The Birth of the One Hour Church Service

Richard White is a graduate of Ohio University, Carleton University, Wheaton College and Wycliffe College, Toronto. He has degrees in history, journalism, communication and divinity.

How long – or short – should a Sunday service be?  The answer depends on where in the history of the Church you stand, and what culture you’re in.  

The Church we meet in the first century was quite different from ours. The local church was not a faith community built around a central building.  “The Church” referred to the people who worshipped in each other’s homes. Their time together incorporated worship, Bible study, sharing, communion and lots of fellowship. It was a clock-less, time-less, event-oriented culture.  This is why, in Acts 20, we see Paul conducting a service and Bible study that ran so long that a young man sitting on a window sill fell asleep and fell out the window to his death. After the young man was prayed over and restored, they returned to the meeting, and Paul continued right until daybreak.  

Measuring time the way we do in the West today was not part of their culture. Worship was seen as an opportunity to commune with God, and they expected God the Holy Spirit to both be present, and to set the agenda to some degree. Today we see this in the Anglican Church in other cultures.  A First Nations service is less time-sensitive than most of us are used to. An African service in an African setting, or an expatriate Indian setting such as I found in the United Arab Emirates can run an hour and a half to two hours or more. Event-oriented worship takes longer.  So how did the English and subsequently Americans and Canadians become time sensitive about the length of our services, and how did our Anglican forebearers address such concerns? 

For over a thousand years, say from 500 to 1500, our Anglican ancestors approached worship as an experience. The Sunday service began sometime after the village church bell sounded and the priest was ready to start. Congregants may have walked some distance, and arrived when they could, and left when they felt they needed to.

In the late 14th century mechanical clocks started to appear in some of the bigger churches of our European cities, chief among these was Salisbury, north of London which claims to have the oldest working clock in the world – built around 1386.  Although the early church clocks were notoriously unreliable, a change in how we perceive worship was on the way.

By the 1700s clocks and watches became commonplace.  It’s been said that the first dignitary to complain about the length of an Anglican service was King George III who, in 1773 complained that the liturgy of the Sunday service was unnecessarily long because of needless repetition. Typically Sunday services were one and a half,  to two hours long. 

The Anglican Church of the 18th and early 19th century was influenced by the Evangelical Movement led by the Wesleys. “Low Church” worship focused on preaching, and although John Wesley’s sermons could be a tidy half an hour, his brother Charles and other known preachers could preach an hour and a half and still hold their audiences.  But as the English society fell under the dictates of the Industrial Revolution, and factories, mines, businesses and transportation all became time-sensitive,  the English culture itself became time-sensitive. We can well imagine that timing the services became common. 

In the 19th century a critique against the habit of timing the services came from a voice few would have expected.  The Oxford Movement of the 19th century had birthed what we today call today, “Anglo-Catholicism” or the “High Church.” “High Church” worship focused on Holy Communion, as opposed to preaching.  A series of High Church pamphlets were produced, called  “Tracts of the Times,” that challenged Low Church Anglicanism to recapture the grand liturgies of the Medieval era.  And while the emphasis was less on the preaching  in High Church services, doing liturgy well takes time, and congregants began to complain. In 1833 a tract appeared to address such complaints.

Called, “On Shortening the Church Service,” was written by Father Richard H. Froude (1803-1836). Froude sharply reminded the Church to remember what the focus of worship should be – and that focus definitely wasn’t on anyone timing the service. He wrote, “… though people now-a-days think (the services) too long, there can be no doubt that the primitive believers would have thought them too short.”  So, he reminded the Church of his day that the Early Church, and subsequent generations of worshippers, had it right. Worship was an event focused on God, not an activity timed by Man.  Elsewhere he blamed the 16th century Reformers for shortening the service.  He said they had followed the “spirit of their age” by shortening the service and lessening the number of services during the week.  “All religious worship,” he wrote, needed to demonstrate ”inconvenience or self-denial,” devoid of any “external motive,” other than to worship God.  Froude’s infamous critique of short services couldn’t  prevent the inevitable.

By the 20th century the time-focused thinking of the Western industrialised society had won the day.  Two technological developments  all but doomed the longer service. And a third development might have contributed to that too.  

The two obvious developments were television and electronic hand-held devices.  Most television programs are an hour long.  This has conditioned us.  But even then, the average hour of  television is 36% commercials. Every 13 to 14 minutes the story stops to remind us that the program is really about selling products.   We get up, go to the bathroom (advertisers talk about “the flush factor”), get a snack, or talk about what we just saw… oh, and some of us watch the commercials.  The typical liturgical service has a hard time adapting to congregants shaped by the television era.

Then there are the hand-held devised like smart phones and i-pads. They have shortened our attention span. Researchers surveyed 2,000 participants in Canada and found that while our attention span in the year 2000 was only disturbing 12 seconds long, by 2013 that had dropped to 8 seconds. Goldfish by the way, are believed to have an attention span of 9 seconds!   

While Anglican and other liturgical churches look  for ways to shorten the service, the  many evangelical and congregational churches have approached worship differently, incorporating more music, encouraging movement,  providing coffee during the sermon time, infusing the environment with fantastic visuals, and training their preachers how to incorporate story and pacing into their messages. Some are also incorporating smart-phones into the worship experience.  They have adapted so well that worship for many of these churches has again become an event-oriented experience, allowing the worship experience to last an hour and a half, or more.

But we mustn`t forget the lowly parking meter. Invented in 1935, the first generation of parking meters conditioned us to worry about doing much of anything for more than an hour. The culprit in the first recorded parking ticket was a clergy man, the Reverend H.C. North of Oklahoma City.  He successfully contested the ticket.  But  one wonders if clergy have sensed  a meter ticking in the background ever since then.


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