Hope Network Newsletter: Thank You God, Even Though It’s Small (Oct 1992)

By Matt Dabbs

by Phil Ware, Guest Writer
Introduction by Lynn Anderson, Feature Editor
October, 1992

6The winds of change are blowing. We see fresh signs of hope nearly every day. Churches scattered across the country are willing to reexamine fundamental ways of doing things. Chage is never very comfortable. However, several churches are willing to travel new trails in attempts to (1) connect with God in more meaningful worship and (2) connect with people through more meaningful strategies. Specifically, some churches are experimenting with worship on Sunday morning only, with Sunday School on Sunday nights. This allows for multiple use of facilities during these times of high building costs and economic recession. For some churches this has been a fruitful discovery. One leader in this innovative strategy is the Westover Hills church in Austin, Texas, where Phil Ware is the preacher. I asked Phil to do a special favor for the readers of Hope Network Newsletter. He has pulled together some “reasons, reservations and results” from among some of the churches that have gone to this “Bible-School-on-Sunday-night format.” Many congregations may profit from his findings and you will certainly enjoy the interesting story he tells.

Twelve years ago, the granddaughter of one of our elders came to visit with her grandparents. Each morning they shared a wonderful breakfast. But when Sunday rolled around, they sat down in front of a bowl of cereal and a glass of juice. “Dear God,” she began, “we thank you for this food even though it’s small.”

This event has been a metaphor for our 10 years at Westover Hills. The membership grew over 30% the first two years. Since then, we’ve been playing facility catch-up. This has not been easy. Austin is like many growing urban and suburban areas. Zoning regulations, neighborhood groups, and city procedures can be very difficult challenges. Building and real estate costs are exorbitant. Affordable land is too far away from our congregational base to move. With our commitment to missions, major expansion remains a distant dream.

One Sunday morning a number of years ago, I slipped out of class early. Headed down the hallway, I noticed a pile of chairs. The door was propped open. People were crammed into the room. Most of the men were sitting on the floor. That evening, I asked one of the class members what was going on. “We can cram more people in the the room when the men don’t use chairs!” he replied. “We’ve been doing it for several months now.”

Later that same week, our education minister took me to one of our toddler classrooms. “How many two-year-olds do you think we can squeeze into this room?” he asked. I suggested 15 or 16 maximum. “We had 32 children in this room Sunday morning. That doesn’t count the three teachers. We’ve got to have more room!” he insisted.

We were up the proverbial “crick without a paddle.” We had been hearing the crescendo of concern for months. Unfortunately the Austin economy had gone subterranean. What could we do?

We carefully examined possible options. We checked around with other churches. We consulted church growth experts. We chose our thirteenth option – the option no one else had tried. We moved Sunday School to Sunday night. Class was divided into two shifts. Our oldest adults, parents, and children met at 5:00 p.m. Young singles, launching families, and other adults met at 6:30. We no longer had a Sunday night preaching service. After several months of meetings, a professionally done multi-media presentation, and a taped message from Reuel Lemmons (who was bedfast), we made the switch.

Some made woeful predictions. “In a year this will be catastrophic to our children!” I was bluntly told. “People won’t come back on Sunday night for class,” several others suggested.

Others were more excited about the proposition. “This is the greatest thing since sliced bread,” one young man told me. “This isn’t new; this is what we did in the ’20s and ’30s,” one of our older members pointed out. “This idea is great. We can more easily get together with church friends after class on Sunday nights,” one of our ladies said.

After our first year we asked for additional feedback. Over 60% of the congregation said if they could start from scratch, having ample facilities and the ability to have Bible School any time they wanted, they would choose to have it in the evening. The percentage of people returning on Sunday night went up significantly more than we had projected.

We are in our fourth year of this arrangement. We have recently completed additional educational facilities. We consistently run 70-80% of Sunday morning attendance in our Bible classes. Most of these classes are on Sunday night.

Some of our anticipated advantages for Sunday night classes were correct. Bible class teachers have more preparation when class is on Sunday evening. We have better youth participation in all grades, especially for our teens. Those with young children find church easier for their young children to handle. We have a much clearer focus on quality worship on Sunday morning.

But the biggest blessings were the serendipitous surprises God brought us in our change. These blessings involve real live people. I’ll use fictitious names for their stories, but the events and the people are real!

Janie started coming back to church because her daughter had a friend attending Westover. She came mostly on Sunday night because her daughter loved her Sunday School class and the V.I.P. program for our third, fourth and fifth graders. They soon began to come regularly on Sunday morning. Now Janie’s husband is regularly involved and Janie teaches one of our children’s classes.

As she became more involved, she invited her friend Betty to bring her children to VBS. Betty’s children had come to our Mother’s Day Out program and soon they started coming to Sunday night Bible classes. After a special seminar for fathers, Betty’s husband started attending regularly, too. She was baptized a few months later. They now regularly attend Sunday morning worship as well as Sunday night classes.

The key door of entry for both families into the life of our church was the Sunday night Bible class. Would they have come otherwise? Probably not. Our Bible school change opened the door for them to come into our church family.

They only started attending Sunday morning worship after they had made friends and felt more comfortable about coming to church on Sunday morning. We didn’t know when we made a structural change it would open up new doors of opportunity for outreach, but it did!

