We can’t draw a straight line from the number of services to spiritual health

I was involved (briefly) in a little discussion about church services the other day. Some were pushing the two-service model hard, others were pushing equally hard against it, while others were making points that some were trying to connect in ways they never intended. I’m not sure we ever reached a satisfactory conclusion (thanks Twitter!)

For the record, my church usually has one service on a Sunday. I say usually because, once per month, we also have an afternoon service. Having said that – whilst I don’t count it as a service – we always have a half hour prayer meeting before our Sunday morning worship too. So, if you choose to work it out like this, on one particular week, we could make a case for having three services on a Sunday and most weeks having two. But I don’t work it out like that and think we typically have one most Sundays.

But it also bears saying, if we only count our one service per week as one service, we do put about as much into our single service (if not more) as many churches do in two. If we include the prior prayer meeting as being part of one service, many of us arrive at church at 9:45 am for that prayer meeting and we’re not usually looking at going home until 1.15 pm. So, if we’re counting our 3.5 hours as a single service, I reckon that is likely to be more time in church compared to most people’s two-service setup.

But this brings us round to the nub of the discussion. I do not think the Bible mandates a certain number of services on a Sunday. Most people I know – even two-service advocates – would agree. There is no Biblical requirement to have a set number of services.

But what people then want to argue is that more services is a measure of spiritual hunger. Without doubt, that might well be true. Somebody who wants to attend 50 services throughout the week might well be more spiritually hungry than somebody who is happy enough with just one. Certainly, somebody who doesn’t want any Bible teaching or to spend any time with God’s people cannot be said to be spiritually hungry.

But it’s not necessarily the case that somebody who wants to attend lots of services is spiritually hungry. Sure, the person who never wants teaching certainly isn’t. But the person who always wants to go to services? Is that necessarily a measure of spiritual temperature? On its own, I’m not so sure. I’m not sure on the grounds that any measure of itself – when it comes down to it – can be a mask for a host of other things. The history of nominalism is one of people happily attending services, but having no real heart for the Lord. There are lots of reasons people might be willing to attend a service which doesn’t necessarily translate to love for the Lord.

Then, of course, we get into other questions. Take our one service over three and a half hours on the average Sunday morning. Does the person attending all of that have higher or lower spiritual temperature than the person who only spend 2 and a half hours at church across two services? On time served, our guys win, right? On number of sermons heard, the other model wins.

But the proof of the pudding, it would seem to me, is in the fruit that it bears. I have no idea which model produces more faithful Christians (I’m sure those who want to mount a case for either will argue it is theirs) but I’m not convinced. I’m quite sure there are two-services churches that are bombing on with the Lord, producing wonderfully faithful believers and those who aren’t. I’m similarly sure the same is true for one-service churches and it doesn’t necessarily correlate to time in the building either.

If we are going to gauge the spiritual temperature of our people, it strikes me that it is important to do a multivariate analysis. It’s really no good saying, ‘our people come to two services every week – full attendance – so they must be spiritually healthy.’ Nor can we say the inverse. We have to dig a bit deeper than that and assess their spiritual temperature against a wide range of different things. When we do that, I suspect most of us will find that our people might well be apparently bombing on with the Lord in some areas while they may well be struggling in others.

So, for example, you might find church attendance across two services is excellent, but fellowship throughout the week almost non-existent. You might find people’s readiness to attend things is high but their ability to engage unbelieving friends in gospel conversation very poor. You could discover that your church is really good at welcoming people on a Sunday morning but most of your people aren’t reading their Bible any time they aren’t in church. The list of possibilities goes on and on.

Whilst those things will tell you something, we may well need to press deeper still. I suspect you might find some churches are great at hospitality but happen to be very materialistic. Others might be really generous with their money but particularly stingy with their time. Others still might have great theological rigour but very little apparent love for anyone. Again, these heart issues tell you much more about the health of our churches and require an awful lot more digging than merely asking how many services we attended on a Sunday.

Let me be clear, a lack of attendance at anything certainly tells you something. In my church, people who don’t ever attend find themselves under church discipline. So it matters. People who never want to be there are a cause for concern and ought to be viewed as those who neither take Christ nor his church seriously.

But is it necessarily true that great attendance tells you everything? Of course not. Does more attendance necessarily equate to better spiritual health? No. It doesn’t even necessarily tell you about spiritual hunger. It might tell you more about the church culture, the legalistic view the church holds of the gospel or something about the home life of people who would, frankly, rather be out than in.

What we need is a multivariate approach. Tell me your church is healthy when you can point, not just to attendance figures at more services, but at people growing. Tell me your church is healthy when you see people being saved with frequency, growing in maturity and taking on leadership roles within your church. Tell me your church is healthy when you see people actively pushing against their innate desire for comfort and mortifying their sin. Show me that based on a whole set of potential markers, and you’ve got a healthy church – and I bet we see that in churches with one, two or more services and we fail to see it in other churches with as many services too.