If your church is considering a move to three services, here are some essential things to consider.
No doubt at some point you will contemplate going to three services.
Often this is a wise decision. Occasionally it’s not.
Since this is something I will often walk a senior pastor through as a part of our coaching relationship, I thought it might be helpful to talk about the ins and outs of how to make this decision and how to pull it off well when you do.
Let’s start with a few reasons why you might want to start a third service.
WHY START A THIRD SERVICE?
1. Two Services Are Already Full
This is almost always the most important factor that drives senior pastors to consider adding a third service, though in my mind it should be the last.
Barring unusual circumstances, there are five consistent factors that limit growth:
1. Lack of staff
2. Lack of children’s classroom space
3. Lack of parking
4. Lack of gathering/transition space between services
5. Lack of seating in the auditorium
I place “lack of seating” as the last and least significant factor for a really important reason.
Churches don’t stop growing because of a lack of seating. Churches stop growing because of the “perception” of a lack of seating.
Up to a certain point, this can be addressed with well-trained ushers. However, when a church reaches the point where one service is consistently 80-plus percent full and the other is consistently 60-plus percent full, adding a third service is necessary to continue growing.
2. To Push Through The 400 Barrier
It’s no accident that the average church will start to think about three services when they move into the mid 300’s range.
Unfortunately, many church architects in the 70’s and 80’s designed buildings with an architectural footprint to accommodate 100 people at a time. When the average church today reaches 300-ish, they start to feel constrained.
A third service can help address this constraint.
3. To Ignite Growth By Providing More Convenient Service Options
As you consider adding a third service I want you to ask yourself a simple question:
“Why would more people come to our church if we have three services instead of two?”
The reason is simple: convenience.
New visitors don’t care about your seating capacity. They care about whether or not your church conveniently fits into their family’s schedule.
The most common service times of churches with two services are 9:30 and 11 a.m., which means services are roughly 60–70 minutes in length with a 20–30 minute gap in between them.
For a significant number of people in your community, namely …
• Parents with kids playing sports on Sundays
• Those who work Saturday nights
• Those who work on Sundays
• NFL fans
… those services either start too late or not late enough.
Adding a third service allows your services to start at least 30 minutes earlier and/or 30 minutes later (which can potentially increase your overall attendance by 5–10 percent over a year’s time by simply casting a wider net).
4. To Open Up More Serving Opportunities
In most contexts people are much more apt to sign up to serve on a Sunday morning than they are to join a group during the week. Why? They see the need and understand its importance. Being quickly asked to “join a group in somebody’s home” sounds too cultish (at least for brand new visitors on the East Coast).
Adding another worship service is one of the quickest ways to add 60+ serving spots of real consequence.
Church leaders often use the phrase, “Worship during one service and serve during another service” as a way of “selling” the idea of two services to their people.
The problem is the average church attender will give you ONE service each Sunday (“it’s your choice whether you want me to attend or serve”) then go home.
Adding a third service won’t change this mindset, but it will give new people an opportunity to stick.
5. To Make Senior Pastors Preach Shorter Sermons
I say this only partly in jest.
Three services will demand more precision from your preaching.
Go too long during three services and I guarantee you won’t do it again.
The parking lot will jam up, hallways will become impassable and your children’s ministry volunteers will start directing new parents to drop off their babies to you on the stage.
Our three services are at 9, 10:15 and 11:30 am. Services are designed to be 55 minutes in length, with a 20-minute turn-around.
That forces me to preach in the 26 to 28-minute range, which is an average of 2,500 words on paper. I know if I look down at the bottom of my Microsoft Word document and it says, “3,168 words” I have some editing to do or I’ll pay the price.
This is a good thing.
As Howard Hendricks used to say, “Leave them longing not loathing.”
WHEN YOU SHOULDN’T START A THIRD SERVICE
1. Your Auditorium Is Too Large
This is the number one reason pastors I coach tell me they’re unable to go to three services. Oftentimes their auditorium is so large they can’t envision even going to two services.
A great guy I coach became the lead pastor of a church of 800 with an auditorium of 1,000 seats. As soon as he was able he moved their services to their gymnasium (seats 500) and added a second service.
If you’re in that type of situation I’d suggest that you (a) pipe and drape the auditorium to make it feel smaller (what I call “virtual capacity”—i.e. at any given moment you can make the auditorium “feel” full), (b) run a capital campaign to raise the funds to renovate your auditorium (which my friend ended up doing) or (c) move temporarily to another worship venue like a school or movie theater.
2. You’re Building a Larger Worship Center (and Don’t Know How Many People Will Eventually Come on Opening Day)
When churches running three services go into new auditorium space they’ll often choose to go back to two services in their new/larger space until things “shake out” and they “know what they’ve got to work with.”
I wouldn’t recommend this unless you REALLY overbuilt. If this is your situation, I’d move heaven and earth to create “virtual capacity” and go back to three services ASAP. See above.
You Need To Create Momentum
Sometimes churches will take a major hit in attendance after a split or a staff problem and it can help to go back to two services to regain a feeling of momentum.
Whatever you do, make sure to communicate this is a temporary move.
A FEW FINAL, RANDOM THOUGHTS
• Don’t go to three services until you have a full-time worship pastor and a full-time children’s pastor. For every pastor out there that says “that’s ludicrous,” I can point to twenty churches that went to three services without the appropriate leadership in place and deeply regretted it. Most went back to two services. Adding a third service without the necessary leadership is like thinking you can drive your car without motor oil. You can, but you won’t get very far.
• Don’t schedule your services to start before 9 a.m. (unless you are reaching senior citizens). The average church will always struggle gaining critical mass for a service that starts before 9 a.m.
• I don’t suggest scheduling services to start after noon unless you are in an area saturated with millennials.
• I would not suggest that you add a Saturday night service before you add a third Sunday service. The strain on staff is simply too fierce.
• Friends who have started Sunday night services have reported modest success with them (but aren’t too happy on Monday mornings) .
• Finally, keep in mind that adding a third service will not “cause” growth any more than adding a third child will save a bad marriage. Adding a third service will only make an unhealthy church fail faster. Here’s a better way to describe the potential impact of a third service: It facilitates growth. It doesn’t cause it. A third service is but one tool in the arsenal of a healthy church’s strategy to fulfill the Great Commission.
Brian Jones is a church planter, author and the founding and senior pastor of Christ’s Church of the Valley in Philadelphia. This article was originally published on SeniorPastorCentral.com.