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Reasons for Adding a Second Service
Reasons for Adding a Second Service

A congregation might choose to add an additional worship service for many different reasons:

  • to relieve overcrowding 
  • to encourage growth
  • to fulfill the mission of the congregation
  • to provide cultural diversity 

Some reasons arise from the needs of the congregation, and others are driven by needs of individuals not yet within the congregational walls. Each reason provides different answers to the multitude of questions that arise in the process of adding worship services—questions about style, time, form, and format. To determine the answers to these questions and similar ones, leaders first must answer a basic question: Why add a worship service?

Relieving Overcrowding

One of the most common reasons for adding an additional service is to relieve overcrowding. This overcrowding may occur throughout the facility, or it may be only in the worship space, the religious education space, the parking lot, or another part of the congregation’s facilities. If overcrowding persists, congregations are at best in danger of reaching a plateau in membership, and at worst in danger of actually shrinking.

Studies of congregational life show that when worship attendance reaches 75 to 80 percent of seating capacity, a congregation often experiences this plateau. Newcomers wonder if space even exists for them; when they do stay, others may leave, creating a revolving door phenomenon. Newcomers don’t know where they belong, and longtime members may feel they aren’t needed and thus stay home.

The same is true when other parts of the facilities are overcrowded. When people can’t find a parking place, they may keep on driving until they find a congregation with parking space. When young people are crowded into religious education rooms, they may feel, sometimes unconsciously, a resistance to attending services. Overcrowding also hampers the provision of the kinds of programs and attention that our young people deserve. When lack of space in the social hall precludes conversation without coffee being spilled or people bumping into walls, members may be discouraged from joining in the hospitality.

Overcrowding is not always apparent to everyone in the congregation. Members without children may not know how many young people are crowding into the religious education space. Those who look at the sanctuary after the young people and teachers have left the service for their classrooms may not remember the sense of tightness they experienced when all were present at the beginning of the service. Individuals who sit in the front or who come early may never experience frustration at not being able to find a place to sit together as a family or to park their car within a reasonable distance. If overcrowding does not occur in the worship space, members may not realize that the religious education area is crowded. Also, the feeling of being overcrowded is subjective. Some people feel comfortable in less space, relishing the close companionship of others, whereas others need more space to feel comfortable exploring their religious views and values.

The lack of growth caused by overcrowding has implications for all congregations— those that are trying to be bigger, as well as those that want to stay the same size. Without an influx of new people, congregations will shrink through the death or relocation of members and changing attendance patterns, thereby making it hard to maintain the same level of services and funding. Not making a decision to grow is, in effect, the same as making a decision not to grow.

When overcrowding is driving the move to add a service, congregations need to ask another question: Is adding a service a temporary step on the path to another solution, or is it the solution? If the congregation is also looking at either a building enlargement or a move, the decision-making process will be different. Many people are willing to undergo radical change if they know that it will be for a limited time. The dream of returning to the status quo—the way things were before—eases the process. The members know that they will be back together again later on. But if the additional service is seen as the actual solution or as the first of a series of additional services, members may be more anxious and concerned about the change.

Encouraging Growth

These days, many of our congregations seek to grow. The reasons vary, of course. Many congregations want to grow because they believe that Unitarian Universalism has something essential to offer to people in these days and times. These congregations have an evangelical sense of what it means to be Unitarian Universalist, and they want to share what they’ve found with others. This outward-focused mission is a more powerful draw to new people than the sense that they are wanted for their money and time. Some congregations want to grow to help spread the load; they find that they cannot maintain themselves easily with their current number of members. Congregations of all sizes share this feeling, but it is not a good reason to seek growth. Newcomers are attracted to congregations with a focus on mission, not to congregations that mainly want their money and work.

Yet growth comes with several costs. Life is not the same in a smaller congregation as in a larger one, and growth has both pluses and minuses. People fear that the addition of unknown others will spoil the close-knit feeling they have, and they fear that what is lost can never be recaptured. However, having additional people means having a greater pool of resources, both human and financial. New people bring more energy, creativity, excitement, and hearts and minds to serve the congregation and community. It is fascinating to note that despite the fear that larger means colder, people who are asked why they attend their particular congregation most commonly answer that they attend because of the community, whether that community is comprised of 75, 150, 250, 500, or 3,000 people. The nature of the community may change with its size, but the sense of community still draws people into congregations of all sizes.

As stated earlier, growth is not likely in crowded situations, so adding one or more additional services may be necessary to make room for the additional members. If new members are wanted only to help share the load, the reasons to grow won’t be as compelling, and maybe even not as successful. If people are excited about sharing their religious home because others need it, however, their excitement about an additional service will help ensure its success.

