to grow our people and reach the community.’ It’s just one of many congregations trying a different approach.

DICKSON, Tenn. — An NFL game played on the TV as about a dozen people arrived at Chris and Libby McCurley’s house on a recent Sunday night.

The casually attired guests chatted for a few minutes before enjoying freshly baked lasagna, salad, four-layer chocolate dessert and other goodies.

After the meal, everyone took seats on the sofa or other comfortable chairs and shared prayer and praise requests before discussing that morning’s sermon at the Walnut Street Church of Christ.

Minister Chris McCurley leads a discussion during a Connect Group meeting at his Tennessee home.

Minister Chris McCurley leads a discussion during a Connect Group meeting at his Tennessee home.

For the 140-year-old congregation about 40 miles west of Nashville, the new year brought a change in the long tradition of Sunday night worship.

Instead of gathering at the church building, nearly two dozen “Connect Groups” of about 10 to 12 people each meet in individual homes. A traditional assembly at the building is offered, as always, for those who prefer that option.

“We’re looking at new ways to grow our people and reach the community,” said Chris McCurley, Walnut Street’s preacher.

The church averages Sunday morning attendance of about 750, but fewer than half typically returned for the evening service.

Walnut Street’s experience mirrors that of many churches.

“In many places, our Sunday night worship gatherings have woefully waned in attendance,” McCurley said. “While the message cannot change, we should always be willing to adapt and adjust the method — within reason and within the bounds of what is Scriptural, of course, and with the ultimate goal of drawing people closer to God and to one another.”

COVID-19 accelerated change

For Churches of Christ, Sunday night services can be traced to the earliest days of the American Restoration Movement, which began on the U.S. frontier in the 1790s and called for Christians of all denominations to follow the Bible only.

“Multiple meetings on Sunday were common from the beginning, including some in the evening for prayer and Bible study,” said John Mark Hicks, a Restoration scholar and retired theology professor at Lipscomb University in Nashville.


Related: More feedback on Sunday night trends


“Revivalism in the late 19th century and the rise of better lighting encouraged Sunday evening gatherings for evangelistic preaching, and then shift work during WWI and WWII encouraged Sunday evening offerings for those who missed, including the Lord’s Supper,” Hicks added. “This became standard in the 1940s.”

But in recent decades, poor attendance led an increasing number of congregations to end Sunday night activities or try approaches such as small-group meetings or service projects instead of regular assemblies.

In recent decades, poor attendance led an increasing number of congregations to end Sunday night activities or try approaches such as small-group meetings or service projects instead of regular assemblies.

For many, the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated that trend as churches stopped Sunday night services and never resumed them, a survey by The Christian Chronicle found.

“We did have an evening service with an attendance of 35 prior to the COVID pandemic, but it was fading out before COVID,” said Kevin Bethea, minister for the East Baltimore Church of Christ in Maryland, which has Sunday morning attendance of about 225.


Related: Share your Sunday night experience


Patrick Odum preaches for the Northwest Church of Christ in Chicago. Its Sunday morning assemblies in English, Spanish and Korean have an average combined attendance of about 150.

“We had a Sunday night service, attended by just a few people and only in English, until COVID,” Odum said. “After COVID restrictions were lifted, we have not resumed Sunday night.”

Christians enjoy a potluck meal at the Northwest Church of Christ in Chicago.

Christians enjoy a potluck meal at the Northwest Church of Christ in Chicago.

Several leaders across the nation said eliminating Sunday night services allowed their congregation to reassess its mission and approach.

“We used to have Sunday night services every week,” said Tracy Moore, minister for the Vero Beach Church of Christ in Florida. “Now we will do a few weeks on a study that may pertain to a sermon series or special activities like a meal, a special singing, etc. It isn’t every week but only times we believe it would be beneficial to what we are doing.”

The McDermott Road Church of Christ in Plano, Texas, reserves one Sunday afternoon or evening a month for small-group meetings.

On the other weeks, the church plans special events such as a fifth Sunday singing, a New Year’s chili cookoff, a Memorial Day picnic, Trunk or Treat, a father-daughter banquet or an areawide service.

Other Sundays feature ministry committee meetings or training for outreach efforts such as FriendSpeak or World Bible School.

“So now our Sunday afternoons and evenings are dedicated to unique events and things that serve the current needs of the church,” involvement minister Mark Bryson said.

Walnut Street minister Chris McCurley, center, prays during a small-group meeting at his Tennessee home.

Walnut Street minister Chris McCurley, center, prays during a small-group meeting at his Tennessee home.

Breaking bread together

Back in Dickson, a growing town of about 16,000 just off Interstate 40, the new Connect Groups involve more than 300 people per week. Meanwhile, about 200 still worship at the Walnut Street building, church leaders said.

In both settings, the Lord’s Supper is provided for those who missed it that morning.

Jack and Mary Lane Story welcomed Walnut Street's introduction of Sunday night small groups.

Jack and Mary Lane Story welcomed Walnut Street’s introduction of Sunday night small groups.

“In essence, we’ve increased our Sunday night participation by close to 200 people,” McCurley said, praising the elders’ decision not to force the small-group approach on anyone.

One Sunday night per month, everyone still gathers at the building, as in the past. In addition, the Connect Groups will take a two-month break during the summer to avoid burning out the participants, who take turns hosting the meetings.

Jack and Mary Lane Story, Walnut Street members in their 20s, welcomed the change.

The Connect Groups appealed to them as an opportunity to develop closer relationships with fellow Christians and share the Gospel with friends.

“I think it’s evident in the Bible that this is what they used to do — break bread together and have conversations,” Jack said.

Mary Lane’s father, Robby Harmon, serves as one of Walnut Street’s 14 elders.

“It’s easier to invite someone to someone’s home,” she said. “It’s more casual, personal, people hanging out.”

BOBBY ROSS JR. is Editor-in-Chief of The Christian Chronicle. Reach him at [email protected].

“It’s easier to invite someone to someone’s home. It’s more casual, personal, people hanging out.”


Take our survey

What is your church’s approach to Sunday nights? Share your experience.

Filed under: COVID-19 Dickson Tennessee Middle Tennessee National News Sunday Sunday nights Tennessee Top Stories Walnut Street Church of Christ worship trends

Don’t miss out on more stories like this.

Subscribe today to receive more inspiring articles like this one delivered straight to your inbox twice a month.

Did you enjoy this article?

Your donation helps us not only keep our quality of journalism high, but helps us continue to reach more people in the Churches of Christ community.

$
Personal Info

Dedicate this Donation

In Honor/Memory of Details

Card Notification Details

Credit Card Info
This is a secure SSL encrypted payment.
Billing Details

Donation Total: $3 One Time