Carie is an older woman who has been a faithful Christian all of her life. Driving at night is difficult for her since her cataract surgery. For several years, she has not gone to evening services. She has missed the fellowship of being with other Christians. When we started our Sunday evening classes, we had the oldest class meet at 5:00 p.m. Carie, and those with similar concerns, could get to classes and back home before dark. Getting to study the Bible with her friends on Sunday evening has been a real blessing for Carie.

Sally is a young woman from a difficult family situation. She is blessed with a beautiful voice. Because of the loving commitment of her mother and friends in the church, Sally has faithfully attended. By changing Bible classes to Sunday evening, we were able to go from two services to three services on Sunday morning. Our third service has more singing and contemporary music. We use a group to introduce new songs and share special songs related to our worship theme. Sally is a vital member of our singing group. Using her gift has been a wonderful blessing to her, but an even greater blessing to our worship!

Audrey is a widowed, newly-retired professional. She also is a true servant of God. She saw a need to involve younger widows and widowers, those who had unbelieving spouses, and those who were just not involved in a class. With our schedule, she was able to organize those people into a new class. They meet on Sunday morning for class (during our second service time) and Sunday night for ministry projects (during our class time). They are able to attend either our first or third service for worship. Moving our classes to Sunday evening opened up a whole new set of options for classes. Audrey’s group is just one example of these new options.

Bert and Martha are the proud parents of two teenage children. One of them has just recently been baptized. They recently finished a class for new Christians. This class is held during one of our Sunday morning services. This enables them to worship together and share in this special class as a family on Sunday morning. Then they can go to their own Bible classes on Sunday evening.

Despite research, prayer, and brainstorming, we envisioned none of these blessings. We had simply made what we felt was an innovative solution to a nagging and frustrating problem. We didn’t know what opportunities God had waiting for us until we started down a new path. Breaking the mold of traditional service times enabled us to not only do things differently, but also more beneficially. These blessings are the resutl of the corridor principle (see note) and a faith that God can help us use nontraditional was to overcome limitations.

Don’t get me wrong. We have made some mistakes. Not everyone has been happy with our changes. We have had a few folks leave because they were upset over the change. A few others went to other congregations becaus eof the convenience of their schedule. Not all of our visitors who are new to town are attracted to our schedule. Sunday night attendance on holiday weekends is low because our folks aren’t back from trips and our visitors have already returned home. It hasn’t been smooth sailing every step of the way. We have used up a large amount of people’s tolerance for change. But if we were challenged to do it again, I believe we would.

We are not alone in our change. When we first investigated, we couldn’t find anyone else who operated with this schedule. Since that time, there are a number of churches making similar changes. Some have gone back to the standard time format. Others believe this new format is the way to go. In addition to our type of schedule change, Sunday nights are changing across our brotherhood. In most cases the changes have meant increased attendance and new opportunties.

I’m excited to see us unwilling to settle for 50% or less attendance on Sunday evening. People are not satisfied with a “small verson of the Sunday morning thing,” as one of our members described it. To counter the “50% off” factor, some churches are going to praise services on Sunday evening. Other congregations are using care groups successfully. Other churches are going to small group Bible studies for their Sunday night focus. Still other congregations are using Sunday nights for a short devotional and then work on World Bible School correspondence courses together. I’m sure these are just a few of the ideas being tested. The exciting reality is we are beginning to free ourselves of traditional times if they do not work. We are targeting a specific purpose for each gathering. Rather than being frightened by these cosmetic schedule changes, let’s make sure we’re doing them to honor God, to bless his people, and to reach to the lost. If we come together for reasons other than these, maybe it’s time to find a new corridor! I have increasing hope for us to use our limited time, our limited facilities, and limited money, and begin new traditions to meet current challenges.

Cramped facilities, growth opportunities, and little money can be frustrating. But don’t despair. Limitations are really challenges asking us to be creative stewards of God’s resources. They can free us to try new solutions to old problems. As we continue the journey, let’s remember to thank God “even though it’s small.”

Special Note on the Corridor Principle

The corridor principle says, “When you make a prayerful, well-researched change, you start down a corridor which will lead you to other doors of opportunity you cannot see until you start down that corridor. Some of these unforeseen opportunities will bless you far more than the original change. But if you never start down that first corridor, the other opportunities will never be found.”

In other words, God has great things waiting for us if we will launch out in faith, trusting in his grace and power to take us where he wants us to go!

God has repeatedly used this principle with his people. Think about Abraham! Remember Joseph. Go back and review the history of the early church in the book of Acts. Trace the development of the Antioch church in Acts 8-15 and see how the first change, speaking the gospel to the Greeks, led to wholesale changes in the church, evangelism, and the world! Many times our limitations and dead ends are simply God’s prodding us to try a different corridor.

 


Three Churches Which Have Sunday School at Night:

Highland Church of Christ, Abilene, Texas – 915-673-5295

Westover Hills Church of Christ, Austin, Texas – 512-345-6386

Woodmont Hills Church of Christ, Nashville, Tennessee – 615-297-8551Wineskins Magazine

Phil Ware; Lynn Anderson

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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