Fulfilling the Mission

More and more of our congregations are embracing outreach missions to serve various populations and groups within their communities. These “niche” ministries might be specific ministries to older people, single parents, young adults, disabled persons, people of color, or other groups that have a common interest or identity. Many times the groups are not currently represented in the congregation. Sometimes congregations discover that their current worship patterns do not adequately serve the part of the community they wish to reach. Outreach to the community of hearing-impaired individuals, for example, won’t be successful without signing, assisting devices, and an understanding of deaf culture. A service only in English won’t be as popular in a Hispanic area as one that includes Spanish. Early morning is not the best time to attract young adults to worship, and an evening service for seniors is not good for those who have trouble driving at night.

Again, a congregation that embraces a positive reason for the addition of a service is more likely to fulfill its mission. The members generate more excitement about the possibilities, and less resistance arises. The sense of mission helps carry the project through to its conclusion.

Adding Cultural Diversity

One of the benefits of our religious movement is that we embrace diversity both in our theology and in the composition of our congregations. We expect people to discern their own truths and to bring their whole selves to congregational life. Theological diversity often results in creative tension in our worship services. We strive to combine the needs of atheists, agnostics, theists, humanists, and those who defy description into a finite number of services. There is also diversity in cultural expression (ritual, dancing, clapping, emoting) and tastes in music for worship.

Some congregations speak to this varied group very well within the existing worship format, but other congregations find that this very diversity calls out for a variety of worship settings and styles. Adding additional worship opportunities can increase the strength of these congregations, and if done for this reason can also increase excitement and decrease resistance to congregational change.

Rarely does just one of the above reasons drive the desire for additional worship opportunities. Depending upon the reason or reasons, different strategies may be necessary to make the additional service a success. Congregations need to ask: What is our central reason for being, and which of our primary objectives will help us embody it more fully? Clarifying the reasons for adding worship opportunities is essential to managing the change effectively. Linking the addition of a service to the congregation’s identity and mission is important. Whether a congregation owes its existing membership more comfortable conditions or wants to reach out to those not yet in its midst, mission-based and temporary changes are easier to explain and implement. But even congregations that feel forced to add a permanent service because of overcrowding can do so well if they plan properly and involve the members in that planning. 

Other Considerations:

Adding a duplicate service might be the perfect choice for some congregations, but it is not the only possible change, even when the motive is simply to alleviate overcrowding. Making the decision to add an additional service can be a time to look at the unmet needs of members or the kinds of outreach the congregation desires. Congregations can add theological, liturgical, or ritual diversity; different kinds of music; different times and days; or other elements designed to appeal to specific subsets of the congregation or the community it serves. More and more often, congregational life experts recommend that congregations find their niche market—the group they want and need to serve—as  a method of ensuring long-term viability and success. Therefore, the kind of service to add depends on the congregation’s mission.

Any congregational hallmark should be considered as well. For example, if fine music is what the congregation is known for, then the quality of music at the additional service must be similar, even if the style of music changes. If quality preaching is an identity issue, then quality preaching may need to be preeminent in both services. 

What Is Our Main Objective for the Service? Whom Are We Trying to Reach?

If the reason for adding a service is simply to relieve overcrowding, then the market to be considered is the already existing members, and a duplicate service might be the best answer. If the services are duplicates of each other, however, the time of the preexisting service must be changed to divert some members into the new service. We are such creatures of habit that often we just continue to do what we have always done until we are forced to make a change. Making the preexisting service time different, if only by fifteen minutes, forces every person to make a choice. It seems simple, but congregations that have used this strategy and have shifted the existing service by as little as fifteen minutes have found they have greater attendance at the added service.

If the reasons for adding a service also include increasing diversity, outreach to a specific part of the community, or meeting the unmet needs of people already in the congregation, then the needs of individuals who are not present and currently not served well by the existing worship life of the congregation take a higher priority. Some congregations find benefits in changing the style of the service; some add more ritual to one service, whereas others add more singing. Some find a good balance by having young people attend part of only one of the services, whereas others include children in all services. Still others hold special worship services for children outside of the regular service.

Some congregations find that by keeping the services as consistently similar as possible, they create a shared sense of worship that extends over the multiple services. Some add third and fourth services, with two or more services being identical and the newest service being very different. For example, “Soulful Sundown,” an evening service designed to appeal to young
adults, might be the best addition to more traditional Sunday morning worship. Congregations have added a shorter worship service on the night that most committees meet, thereby capitalizing on an increased midweek traffic flow. Some midweek
services precede or follow a shared meal and provide time for adult education or tutoring for young people. These  combination evenings increase opportunities for both worship and social gathering. 

Some congregations fold theological diversity into their services. One service may be more spiritual or God centered and the other, more humanistic. Other congregations blend elements of several theological orientations into all their services. Some
congregations hold multiple services during the full part of the year and then offer fewer services during their off-season. The possible variety and diversity is unbounded. It is important for congregations to determine what mix works best for them and best serves their mission. This mix can be learned through the use of surveys, small group meetings, town meeting sessions, and the like. Once again, a carefully crafted decision-making process is very important in creating a good outcome. Unless they participate and feel their concerns have been heard and their questions realistically addressed, congregation members may not support the additional service avidly. 

The imagination is the limit in designing a program that works to cover a congregation’s particular needs, and what is first perceived as necessary may not be what ultimately works. One congregation tried three different yearlong alternatives before finding the one that works best for them. They began with duplicate services at 9:15 and 11:00—each with full religious education classes—only to discover after the first year that the later service did not have good attendance in either worship or
religious education classes. The second year, they offered full religious education during the first service and children’s activities during the second service. This solution still did not solve the crowding and attendance problems, so two years later they switched again. They currently offer two worship services, at 8:45 and 11:00. Children’s religious education classes run from 9:45 until 10:45, with an adult forum from 10:10 to 10:45. Children participate in the first part of each worship service and
then attend all-age activities such as arts, social service projects, cooking, music, yoga, and games during the remainder of the services. Childcare is available for the youngest children only at the later service. In this congregation, the full Sunday experience lasts about two hours and includes worship, religious education, and socializing during fun activities. If this congregation had stopped experimenting after year one, they would have lost this successful third way of serving their members, and they would not have had room for the growth they now experience.

What Trade-offs Must Be Faced?

Every decision inevitably rules out other possible decisions, and congregations are best advised to explore these losses directly. Again, the use of surveys, small group meetings, town meetings, and other communication tools will help bring concerns to the surface and allow them to be dealt with appropriately. 

The most common trade-off that congregations face in adding worship services is the loss of the image that theirs is a congregation where everybody knows everyone else’s name. Although the truth of this idea is debatable even in congregations of seventy-five people, at least members recognize each other and feel that their congregation is one community. Adding a service breaks up this sense, if not the reality, of being one community. To combat this shift, congregations may choose to create frequent occasions when members of the congregation come together outside of worship for social and worshipful experiences or, if space and time permits, have a joint social hour between the services. Monthly socializing helps people keep in touch with their friends who choose a different service time and allows opportunities to make brand-new friends.

Another concern of members is the fear that they will miss learning of milestone events in the lives of other members. By noting milestone events in both services, including this news in newsletters, or even posting it on bulletin boards, this important information can be shared appropriately.

The schedule for congregational and committee meetings that used to be held after the only worship service may need to be changed, thereby creating another night out for congregational business. Some committee work can be done through web conferencing software, but care must be taken that this method does not inadvertently shut out some of the leadership who lack access to the necessary equipment. Congregational meetings and social gatherings might need to be held on a different day, and sometimes even in a different location, if the congregation’s facilities do not permit full attendance.

These issues represent the troubling side of growth, but they can be balanced by the variety of extras that can be offered when more human and financial resources are available. Trade-offs are a real part of life in general, and of congregational life in particular, and they should not be overlooked in this process but instead be addressed forthrightly.

What Specific Questions Will Have to Be Addressed in Making a Choice?

An almost unlimited number of questions need to be asked when adding, preparing to add, or deciding whether to add another service. Specific questions will arise in each congregation. 

  • Is there a history of previous attempts at adding worship services? If so, what is that history, and how does it help or hinder this attempt?
  • If a congregation rents or shares space with another group, questions will arise about the limitations and restrictions this situation imposes.
  • If a congregation’s professional staff members are already working at capacity, questions will be generated about what should get cut out of their responsibilities or how the workload could be shared in helpful and creative ways.
  • Specific questions may arise depending on the size of the congregation and the size of the building.
  • Very large and very small congregations will follow a different type of decision-making process.
    • In smaller congregations, two or three small group meetings might be all that is necessary.
    • In larger congregations may find they need five or more larger town meetings coupled with smaller gatherings. Larger congregations might have more resources that make viable options other than adding a worship service (such as adding on to the building), and therefore their process should include exploration of these alternate possibilities.

Some of these questions are readily apparent. Others may not be discovered until the process provides good opportunities for individuals shaping the future to listen to those whose future is being shaped. Again, expanding the conversation will help clarify which questions are important and which ones can be let go.

About the Author

  • The regional Congregational Life staff are congregations' local connection to the UUA. All of the program Congregational Life staff have expertise in most aspects of congregational life and each also has a few program areas of expertise. See the UUA Congregational Life Staff...

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